Europe’s defense efforts remain underwhelming – POLITICO | Popgen Tech
Press play to listen to this article
Spoken by artificial intelligence.
Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe’s Future Fellow at IWM, Vienna, and a board member of ENI. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is out now from Polity.
Europe’s security order was broken long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was broken in the 2000s, when Russia invaded Georgia and began weaponizing energy. It was broken in the 2010s, when the Arab Spring slipped and gave rise to jihadi terrorism, which shook European capitals in its wake, and again when Russia annexed Crimea. It was then broken in the 2020s, when the COVID-19 pandemic showed that interdependence, especially with China, is not only a source of peace and prosperity, but also cause for uncertainty and alarm.
As this uncertainty has increased and the transatlantic bond has been strained under Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, Europeans have started to talk about defense – and it has not just come down to words.
Yet, in light of the dramatic deterioration of the continent’s security environment, these recent defense efforts remain underwhelming. This is not only because of the war in Ukraine, the moribund nuclear deal with Iran, the risks of conflict escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus, the ongoing violence in Libya, or even the growing instability in the Sahel – it is also because these crises are now deeply intertwined. And much still falls on individual member states – not just the bloc as a whole.
In recent years, the national defense budgets of European countries – although generally less than the 2 percent of GDP mark set out by NATO – have begun to rise. The EU has also put together a European Defense Fund which, while at “only” €8 billion for 2021 to 2027, matches the national research and development budget of a sizable member state; and the European Commission is now the third largest investor in defense technology in the bloc, after France and Germany.
Then, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, European countries boosted their defense budgets even further. France increased its spending by 7.4 percent year on year, with the goal of reaching 2 percent of GDP in 2023. While the United Kingdom and Poland, already above the 2 percent mark, are looking to spend that would raise their defense budgets to 2.5 percent and 3 percent respectively.
Meanwhile, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania and the Baltic and Nordic countries have all announced plans to increase their spending to at least 2 percent, and arrears in southern and western Europe have also tightened. Most important is Germany’s announcement of an additional €100 billion in 2022, bringing its defense budget to 1.6 percent, and on track to reach 2 percent.
In addition, EU member states have also activated their European peacekeeping facility to channel military aid to Ukraine. And while its €3 billion pales in comparison to the $50 billion in aid approved by the US Congress, it is still unprecedented.
Yet, as the geopolitical environment shifts, there is much more that can and should be done. Gone are the days when conflicts were neatly divided between east and south, with some members catering to the former and others to the latter, while squabbling over which was the priority.
Instead, we see today that Russia asserts its presence not only in Libya and the Sahel, but also in sub-Saharan Africa. No wonder no new gas supplies are expected from Libya. It is also no surprise that when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured Africa last summer, he visited countries such as Egypt and the Republic of Congo, which are among Europe’s future LNG suppliers.
And all this is happening while Europeans are in relative retreat from North and sub-Saharan Africa. With France abdicating its security leadership in the Sahel when it was forced to leave Mali, European defense is not acting on its responsibility in this area – in fact, quite the contrary.
In general, the east now seems to have gone south, while the south is moving east – and nowhere is this more evident than with Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine war through the sale of drones, and possibly ballistic missiles, to Russia.
Sure, there are substantial reasons motivating Tehran to side with Moscow—from the need for cash and grain to Russian fighter jets—but it’s hard not to see the political-strategic rationale as well, which includes the country’s military capacity on display to its neighbors, indicating that it has given up on Europe and is not too shy to interfere in its affairs.
Implicit in Iran’s choice is also the fact that the nuclear deal is most likely dead, and amid domestic unrest in the country, this implies that the risk of regional escalation is on the rise.
Meanwhile, the strategic predicament facing the US is becoming increasingly clear. With tensions rising between Washington and an increasingly nationalistic Beijing, and the risk of war in Asia rising by the day, the 2022 US National Security Strategy suggests that the US will focus on China first and Russia second – and it will not be able to be fighting two regional wars simultaneously.
The wind against European defense has always been strong. And today, the continent’s increase in defense demand is not driving a parallel surge in European supply, but rather increasing European defense fragmentation and dependence on the US
Defense fragmentation has long been a problem for Europe. And while the increase in spending is welcome, it may paradoxically exacerbate the problem, with uncoordinated national short-term acquisition decisions having a long-term impact on the makeup of the armed forces.
EU institutions may be able to set up funds and programmes, but this is unlikely to turn the tide, as these initiatives focus on long-term development and procurement, and they do not – and cannot – meet the short-term need to plug equipment gaps. Moreover, they cannot be a surrogate for the decisions that member states have to take individually.
As defense remains a national competence, it is up to European countries to radically review how they think and act in their multi-billion national defense programs. There is only so much nudging Brussels can do.