Slovenian soldiers set up wire barriers near the border with Croatia, November 2015
Srdjan Zivulovic / Reuters

Security and defense are suddenly back on Europe’s agenda. The United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan—which left European allies reeling over the perceived lack of consultation—and tensions with France over the Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) submarine deal have sharpened European concerns that as Washington embraces the “pivot” to Asia, American priorities are shifting away, not just from Europe but also from the Middle East and North Africa. And although President Joe Biden’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 pledge—to treat an attack against one NATO member as “an attack against them all”—remains ironclad, polling suggests that on both sides of the political spectrum, Americans’ appetite for military intervention to resolve conflicts in Europe’s broader neighborhood has waned in recent years.

Alert to this trend, European officials increasingly recognize that Europe must begin to take charge of its own security. On September 15, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the European Union will hold a summit on defense in the first six months of 2022, during France’s upcoming presidency of the bloc. But what makes this moment different is a shift, not in Paris or Brussels but in Washington. In meetings between French and American officials following the AUKUS spat—and then in an October 29 meeting in Rome between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron—the United States acknowledged the need for more robust European defense capabilities “complementary to NATO.”

For the United States, which has long been concerned that independent European defense initiatives could subvert the transatlantic alliance, such a public endorsement of Europe’s ability to defend its security apart from NATO was a potentially meaningful policy concession. But as former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Alexander Vershbow recently commented, “talk is cheap, capabilities are not.” The United States’ newfound openness to EU defense is ultimately significant only if the EU seizes the moment and takes real initiative. Time to go big. Unless the EU comes through with a bold proposal that results in tangible military acquisitions that fill gaps in NATO’s capabilities and enable Europe to act on its own if needed, a more balanced transatlantic partnership will remain a pipe dream. Thanks in large part to the precedent set by Europe’s pandemic recovery plan, there is now a straightforward way for the EU to fund new defense initiatives: borrow the money. We propose the European Union launch a new 100 billion euro initiative to support defense acquisitions.

NOT THE 1990s ANY MORE  

Despite regular calls for increased European defense spending, the United States has opposed EU defense integration efforts for decades. At a December 1998 meeting of NATO foreign ministers, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright laid out some redlines for future EU defense initiatives. The boundaries Albright expressed became known as the “three Ds”—EU defense could not duplicate NATO efforts, decouple decision-making from the alliance, or discriminate against NATO members outside the EU—and soon congealed into doctrine. Europe’s dependence on the United States for its security has given Washington a de facto veto over EU defense proposals. And it has used it, suggesting that its European partners must choose between the EU and NATO. For U.S. allies in central and eastern Europe, for whom the threat posed by Russia is not merely theoretical, this is not a choice at all.

As the United States remains the backbone of the continent’s defense, American skepticism of European defense initiatives has prompted opposition within the EU. European officials have often come to Washington privately expressing frustration at French security initiatives, believing this to be what their American interlocutors wish to hear. But the world has changed a great deal since the 1990s. Whereas the Clinton administration was preoccupied with ensuring NATO’s survival in a post–Cold War world, NATO’s role today is far more secure. The EU has also evolved, and American caution toward the union is no longer warranted. Europe’s political union has survived many crises, proving its durability and playing an increasingly prominent global role. Despite U.S. objections, the EU has also become more of a defense actor, creating a common defense fund to make procurements and provide security assistance abroad. Nevertheless, skeptical attitudes toward European defense efforts retain considerable sway among policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, thwarting significant progress.

For too long, European countries have paid homage to the NATO alliance while letting their militaries atrophy.

As recent international military efforts, such as the intervention in Libya and the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS), have demonstrated, Europe’s ability to act militarily depends heavily on American support. A strong, stable, and more militarized Europe, capable of independently fending off challenges in its neighborhood, is of vital interest to Washington. Although Biden has called NATO’s Article 5 a “holy obligation,” would Washington act if a crisis erupted in the eastern Mediterranean or North Africa that did not directly involve a NATO member state yet would likely create damaging repercussions for Europe? Would a European Union capable of independent military action be better positioned to stop a genocide in the western Balkans than it was in the 1990s when it relied on the United States? Or at a very basic level, would a crisis in a distant capital mobilize the United States to evacuate EU citizens?

Addressing such questions should be an urgent priority for the United States and will require a new approach to European defense. Simply demanding that European states spend more on their own defense is a recipe for continued transatlantic drift. For too long, European states such as Germany have paid homage to the NATO alliance while letting their militaries atrophy. Looking ahead, not only are the EU states unlikely to spend more in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, but whatever marginal spending might materialize will have little impact on European security, as it will be spread across the EU’s 27 member states. Thus, on the current course, Europe’s military weakness could well worsen, increasing European dependence on the United States. This European free-riding may have a high price in euros but it also has a clear cost to transatlantic relations. If Washington views Europe as providing little practical help and sees engaging Europe as not worth the time, greater estrangement will only ensue. As such, both the United States and Europe must chart a new approach—one that sees Europe make real investments and the United States support integrating those efforts at the EU level.  

THE EU CAN AFFORD TO SPEND

Upgrading European defense capabilities to the point that the EU is capable of independent military action will be costly. But the EU’s historic 750 billion euro coronavirus recovery package, the Next Generation EU fund, offers a potential model for financing new EU military initiatives. The EU should borrow an additional 100 billion euros to finance the acquisition of defense capabilities by member states and to support existing EU initiatives. Such additional stimulus funding would boost Europe’s economic recovery and supercharge European defense efforts, transforming Europe’s ability to defend itself and allowing it to partner with NATO and the United States on a more equal footing.

Before the summer of 2020, the notion that the European Union would borrow funds was almost unimaginable. But the European recovery package did something novel. Instead of asking member states to draw on their national budgets, as they do to fund the EU budget, the European Union, backed by the euro and the European Central Bank, went to the financial markets—which turned out to be eager to lend to Brussels. The EU credit rating came in at AAA and, as Bloomberg noted in June, market demand for EU debt has been “stratospheric.” With its newly established ability to borrow at interest rates that range between negative and just above zero, the European Union can invest in itself at no additional cost. 

Since there will be opposition from more frugal EU members to more borrowing, American insistence is key. Collective spending will give the EU more bang for the euro. It could also prove more palatable for some EU member states. For instance, there is little prospect that a new German government will spend more domestically on defense. But two of the German coalition parties, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, support the concept of EU defense in principle. And they all put the transatlantic alliance at the core of their message.

Recent initiatives aimed at advancing the structural integration of the EU’s armed forces—such as the European Defense Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework, which were both activated in 2017—are already working to optimize European defense spending efforts and have begun funding defense research and acquisitions. But now that the EU has the institutional structure to do much more on defense, it can ramp up spending on concrete capabilities. 

The EU would be wise to focus first on making the kinds of major military acquisitions that will both fill gaps in capabilities identified by NATO, ensure interoperability, and reduce the EU’s dependence on the United States. For example, in light of the recent situation in which European countries were forced to rely on the United States while evacuating Afghanistan, off-the-shelf acquisitions that would fill real capability gaps might include fleets of long-range air transport and air-refueling tankers. The EU might also consider acquiring advanced submarines or naval vessels that would help reverse a declining maritime presence; improved cyber-infrastructure and drones; and upgraded air patrol capabilities, which would allow it to monitor Russian violations of European airspace and the enforcement of embargoes on Libya or Syria.

Some of the funding could be invested in the more than 40 PESCO defense projects that are already underway, especially the defense programs that were halted due to pandemic-related budgetary cuts. In particular, full funding should be restored to the EU’s military mobility initiative, which was reduced in EU budgetary negotiations but performs crucial work retrofitting roads, railways, and bridges so that NATO tanks can move eastward. 

Every advancement in the European project has sparked major institutional reforms, and the EU’s entry into defense will be no different. Although some difficult compromises may be necessary, the institutional reforms that will enable the EU to build more robust defense capabilities may ultimately pave the way for a more coherent and effective European foreign policy.

A BREAKTHROUGH SUMMIT?

A new European security initiative along these lines could be announced during the early 2022 EU defense summit that will be held during France’s upcoming six months in the rotating EU presidency. It would make sense for Paris, a traditional backer of European defense, to spearhead the effort, but a spirit of compromise will be essential. If France claims to act in the interests of European sovereignty, it must demonstrate the intent to shield the EU against all threats, including Russia. In recent weeks, the EU has witnessed a showdown between Brussels and Warsaw over a Polish constitutional court’s ruling that EU law should not supersede national law—a fundamental challenge to the EU’s legal framework. Although the EU must enforce its democratic principles, a recognition of the geopolitical vulnerability of central and eastern European countries in the face of continued Russian aggression must also be reflected in its spending priorities.

Meanwhile, the United States must provide steadfast support for these efforts. For this plan to succeed, the administration will need to be actively engaged. It must reassure eastern Europe that EU defense initiatives will not diminish Washington’s commitment to NATO and European security. On the contrary, the United States should make clear that it views EU defense integration as a long-term investment in the transatlantic partnership that, far from supplanting NATO, will necessitate robust transatlantic defense cooperation through NATO. Washington must demonstrate to its European allies that if they take their own security more seriously, the United States will take Europe more seriously. 

Backing EU defense will also require the United States to accept that spending will primarily boost the European defense industrial base, a necessary step to ensure European resilience and domestic political buy-in. It is critical that major European acquisitions create jobs across the EU. This may be a hard pill for U.S. defense contractors to swallow, but it will allow the Biden administration to show the American public that positive engagement, not insults and threats, prompted Europe to increase defense spending. In undertaking this commitment to European defense, Europeans could help themselves and help Biden in a fraught domestic environment.

Skepticism that the EU will take strong action is warranted. Yet after a decade plagued by crises, from the Greek debt rescue to Brexit to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has emerged stronger and more capable. Over the last two years, the EU has proved that it can undertake massive policy initiatives. While the U.S. Congress struggles to pass climate legislation and regulate Big Tech, the EU is leading the way globally with its European Green Deal and its digital markets and services acts. The European Union can do big things, and the United States should encourage the EU to think big and act boldly on defense, because European security is badly in need of an overhaul. Now is the time for Europe to step up and launch the defense effort the European Union and NATO need.

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  • MAX BERGMANN is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2011 to 2017.
  • BENJAMIN HADDAD is Senior Director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
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