The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that Europe can no longer afford to prioritize quasi-theological arguments about EU and NATO dominance over its own security. While the Alliance remains clearly essential to deter Russia, the EU has a crucial complementary role to play.
LONDON – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was a turning point for European security. However, relations between NATO and the European Union remain marred by mutual distrust, institutional rivalry and a lack of effective cooperation. The two organizations must put their differences aside and work together.
Russia again poses a long-term threat to European security. At the same time, the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will exacerbate security challenges along Europe’s southern flank. And as the current Taiwan crisis has shown, China’s increasing assertiveness in America’s strategic thinking will only increase.
The main European security challenge in the coming years will be to strengthen deterrence against Russia while maintaining the ability to deal with other threats. Clearly, when it comes to deterring Russia, NATO is the indispensable organization because there is no viable alternative to its integrated command structure. The war in Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO’s core mission of confronting Russia and defending its members’ territory when deterrence fails. As part of new defense plans, NATO’s rapid reaction force will be increased from 40,000 to 300,000 men. And Finland and Sweden will soon become members.
NATO’s deterrent power is underpinned by US forces stationed in Europe – which have increased by around 20,000 to over 100,000 since Russia invaded Ukraine – and by America’s nuclear arsenal. But Europeans cannot expect the US to shoulder the bulk of their defenses forever. Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, complaints about unfair burden-sharing were becoming louder and more frequent in the United States. America’s increased focus on Asia means the US contribution to Europe’s defense is likely to shrink over time. And Europeans cannot discount the possibility of Trump, or someone in his isolationist “America First” form, becoming president in 2025 and stepping back from the US commitment to NATO.
So the Europeans have no choice but to contribute more to their own defence. Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, EU countries have announced additional military spending of 200 billion euros (203 billion US dollars). However, given the economic downturn and competing fiscal demands, many countries may find it politically difficult to implement these commitments.
In addition, the impact of the additional defense spending depends on an overall plan to determine the weapon systems, logistics and ammunition needed. But European defense spending remains uncoordinated, with little intergovernmental cooperation. According to the European Defense Agency, joint research and development currently accounts for only 6% of total EU defense research and development, and joint procurement accounts for only 11% of all equipment orders.
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The EU has a key role to play in strengthening European security, complementing NATO’s efforts. First of all, the Union must help member states deal with the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine – and thereby help maintain a political consensus for sanctions against Russia.
The EU can also help to better prepare European armies for conflict. The plan to set up a 5,000-strong rapid reaction force would push member states’ armed forces to work more closely together and add to their overall ability to counter threats. And the EU is better placed than NATO to address security challenges such as disinformation and election interference because, through the union, member states regulate the technology platforms through which misinformation is disseminated.
However, the EU’s greatest potential contribution to European security lies in its ability to encourage higher defense spending by member states. EU fiscal rules can encourage this by exempting defense investments from budget deficit limits, just as investments in the green and digital transitions have been excluded since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition, the Union can create incentives to promote joint procurement and deeper cooperation between national armed forces.
Recent European Commission proposals, notably a VAT exemption for joint defense procurement, could lead to significant advances in defense spending, coordination and efforts to strengthen Europe’s military capabilities. But European countries lack a truly collaborative mindset when it comes to developing, acquiring and deploying defense capabilities. Developing such an approach requires stronger political leadership from national leaders.
The EU and other NATO members should ensure their national defense markets are as open to each other as possible to ensure economies of scale. EU efforts to improve military capabilities should be guided by the principle of maximizing effectiveness and not unnecessarily damaging long-standing relationships between EU defense contractors and their non-EU partners.
For its part, the US should continue to signal its strong support for a greater role for the EU in European security and defense, particularly in developing the bloc’s military capabilities. At the same time, US politicians can influence the development of EU initiatives in a way that avoids duplication and strengthens European security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shown that defending European values and interests is a matter of life and death. Europe can no longer afford to prioritize quasi-theological arguments about EU-NATO dominance over its own security.