Debunking Myths about Strengthened EU Security and Defense Cooperation
October 28, 2016
At the September 16 Bratislava meeting, as a response to concerns raised by Brexit on the viability of EU cooperation on defense, the 27 remaining EU members endorsed a solid declaration aimed at strengthening European security and defense. These developments have been widely misunderstood and deserve closer consideration.
The ambitious yet realistic proposals could lead to substantial achievements and improve Europe’s ability to contribute to transatlantic security:
- enhancing coordination on defense and security issues: creation of an annual “European Security Council” aimed to address external and internal security topics, from terrorism to cybersecurity and arms control, yearly definition of EU security priorities, closer coordination between Ministries of Defence;
- paving the way for a significant increase in European defense budgets and industrial cooperation through two initiatives: extension of the scope of the European investment fund (known as the Juncker Fund) to render defense companies eligible, associated with the creation of a new €3–4 billion fund dedicated to defense research;
- as a longer-term objective, establishing a joint and permanent EU command headquarters for its civilian and military missions, which, in conjunction with improved military planning, would enhance the European Union’s potential in areas ranging from civilian crisis management to peacekeeping operations.
Commentators, especially on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, could have praised the European Union for taking the initiative after having criticized EU member states for years for paying insufficient attention to defense budgets. Surprisingly, many took a skeptical stance and hastily dismissed this process, mistakenly characterizing it as an attempt to establish a European army. Beyond the caricature looms the fear that any European initiative in the field of defense could trigger a competition between the European Union and NATO, ultimately weakening EU members’ commitment to the alliance.
Many interpretations or rumors conveyed by the media simply fail to understand what is being discussed. For the sake of accuracy, it seems necessary to debunk a few myths and misunderstandings floating around the EU initiative.
First, the proposals put forward by France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Finland among others, have nothing to do with the establishment of a European army or anything of the sort. Neither the European treaties, nor history, nor European conceptions of national sovereignty, nor doctrines for the employment of armed forces would provide ground for such a reflection. In fact, German and French defence ministers have publicly and explicitly ruled out that hypothesis.
It is not an attempt to weaken NATO or divert its financial resources either. On the contrary, countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovakia (who currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union) have been leading advocates of tighter and more complementary EU-NATO cooperation. These efforts led to the adoption at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw Summit of a joint EU-NATO declaration that identified key priorities for cooperation.
Finally, the launch of a permanent EU headquarters aimed at conducting military operations is not a short-term goal. However, as a mid-term objective, the European Union’s unique ability to combine military and civilian instruments should be reflected in the process of strategic and operational planning of its missions and operations. As a result, an EU military planning and conduct capability would facilitate the coordination of future NATO and EU operations.
Needless to say, those member states who are also members of NATO share a unique bond in terms of collective defense. The European treaties clearly state that the establishment of a common security and defense policy “respects the obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)” ( art. 42.2 and art. 42.7 TUE). But at the same time, the Bratislava Declaration recalls that the aim of the European Union “is not only to guarantee peace and democracy but also the security of our people.” The European Union has clear competencies when it comes to controlling its external borders—to support European states in their fight against terrorism or to help manage supply chain dependencies—all of which are important components of a broad understanding of security in the twenty-first century.
There is no reason to fear that a strengthened European defense would mean a weaker NATO. On the contrary, “there is no contradiction between strong European defence and a strong NATO,” as recalled by NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the Bratislava meeting, adding that they reinforce each other. That complementarity doesn’t imply a strict division of labor; rather, it is about pushing together in the same direction:
- The European Union helps advocate for the renewal of national efforts in the area of security and defense, which already led to essential commitments within NATO, including the 2014 Wales Summit pledge to make progress toward spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense and 20 percent of defense spending on major equipment and research and development. In this context, solemn commitments made collectively by EU member states at the highest level to make security and defense a political priority would only add to the effort and help reverse the continuing decrease in defense expenditures. In order to ensure their security in the face of current and future threats, both in the EU and NATO frameworks, Europeans need the widest possible spectrum of military capabilities at their disposal.
- In terms of defense planning processes, the kind of dialogue envisaged would build upon and help realize member states initiatives, not constrain them. Its sole purpose is to generate new projects where capability shortfalls have been identified and where the European Union has an added value (e.g., space-based dual technologies), in full coherence with NATO’s own defense planning process.
- Finally, there are areas where both the European Union and NATO have developed valuable expertise and tools, such as in the field of cyber, countering hybrid threats, intelligence, and situational awareness. There is more than enough room for both organizations to act, and EU efforts will increase the potential for cooperation, for example on cyberdefense.
The concept of “European strategic autonomy” should not be understood as a vector of competition between the European Union and NATO. On the contrary, Europeans have to take into account the possibility that the United States will continue to limit its involvement in theaters outside NATO Europe over the coming years. The European Union should continue to develop its assessments of where its core interests are at stake in its immediate neighborhood, as well as its ability to understand and manage complex crises in non-NATO areas.
Strengthening European security and defense is strengthening the transatlantic bond. In an evolving strategic environment, especially on the Southern Flank, European nations should be able to act autonomously and take their fair share of the burden, therefore improving their reliability as allies. On no account should this be read as a call for European disengagement from the United States.
The proponents of the initiative have steadily promoted, from Wales to Warsaw, “a more capable European defence, which will lead to a stronger NATO.” They are now moving from words to deeds, a development that should be understood as a valuable contribution to transatlantic security at a time when Brexit is raising fears of European commitment to a strong relationship with the United States.
Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.Photo credit: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images