Europe must face up to the true cost of its military weakness

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder and Chairman, Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt asks whether the arrival of a former German defence minister at the head of the European Commission might see a redoubling of EU governments’ drive to strengthen their security and defence capabilities.


“Speak softly and carry a big stick” famously summarised the foreign policies of US president Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century. The European Union’s approach to its external relations is exactly the opposite. “Moralise loudly while brandishing a twig,” might be its motto.

There are hopes that the arrival at the head of the European Commission of Ursula von der Leyen, formerly Germany’s defence minister, may yield a significant boost to the EU’s flagging security and defence efforts, thus giving greater weight to Europe’s global role.

Back in Germany, though, observers point to VDL’s somewhat battered reputation when in the defence job, and ascribe that in part to her country’s deep-seated pacifism. Scepticism amounting to outright hostility to the strengthening of armed forces may not be so overt elsewhere in Europe, but few would claim that European public opinion mirrors Americans’ unstinting support for military muscle.

Passivity in the EU on defence issues reflects confusion over the nature and seriousness of possible threats. Some believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of irritation and destabilisation may be the precursor to a far more dangerous showdown, such as an attempted ‘recovery’ of the Baltic states that only 30 years ago threw off the Soviet yoke.

Where Europe’s national governments are far more united is on the inadequacy of their own military capabilities

Although that has been NATO’s mantra, often echoed by the EU, it isn’t universally shared. Ranged against warnings of ‘a second Cold War’ are policymakers who believe that growing volatility in the Arab world and Africa – fuelled by population growth and poverty – present a far more alarming threat to Europe’s security. Berlin and Paris are divided over whether the greatest dangers lie to the EU’s north or south.

Where Europe’s national governments are far more united is on the inadequacy of their own military capabilities. Decades of underspending while sheltering comfortably under Uncle Sam’s nuclear umbrella have crippled Europe’s military outreach, boosted of late by the recognition in London and elsewhere that depleted naval forces can no longer deter Iranian gunboats from seizing oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Calls to revitalise the EU’s 20-year-old Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its associated defence cooperation efforts are growing louder, for there’s much lost ground to make up. The bulk of the EU’s two million-strong EU armed forces are paramilitary policemen or administrative personnel, with less than 5% equipped for a combat role.

The one ray of hope may unexpectedly come from populist politicians

The weaponry picture is darker still. National defence industries have resisted cross-border mergers and governments have actively prevented them, as in the case of a planned Airbus-British Aerospace mega-merger. Cheaper and better American weapons systems have consequently triumphed over European ones.

Yet whether they like it or not, EU countries will increasingly need to deploy troops to trouble-spots on their borders or in geopolitically explosive parts of the world. As matters stand, they lack both the outreach in terms of airlift resources and naval tonnage along with sufficient manpower and technology.

It takes at least a decade to reboot a nation’s defence arrangements, as the commission’s new chief would wryly attest. And even then there has to be a firm commitment to exponentially increased funding. In other words, a massive political change of heart that would unambiguously demolish the longstanding jibe that “Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus.”

Europe’s present political turmoil does little to encourage hopes that the EU will strengthen its military clout to reinforce its global ambitions and ‘to speak with one voice’. The one ray of hope may unexpectedly come from populist politicians. Their taste for a more assertive stance on international questions might conceivably see them channel their nationalism into a tough new EU-led defence drive.

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