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Time for Europe to stop hitting the security snooze button

Security & defence / COMMENTARY
Ricardo Borges de Castro , Maxime Sierro

Date: 04/07/2022
As the debate on European strategic autonomy continues, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland could be changemakers in the EU’s security and defence build-up. But three critical challenges lie ahead.

Despite numerous warnings that Vladimir Putin is intent on revising Europe’s post-cold war security order, the EU kept hitting the snooze button.

But when Russian troops began an unprovoked military reinvasion of Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February, the alarm bells became too loud to ignore. The EU and its like-minded partners responded swiftly with a barrage of sanctions on Russia and support measures for Ukraine.

The geopolitical earthquake unleashed by Russia’s aggression heralds a new era in European and transatlantic security and defence. The EU is stepping up its efforts in the military realm; NATO is no longer “brain-dead” and has just adopted a new Strategic Concept; and countries like Denmark, Finland, Germany and Sweden are making U-turns in their traditional defence postures. Nevertheless, the road ahead is all but certain.

Europe’s rude geopolitical awakening

Years of speeches and debates, positive initiatives like the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund, and strong public support for a common security and defence policy (CSDP) were not enough to deliver a stronger and more coherent geopolitical EU. Even when a full-scale Russian invasion was clearly imminent, early sanctions and diplomatic efforts to prevent it were unsuccessful.

The 24 February geopolitical wake-up call was a turning point. Condemning the invasion strongly, the EU approved six sanctions packages on Russia as of yet, covering areas from finance, transport and technology to energy, trade and defence.

What is more, the Union acted as a ‘first responder’ to Ukraine’s call for aid, welcoming millions of refugees and, for the first time ever, funding the delivery of weapons and military support to the tune of €2 billion under the European Peace Facility.

The war also puts earlier debates and projects on European defence in sharp focus. The Strategic Compass, adopted by European leaders on 24 March, emphasises the need for a more capable EU as a security provider. It also spells out concrete timelines and deliverables, such as the 5,000-strong Rapid Deployment Capacity, or better capabilities in cyber defence or to face hybrid threats.

Finally, as a follow-up to the Versailles Declaration issued in the early weeks of the war, EU leaders committed at the end of May to step changes, including the possibility of joint military programming and procurement. It also pledged to improve the EU’s and member states’ defence capabilities in complementarity with NATO, which remains the foundation of Europe’s collective defence.

European security and defence changemakers?

While the war is a geopolitical wake-up call for the EU, certain countries are also questioning their long-held policies.

Germany’s security Zeitenwende could be transformational. Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised on 27 February to increase German military spending above the 2% of GDP as required by NATO, create a one-off fund of €100 billion to close capability gaps (which was recently approved by the Bundestag), and send anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank rocket launchers to Ukraine. These are all step changes from Berlin’s traditional stance on security and defence policy. If carried through, these measures may incentivise other countries to also spend more on defence and take on greater burdens. They could also transform the German military into Europe’s largest conventional armed force.

Denmark’s initial public rejection of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty eventually resulted in its opt-out from the CSDP, among other policies, to secure a positive referendum result the following year. Fast-forward to today, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Danish government put security at the top of its agenda and announced a series of policy changes, from joining the EU’s defence policy to increasing military spending by 2033, in line with NATO’s 2% targets. On 1 June, Danes voted to reverse the CSDP opt-out decision.

Finland and Sweden have been invited to join NATO after submitting their applications in May in response to the war, which upended the Nordic pair’s traditional non-alignment. Finland’s former NATO policy was shaped by its relations with Russia. Despite partaking in the EU’s CSDP and NATO’s Partnership for Peace, Finland did not seek full membership in the Alliance. But Russia’s invasion changed its perceptions. Polls have shown an increase in public support for NATO membership; from 19% in 2017 to 53% in the aftermath of the invasion, and 76% in early May.

For Sweden, joining NATO was previously not an option. A long tradition of neutrality prevented the country from joining military alliances – although the Swedish parliament did adopt in 2009 a  “declaration of solidarity” to support another EU member state or Nordic country in case of an attack. Russia’s renewed threat shifted Sweden’s perception of its security further. NATO now appears to Stockholm to be the only reasonable safeguard, especially with Finland’s decision to join the Alliance, too. Sweden also plans to increase its defence budget by US$300 million.

The uncertain days ahead

The EU’s momentum to up its game on security and defence, and the changes operated by Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden could be the harbingers of a more capable and reliable Europe in global affairs. Nevertheless, on top of implementing the many recent pledges effectively, three important political challenges remain.

1)     Old Europe versus New Europe 2.0

While Poland and the Baltics have advocated for Russia’s political isolation, Germany and notably France have kept talks with the Kremlin open. Eastern European leaders seem to resent any expression that could be seen as appeasing to Mr Putin, such as President Macron’s infamous plea not to “humiliate” Russia. But the reality is that if and when the dust settles, Europe will still have to deal with Russia, one way or another. Deepening distrust between Europe’s East and West will undermine any effort to build a stronger and more autonomous European defence, as some EU countries (and NATO members) fear that Germany and France are insensitive to their threat perceptions and believe they can only rely on the US.

Once and for all, the European Council should create a European Security Council that meets at least twice a year. Once formed, it should play a leading role in harmonising and forging consensus among EU leaders on common threats and broad security strategies. This would also mitigate the possibility of divisions that could be exploited by those that seek to divide the EU.

2)     National versus European spending

Another key question is how all the recently promised security and defence funds will be spent: at the national or European level? Wasting funds and duplicating efforts could result in a financial loss of close to €30 billion per year. EU leaders have pledged to joint defence procurement, but the jury is still out on whether this will actually happen, given the vested interests around the defence industry and multi-billion contracts. In any case, it will not happen overnight, as is the norm with the acquisition of military equipment and capabilities. Nonetheless, it is important to keep long-term stability in joint procurement projects.

The European Commission should play a leading role in supporting this process alongside the European Defence Agency and member states to ensure stable, long-term planning. The European and national parliaments should foster and secure transparent European joint procurement. This would also satisfy European’s aspirations for a more robust EU in security and defence.

3)     Together versus apart

The success of European defence and security projects will also largely depend on the position the US adopts. The current US administration is more supportive of an autonomous European defence that complements NATO. But with large amounts of money to be invested in European defence, the US military–industrial complex will most likely lobby Washington to have a piece of that cake, too. This could undermine Europe’s goal of creating a more robust defence industry at home, but it may be the price to keep all its allies and partners on board.

EU–NATO cooperation will be key to ensuring that both organisations reinforce and complement each other, especially when the latter is set to welcome two new EU members. A new joint declaration which clearly defines the division of labour between the two institutions and aligns the Strategic Compass with the new Strategic Concept should be adopted without delay. A permanent EU–NATO task force should be established to monitor the declaration’s implementation and foster uninterrupted dialogue.

Shake off the sleep

Russia unwittingly created unprecedented Western unity and shook the EU’s security and defence wide awake. This is the beginning of a new era of European defence – but the days ahead will be fraught with challenges. The EU and its institutions should support the construction of a credible Europe and help create the conditions for a stronger and more reliable geopolitical Union.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

Maxime Sierro is a Programme Assistant in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
European Union, 2022

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