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Europe Must Fend for Itself

by Jordan Curwin

As security threats to Europe increase from the Middle East and Russia, and the United States turns toward Asia, Europe needs to take a larger role in establishing its own defense infrastructure.

The Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, and Russian aggression have created a multitude of security concerns for Europe as a whole over the past few years, and yet Europe still lacks a coherent security policy. 

The European Union has been largely ineffective in establishing a common European defense policy, and NATO so far lacks the policies to fully address Europe’s new security concerns. In addition, the United States has decided to rebalance its security resources to Asia over the long term. Whether European nations choose to act through the auspices of NATO, the EU, or a combination of the two, they must take serious steps to bolster their collective defense infrastructure.

The first possibility for enhancing European defense policy is through the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Since its creation in 1998, the CSDP has tried to develop a collective European defense strategy with varying levels of success. The Center for European Reform reports that the EU has launched numerous small missions, but even those deemed successes have highlighted its inefficiencies. Many EU member states lack sizeable militaries, and already low defense spending has decreased in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. In addition, the creation of the CSDP has been plagued by its intergovernmental nature. Member states view security threats differently and are often unwilling to devote resources to causes they do not deem vitally important. Last, and certainly not least, a number of European nations are unwilling to relinquish sovereignty over their respective militaries.

But if the EU can agree to create a defense force that is sufficiently equipped and easy to mobilize, it might just be able establish sufficient defenses for the continent. This force should be supranational in nature, with its own supply line and military equipment so that no member state can hinder its ability to take action. This requires further EU integration, meaning the relinquishing of certain capabilities from member states to the EU. Although generally unpopular at present, such a European force would be effective in establishing a strong defense apparatus and its creation should be a long-term goal for the CSDP. As an intermediary step, the EU could prompt binding defense cooperation agreements similar in nature to Article 5 of the NATO treaty and begin large-scale military exercises.  

Though it suffers from many of the same intergovernmental issues as the EU, NATO offers an alternative route to bolster European security. NATO has been working to increase its capabilities in Europe in recent years and has also created a rapid response force to counter Russian aggression. A bonus of operating through NATO is the presence of the United States, which is bound by treaty to come to Europe’s defenses if needed. NATO would also allow European countries to work together absent the politically treacherous need to further integrate the EU. Nonetheless, as Judy Dempsey, a senior associate for Carnegie Europe, observes, many NATO members do not currently meet the 2 percent of GDP defense spending requirement, and they do not view all security threats the same way. Moreover, NATO is unprepared to adjust to the U.S. pivot toward Asia. In order for Europe to bolster its defenses to face new security threats through NATO, European countries would have to increase defense spending, pick up the slack caused by the U.S. pivot, and lead the development of new policies to face new threats.

Finally, Europe could integrate the two systems to a limited degree in order to create a common defense without violating countries’ sovereignty over their own militaries. The combination would leverage both EU and NATO forces in different capacities. EU forces could become smaller, supranational, first-response units with certain military capabilities that would only be deployed for defensive and stabilization operations. This would require greater cooperation and integration within the EU, but it would largely preserve member states’ sovereignty over their militaries. If greater action than such EU forces can provide is necessary to respond to a conflict, NATO, with its larger forces and more extensive resources and infrastructure, could step in. NATO forces could be used for large mobilization and larger military operations for extended periods of time. Although this degree of military and security cooperation between NATO and the EU is not currently plausible due to the Turkey-Cyprus divide, it remains the most viable option for Europe to address its security concerns.  

These three options constitute the primary possibilities for Europe to create a coherent defense policy, but the burden is Europe’s alone to bear. As the United States slowly pivots toward Asia, it will naturally adopt a lesser role in European security. Therefore, Europe must step up and develop a more holistic European defense policy on its own accord. Though politically complicated at the moment, the most realistic course of action is to greatly enhance cooperation between NATO and the CSDP. The combination of the EU-provided defensive forces with the option of further military action through NATO offers Europe the best chance of fending for itself in a time of insecurity and uncertainty.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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