How to stop the demilitarisation of Europe

Building sustainable EU military power at a time of defence cuts


Masked by the euro crisis, another flagship European project, the Common Security and Defence Policy, is in danger of break-up. Behind all the talk of ‘pooling and sharing’ defence capabilities, the reality is every man for himself, as member states slash their defence budgets as each sees fit. Meanwhile, the flow of European peace-keeping operations has dried up – and Europe went missing in action in Libya.

So was former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates right to detect a culture of ‘demilitarisation’ in Europe? Certainly, European publics feel safe from armed attack; have become disillusioned with the doctrine of liberal interventionism; and are unconvinced by attempts to conjure ‘new threats’ to justify defence spending.  

In How to Stop the Demilitarisation of Europe, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, Nick Witney suggests that such reactions are understandable, but dangerously short-sighted. He argues that:

  • Europe’s future security and prosperity now depend on success in a global competition (in which the continent has lost much ground in recent weeks).
  • Effective armed forces should be understood as key assets in the competition for power and influence in the new multipolar world.
  • Europe’s belief that ‘soft power’ is enough is naïve, and has no other takers amongst its global competitors, or those ‘in play’ between them.

Analysing how effective militaries can contribute to shaping the global future in line with European interests and values, the author concludes that:

  • EU leaders must reassess the strategic environment, reconsider the role of hard power and relaunch efforts to combine defence resources.
  • The Weimar Triangle (Germany, France and Poland) should press for a heavyweight commission to conduct a European Defence Review that rewrites European strategy and redefines the role of Europe’s militaries.
  • This commission should examine defence priorities and budget plans and present EU leaders with a menu of big, bold proposals for further defence integration.

“The fact is that military power is important in determining how the world is to be run and the rules and values by which it should work. Unless it gets over its discomfort with hard power, Europe’s half-hearted efforts to improve the efficiency of its defence spending will continue to fail.” Nick Witney

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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