Europe Is at War with the Coronavirus. Where Does That Leave European Defense?

Although the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic has now shifted to the United States, Europe remains at war, or in a war-like situation, with the coronavirus. Virtually all resources available to governments, particularly fiscal resources, are being redirected to combating the health crisis and forestalling the advent of a devastating economic crisis to the extent possible.

It is highly likely that this effort will take its toll on European defense. The urgency of the current situation dictates pragmatism, but it would also be a mistake to lose sight of the fundamental security considerations that led to the strengthening of defense investment in Europe. Public health experts tell us that we are only at the early stage of the crisis, but we have not yet seen the beginning of the geopolitical consequences of this pandemic, though some specific challenges for Europe are already emerging. Although European governments will face difficult decisions in the short term, a disproportionate blow to defense budgets will leave Europe more vulnerable to existing security threats and to the new ones that could emerge from the pandemic.

Brace for Impact

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, European countries have been stepping up their defense efforts in various formats and through different instruments. First and foremost, they have successfully reversed the trend of declining defense budgets, although much more is needed—not only to reach NATO’s 2 percent guideline but, more importantly, to enable their armed forces to effectively confront the numerous threats to their security as well. They have also engaged in a series of multilateral initiatives (including in the EU format), such as creating the European Defence Fund to support defense-related R&D, launching a multitude of capability development projects in the framework of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, supporting military mobility within Europe, and boosting other security and defense programs such as those related to space and cyber activities.

There is a real risk that those efforts, which were already difficult to initiate, could come to a halt or even be reversed. Defense budgets are often an adjustment variable in times of financial distress, as was the case during the 2008-2009 crisis. Defense does not represent a significant political constituency, and in peacetime, threats are often construed as a more or less remote possibility—until they materialize and hit you in the face. In addition, even before the outbreak of the crisis, EU member states and the European Parliament were already struggling to allocate significant funding for some of their most important defense initiatives (such as the European Defence Fund or military mobility). Now that they are confronted with a catastrophic public health crisis, the negotiations of the multiannual financial framework will be even less favorable to security and defense programs.

Paradoxically, defense spending in Europe might appear to grow in the next few months. Indeed, if the Covid-19 were to trigger a brutal recession, falling GDP will mechanically inflate the share of GDP devoted to defense spending. This happened to Greece during the financial crisis, as its defense spending jumped from 2.68 percent of GDP in 2007 to 3.23 percent in 2009. This will allow for useful political tricks claiming that Europeans are now picking up a larger share of the security burden.

But only devotees of the 2 percent metric will rejoice—others will frown as the actual real money allocated to defense spending goes down. It will be an appropriate moment to remember that the 2 percent metric also comes with a 20 percent metric, meaning that at least one-fifth of all defense spending must be allocated to defense investment and R&D. The 20 percent metric is likely to move in the opposite direction as nations scale down or delay their investments in new capabilities and R&D in favor of covering fixed expenses, such as pensions (some of which will be adjusted upward for inflation) and maintenance of existing programs. This adjustment could have a negative and lasting impact on the capability of European forces.

Things Will Get Worse before They Get . . . Really Bad?

European countries are already facing a wide range of threats and security challenges—Russia’s aggressive military posturing, terrorism, intense disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, the demise of nuclear arms control, and so on. The coronavirus is likely to make it even more difficult to respond to those challenges. Readiness will deteriorate as containment measures limit exercises, training missions, and other movements. Positive cases among troops will make it even more difficult to maintain the same force posture.

In addition, armed forces are a vital part of the Covid-19 response in all European countries severely affected by the pandemic. France has launched “Opération Résilience,” through which military equipment and personnel will be mobilized to support medical institutions and staff. The same is true all over Europe. Examples include the deployment of field hospitals by Italy’s armed forces, Germany’s Luftwaffe flying patients from Italy or France to its less saturated hospitals, and Spain’s army helping to disinfect exposed facilities. NATO is also doing its part to respond to the crisis. These measures are all absolutely necessary to face the Covid-19 crisis, but they impact the readiness of forces, including the availability of critical capabilities such as strategic airlift.

It is impossible to know how the crisis will evolve, and therefore what its geopolitical and security implications will be. But it appears at least reasonable to anticipate that it could fuel some existing crises and potentially generate new security threats. Such scenarios could include the following components: some governments hard-hit by the pandemic may see their legitimacy irreversibly challenged; peacekeeping forces in fragile regions might be confined to their bases or withdrawn entirely, opening opportunities for more risk-prone actors to gain ground and erasing those forces’ hard-fought gains; terrorist groups might try to exploit the fact that domestic security forces are focused on protecting their populations from a pandemic; state actors could be tempted to push ever more aggressive disinformation campaigns and exploit popular discontent that would result from a major economic crisis, with the aim of weakening societal cohesion and governmental legitimacy.

Overall, this means that Europe should prepare for the possibility of facing an even more challenging and uncertain security environment in the next few years. Disinvesting in its defense and security would not only roll back part of the costly (financially and politically) efforts that have been initiated to enable Europe to assume a larger role in ensuring its own security, but it could also leave Europeans more vulnerable in the near future.

Of course, the point is not to disregard that all means must imperatively be made available to fight the Covid-19 crisis. But when taking some of the difficult decisions to find new resources, Europeans should also consider the dangerous implications of excessively slashing their defense efforts.

The Covid-19 Response Highlights Some Positive Lessons for European Defense

Amid this rather gloomy picture, there might be a few positive lessons out of the Covid-19 crisis to guide further European defense efforts.

First, the crisis demonstrates the necessity of more European (and international) cooperation to common threats. A rather underwhelming response to the initial outbreak outlined the dangers and limitations of non-cooperative strategies. Europeans are now starting to pull together a joint response to the crisis—pooling efforts to acquire critical equipment, assisting with repatriation of citizens, coordinating national stimulus plans and developing EU-wide programs, and responding to disinformation campaigns. In spite of all the European Union’s flaws and mishaps, Europe is virtually the only region in the world where countries are working together without attaching a financial or political price tag to their assistance—a realization that is even more stark in contrast with the practices of other countries, such as China or Russia.

Second, it makes the case for an effects-based approach to European cooperation rather than an institution-based approach. The response to the Covid-19 crisis is taking place in a variety of formats: bilateral assistance (e.g., flying patients from Italy to Germany), ad hoc mechanisms (e.g., joint purchase of ventilators), coordination at the European level of national actions (e.g., stimulus packages to support member states’ economies), use of integrated EU instruments (e.g., the flexibility clause of the Stability and Growth Pact), and joint EU-NATO actions (e.g., Strategic Airlift International Solution flights to deliver assistance to allies or implementation of the Rapid Air Mobility scheme developed by NATO and Eurocontrol). This should encourage a more pragmatic approach to European defense, one that does not focus on or encourage institutional competition but rather draws on all available instruments to pursue a common goal.

Third, the crisis might foster a better understanding and recognition of the military’s role in Europe. Some countries in Europe, such as Finland or Estonia, already have a strong culture of total defense or civil defense; others, such as France, have been living with daily military presence on their streets for years. But that is not the case everywhere in Europe, where military and defense considerations often appear remote and uncomfortable for the average citizen. Better integration of civil and military activities, better understanding of their complementarity, and a concrete experience of institutional cooperation in crisis situations will also provide useful lessons for Europeans in the face other contingencies—such as so-called hybrid threats.

Fourth, the pandemic should nurture a broader understanding of what constitutes a security threat. Despite all the reports published about health security, climate change, migration, or other global challenges, states have fundamentally remained focused on hard security threats (state-on-state violence and terrorism, in particular). The Covid-19 experience should lead countries around the world to reassess the priority they give to global threats and collective security—notions that are too often seen as reminiscent of the 1990s. This will require new collaborative approaches and, in particular, reinvesting in multilateral institutions, which are the only appropriate venues to handle such threats. Given its strong involvement in multilateralism and global governance, Europe would be a natural leader of a global conversation to rethink the notions of collective security.

Like many other public policies, European defense will be severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the crisis is likely to make it even more obvious that Europeans need to cooperate with one another and take on more responsibility for their own security. Governments have the difficult task of responding to the urgency of the immediate situation without losing sight of the mid- to long-term challenges that await Europe.

Quentin Lopinot is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 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).

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