Europe mustn't put all its eggs in the NATO security basket

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks at the EU’s lead role in establishing a lasting post-war peace settlement and warns that to do so it must massively improve its military capability.

The eyes of the West are on NATO and its swift response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But we should also focus our thinking on the European Union, for only the EU and not the US-led military alliance can be the basis of a peaceful long-term outcome to this crisis.

So far, the EU’s political input has centred on sanctions to dissuade Russia from continuing its war against Ukraine. Henceforth, though, it must play a wider role. That was the message France’s President Emmanuel Macron strove to impart when he proposed a wider European political framework open to non-EU members such as Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

NATO’s importance is indisputable. Although its ill-considered enlargement may very well have contributed to the crisis by feeding Russia’s ‘encirclement’ paranoia, the alliance now stands as the only credible deterrent of further incursions. However, US military strength can never be key to a lasting peace settlement in Europe.

The US must back an eventual ceasefire leading to peace discussions between Kyiv and Moscow. But the greater burden of establishing a new European order capable of reassuring Russians while punishing Putin will fall on the EU’s shoulders. Washington’s financial and material support is crucial to Ukraine’s gallant counter-attacks, but it also rules out US leadership in whatever post-war reconciliation and re-balancing process may emerge.

The crux of the problem is the military inadequacy of all the EU’s member states

The US not only leads NATO but dominates it, so the alliance’s future is potentially clouded by America’s domestic politics. When Moscow launched its blitzkrieg attack on Kyiv, worldwide condemnation was tinged with relief that Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Now his strengthening grip on the Republican Party is ringing alarm bells warning of a possible return. Much of the damage he did to the transatlantic alliance has been repaired, yet that doesn’t quell fears of how NATO would fare in a second Trump presidency.

The crux of the problem is the military inadequacy of all the EU’s member states. The eastern deployment of European troops has been getting much play in media reporting of the Ukraine crisis, but the reality is far less reassuring. The legacy of three decades of free-riding and reliance on the US is Europe’s lack of firepower, limited cooperation between national armed forces and the proliferation of incompatible weapons systems.

The EU has for years been trying to boost member governments’ defence spending, but with little success. The European national average is 1.6 per cent of GDP, far short of the 2 per cent targets of both NATO and the Union. Most governments still ignore the requirements of PESCO, the EU’s permanent structured cooperation pact of 2018.

When in 2020 Brussels published a long-awaited Defence Review, it observed that only 60 per cent of the troops notionally available for Europe’s protection can be activated operationally. This year, that concern has become a fact; less than a third of the forces hurriedly deployed to strengthen NATO’s eastern frontiers are European. American units flown in from the US make up the majority.

The EU must brace to take on the leadership of a far-reaching post-war project to reorder and rebuild relationships across Europe

Despite these manifest weaknesses, Charles Michel, President of the European Council which groups EU leaders, declared last December that 2022 was to be “the year of European defence.” Security policy veterans recalled the embarrassment of 1999 when Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jacques Poos boasted that attempts to avert war in the Balkans were “the hour of Europe, not America.”

The recent flurry of national boosts to defence spending is encouraging, but it’s no more than the first step down a long road. Germany’s €100 billion plan to reinvigorate its armed forces, for instance, will probably take about 15 years to bear fruit. Recruitment and rearmament are not the only priorities, because the EU’s most daunting challenge is to parallel NATO’s ‘command and control’ structures.

The EU has been trying for almost 20 years to develop its own defence identity, but in the area of security it still lacks the Atlantic alliance’s diplomatic and operational mechanisms. Without them, Europe will remain unable to project force to any substantial degree.

Thanks to Putin’s war, the EU must brace to take on the leadership of a far-reaching post-war project to reorder and rebuild relationships across Europe. Once Washington’s focus returns to East Asia, Brussels must have developed a much fiercer bite to reinforce its bark.

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