The European Defence Union is facing a new turning point in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment. Events such as Brexit or the US withdrawal from Afghanistan hinted clearly at the need for the Union to take control of its own security and defence. Today, however, the European momentum seems to have slowed down and given way to a NATO momentum.
A recent report by the Alternativas Foundation asserts that an EU Defence is inextricably linked to the framework provided by the Atlantic Alliance. For the EU, its own defence cannot be dissociated from its relation with the United States and NATO. In this regard, the latter has regained strength in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This event led to announcements of increased defence budget by many European governments and an unprecedented coordinated response and new calls for NATO membership (Finland and Sweden). At the same time, there have been important moves in the opposite direction, such as the approval by a NATO member (Denmark) to join EU military structures and projects, thus bringing an end to the Danish opt-out from the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy agreed upon in 1992.
The more NATO, the less EU? This is the question no one dares to ask out loud. The conclusions of the NATO summit on June 29th-30th, with a clearly expansive Alliance, pose a challenge for the EU in deciding its level of ambition and the space for its own growth as a Union.
A key priority is to clarify areas where the two organisations complement each other, and their convergences and divergences. For example, a coordinated increase in defence budgets to meet the 2 per cent national target required by NATO could in turn act as a lever for a boost and coordination at the EU level of capabilities. It could also result in a better distribution of the work of its missions with others, EU-NATO-UN, and regional bodies such as the African Union.
While NATO and the EU are unarguably very closely related, they are dissimilar from each other. There is no perfect compatibility between them. In many respects there are still elements of interference and difficulty: regarding capabilities (a European defence market), multiple technical and operational aspects (interoperability, command, and control) and, above all, funding.
However, the big elephant in the room is undoubtedly the alignment of major strategic visions and interests between the EU and its partner, the United States. NATO is in reality a '1+29' (or 1+31). But crucial differences between them could affect many issues: for example, the positioning vis-à-vis Russia, China, or how to deal with new security threats (cyber, digital, climate). NATO's dominance poses very serious dilemmas for the EU: is European dependence on the US in key areas (technology, defence) acceptable and desirable in exchange for continuing to enjoy a sort of vital security 'umbrella'? How to manage possible internal divisions within the EU in relation to certain US stances?
In the coming years, the EU may have to pronounce itself differently. It is too early to answer the crucial question of whether there will be complementarity or progressive divergence.
When discussing European defence and security, it should be noted that we refer primarily to the EU, but also to a complex network of memberships and 'partnerships', where in fact there are no watertight compartments. In this connection, the defence of Europe as a whole is indivisible, for there is a very tight interdependence. Hence, it would be desirable to have greater interaction with other stakeholders: countries in Europe outside the EU (Western Balkans); NATO countries outside the EU (Turkey); or countries that belong neither to the Alliance nor to the EU (Ukraine, Georgia).
It is worth considering that there are strong domestic political constraints that can change the course of the defence policy. Among them is the EU itself, where the leadership of the Franco-German axis will be put to the test against national-populist and anti-EU trends. The other is the US domestic politics, where Biden's presidency and its boost to the Alliance could suffer a major setback in the event of a loss of one or two houses ofCongress in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
In this regard, other factors are difficult to gauge, such as the end of the war in Ukraine, the evolution of the relations with China and the Indo-Pacific, and the role of other existential global threats such as climate change, terrorism, and cyber-crime.
At any rate, there are some lessons to be learned from experience. Most importantly, modernisation of European capabilities should be pursued provided it is done according to the twofold criterion of 'smart spending' (coordination according to common needs) and 'European spending' (avoiding continued dependence on the US).
The above underscores that 'European defence' and 'militarisation' are not necessarily the same thing. An increase in defence budgets seems necessary. The EU's reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted the announcement of an exponential growth in military spending by Germany as well as other European governments. However, what military spending basically needs is better coordination, and it should not come at the expense of social Europe, which is the basis of European stability.
The underlying question is whether the EU will be able to build a true European Defence Union that reflects strategic autonomy. In other words: whether the EU will ever be able to emancipate itself strategically from Washington. In this respect, the Strategic Compass is a new, albeit very modest, move in this direction, bringing together instruments that are currently scattered (Pesco, Card, European Defence Fund).
Another major issue may be an integral collective defence, including nuclear deterrence and European nuclear autonomy. The EU’s defence would then no longer depend on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, dating back nearly a century (1948). This long-standing issue is connected to future choices of political leadership within the EU and, in particular, of European energy policy, particularly in France and Germany. Predictably, the connection between European defence and energy policy will become closer. In turn, without energy sovereignty there will be no real strategic autonomy.
These and other matters raise the issue of the meaning and ambition of European defence: the European Defence Union. In any event, Europeans will have to agree on several aspects, such asa common vision of the geopolitical context, the increase and coordination of capabilities, and the alignment of the dynamics of the 27 with NATO. But above all, there is a key institutional point: treaty changes that cannot wait long if the EU wishes to avoid being stunted or crushed by NATO. It is especially important to replace the unanimity rule with the qualified majority votingin the Council, as the best possible way to unblock deadlocks and make real progress possible.
If all of the above factors were to converge, the current imperfect complementarity between NATO and the EU might render the two organisations incompatible at some point. The EU's collective defence would no longer depend on the Alliance/US framework. Such developments are bound to lead to tensions with the US, or to new security vacuum in the EU's peripheries. But it would also be a clear signal that the EU has reached strategic maturity and can now stand on its own feet.
Vicente Palacio is Director of Foreign Policy at Fundación Alternativas. He is an Associate Professor at the Universidad Carlos III of Madrid and participates in the master’s degree in Geopolitics of the Americas.