European Defense Cooperation: Failure to Launch

Media Fellowship

With US support waning, European nations could be much more in a bind to step up and provide streamlined military aid for Ukraine in 2024. While the war in Ukraine lead to replenished national defense budgets, different interests and agendas so far have prevented substantial European collaboration.

European Flag carried by military

The Biden Administration’s recent battle with Republicans in Congress over more emergency funding for defending Ukraine shows that US support for Kyiv in the Russo-Ukrainian War is no longer a given – and raises the question whether Europe could step up. Russia’s shocking aggression did galvanize European countries in new ways. Their current military-aid commitments actually slightly surpass the US’s $46.3 billion, according to Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy. But the Cold War custom of relying on Washington to ensure European security still leaves many obstacles in their way.

Limited European Coordination

Almost two years after Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “historic turning point in the history of our continent,” Europe has at best only half-turned. True, most European governments have boosted their defense budgets – Finland, for example, by 37%, Poland by 11% – and set about upgrading their arms industries. But most, including Germany, still have trouble meeting the NATO spending target of 2% of gross domestic product and lack military coordination, even in spite of plans by the European Union (EU) to allocate 20 billion euros to help fund Ukraine’s military.

“Until now, European cooperation on defense was very limited,” says General Tom Middendorp, former defense chief for the Netherlands and current Chair of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, a think tank. Comprised as it is by so many different countries with separate interests and agendas, the international relations theorists Hugo Meijer and Stephen G. Brooks, for example, have questioned whether Europe will ever be in a position to defend itself. But Rajan Menon and Sean Monaghan are among a growing number of scholars who emphatically argue that it can.

A Question of Willingness

After all, the 27 countries in the EU had a combined GDP of more than $16.6 trillion in 2022, only a third less than that of the USA, making the bloc an economic superpower with impressive resources to mobilize for defense and security. The question is not whether it can, but when it will. More than 18 months into the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is clear it could take years before the EU – practiced as it is with regular ministerial meetings and leaders’ summits in Brussels – could forge a robust military force. That is because European politics is still informed by the peace dividend paid out after the Cold War.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and its supporting certainties, US presidents have hectored NATO allies to meet their defense obligations – long to no effect. No longer facing big military challenges, European nations shrank their armies, preferring to put money into their welfare and education systems rather than fighter jets and tanks. Many even saw the fight against terrorism after 9/11 as best conducted by non-military means. “For decades there was underinvestment in defense,” says Burkard Schmitt, Director at the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, a trade association based in Brussels.

While the USA in 2001 was forced to shake off its peace dividend in a matter of hours, Europe has had years to confront a more fractious world. “The first change occurred in 2014 with Russia’s invasion of the Crimea,” says Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. European countries increased their defense budgets and agreed on more procurement programs. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2016 proposed what became a fund for research and development in security areas. “It is time to wake the Sleeping Beauty up,” he said a year later.

And gradually, European countries have done so. French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 told reporters that “Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability.” But for every Macron, the EU has 26 other leaders, each with veto power over decisions in this field. “Every country makes its own assessments” of threats, priorities and capabilities, says Middendorp. Czechia, part of the Warsaw Pact only a generation ago, has a very different security landscape than Spain or Scotland. An illiberal government of the kind that rules in Hungary can thwart any common policy against Russia.

Remaining Obstacles to Common Defense

“Strategic cacophony” is a phrase experts sometimes use to describe how Europe advances (or not) in defense and security policy. Even if countries do agree on a common defense goal, they still face different resource levels, to say nothing of varying traditions, cultures, and languages. The European Union, for all its strengths, is not designed or empowered to coerce its members into putting European interests over particular ones – it is not a strong body that can force members into continental decision-making. “Defence is for member states, while the central institution is relatively weak,” says Burkhart.

These difficulties did not disappear when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Indeed, the rush to replenish national defense budgets meant that spending on collaborative efforts proportionally decreased. And yet the EU 27 have since been able to co-ordinate some $49 billion in military hardware from national stockpiles (not to mention the $79 billion in EU-funded financial commitments they agreed together in Brussels). “Simply the fact that the EU as a regional bloc has been key in the supply of military equipment to Ukraine was unheard of, was unimaginable basically until one and a half years ago,” says Frank Slijper, who leads the arms trade project at PAX, a Dutch peace organization.

The steps European countries are taking are not seldomly halting and irregular, but they are important nonetheless. The EU defines itself as a peace project and the transformation into an institution that also funds (and therefore maybe will one day make) war is difficult. As the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrel, in June convolutedly mused about the EU fund that was founded with 5.6 billion euros in funding in March 2022 (and could yet disburse those additional 20 billion euros to help fund Ukraine’s military): “The European Peace Facility for Ukraine – maybe it has to become a new Ukrainian defense fund.”

This article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC.