As I have already detailed ad nauseam in previous posts, European militaries are appallingly weak given the underlying economic strength of the continent as a whole. At first glance, this deficiency is perplexing because aggregate EU military spending is relatively high. Indeed, the 28 member states of the EU spend about 30 billion USD more on defense than China, and they spend just over 3.5x as much as Russia. The problem, however, is not military spending per se. Instead, it’s the appalling inefficiency of current European defense institutions. Coordination between countries is insufficient, and procurement cooperation is almost completely non-existent. So although Europe has the potential to be a major player in international security, that potential is not being realized due to the severe institutional deficiencies of the European Union.
A number of analysts are predicting that this state of affairs will begin to change over the next few years. They maintain that with Trump destabilizing NATO, Europe now has a strong incentive to better coordinate its defense efforts. And with Brexit underway, the UK will no longer be able to impede stronger efforts at EU-wide defense integration. In short, now is a unique opportunity for reform, and at least one article from the European Council on Foreign Relations asserts that “Unless the present opportunity is seized… we may be in for another decade’s wait.”
These optimistic assessments do appear to be at least partially correct. For example, a June meeting of the European Council agreed to activate the PESCO provision of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, permitting a subset of the European Union to pursue tighter cooperation in areas of defense. The hope is that this approach will allow progress to occur more rapidly, as recalcitrant members can simply be bypassed. Importantly, this move toward tighter defense cooperation is supported by France’s Emmanuel Macron and is loosely backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU party, and this suggests that reform efforts might actually have some staying power.
However, truly transformative changes in EU defense organization seem improbable. As Luis Simón has pointed out at War on the Rocks, we have been down this path before. Every time there is a major geopolitical shock in Eurasia, “EU cheerleaders” confidently announce that a fundamental reorganization of EU defense policy is in the offing. Yet, neither the invasion of Georgia nor the seizure of Crimea resulted in any significant developments beyond a mild increase in European defense spending. Why this time will be different is unclear. Historical trends aside, there are also a number of structural barriers to deeper EU-wide defense cooperation, but perhaps the most intractable is the paradoxical nature of EU power. On the one hand, the individual member states are loath to relinquish too much control to Brussels. But on the other hand, the EU ideals of cooperation and collaboration militate against individual member states creating ad hoc coalitions within the Union, thus impeding efforts at bilateral defense cooperation. This makes defense reform challenging because it means that progress must be all or nothing. Initiatives like PESCO might be able to redress this, but that is still yet to be seen.
It’s also far from clear that Brexit and Trump will actually elicit serious changes in European strategic thinking. At the end of the day, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom would ever stand for an outside power menacing or attacking Europe. Self-interest and multilateral cooperation through NATO ensure this beyond a shadow of a doubt. And for all of Trump’s bombastic nonsense about NATO being obsolete, America reaps enormous benefits from the alliance by being able to project power from Europe. Fighting in the Middle East and North Africa would be much more difficult without airbases in Turkey and Germany, and American officials know that. Moreover, European officials know that American officials know that, and most European defense experts are, therefore, relatively sanguine when it comes to the possibility of an American withdrawal from NATO. Talk is cheap, and European policymakers know that most of what Trump says is just mindless bluster. And with the strategic environment in Europe remaining relatively unchanged (at least in the context of Anglo-Saxon engagement), it seems fairly likely that EU defense institutions will remain stagnant.
Combine this with the fact that states, especially democratic ones, tend to underbalance against potential enemies due to elite disagreement, domestic interest groups, and skeptical electorates, and it becomes quite evident that a “European army” is not going to emerge for many years to come. But perhaps the most pressing issue is procurement collaboration; European countries could massively improve the value of their defense investment by cooperating on common designs and equipment, but for a number of reasons – including different strategic priorities, nationalism, and protectionist groups on the domestic front – standardization across the continent appears to be politically infeasible. And this is really the problem. For all its talk of being one, united Europe, the EU is still a collection of independent states that are jealous of their autonomy and power. Until this changes (and it’s far from clear that it ever will), the EU will never be able to pry away military autonomy from its member states.