[…] Due to the existence of radically different and incompatible threat perceptions, strategic cultures within the EU, and the evident reinforcement of US and NATO’s role in European security and defence […]; the EU is still far away from being united and achieving strategic autonomy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to a further rise in the debate around Europe’s security architecture, policy, and capabilities. Despite the narrative built and embraced by the EU and most of its member states’ governments depicting the union’s response as consistent, virtuous, effective, and unified; the former has not developed and has lacked relevant and real geopolitical power and still lies quite behind in its objective of achieving strategic autonomy.
In the last few years, there has been a general recognition within EU institutions and most EU Member States that greater integration of national defence strategies, forces, and capabilities is needed to meet the ambitions expressed in the EU’s Strategic Compass of 2022 and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Thus, it is not surprising that the EU has been expanding its commitment to defence matters, taking major steps towards strategic autonomy. However, the evident gap between ambition and reality has led to frequent and often justified criticism that these EU foreign policy efforts have been ineffectual. Consequently, the EU’s military intervention capacity is still negligible and the EU as a defence actor is largely irrelevant to most conflicts in Europe’s neighborhood.
Therefore, the EU has not achieved its defence initiatives’ major objective yet: European strategic autonomy. Despite the latter being an often diffuse concept, it can be understood as “the ability to act autonomously and choose whether and in what ways to collaborate with like-minded partners in matters of security and defence”. This autonomy also refers to the specific “institutional capacity to independently plan and conduct military operations across the full spectrum of conflict and to autonomously develop and produce the related defence capabilities with minimal or no assistance from the United States”.
As a result of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, several EU Member states such as Germany have described the recent period as a “Zeitenwende”, which refers to a wider paradigm shift. Indeed, one of the conflict’s noticeable effects has been several announcements that European countries will increase their defence spending. Parallelly, it emerged an apparent commonality of collective purpose towards the war with most EU member states contributing to helping Ukraine highlighted by the use of the EPF and the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. Despite a generalized feeling of a major paradigm shift, the mentioned EU actions do not necessarily mean the union has gone closer to developing an efficient defence capability or reaching strategic autonomy.
Therefore and because the war’s consequences on EU defence are everything but clear; this essay will analyze the current state of the unions’ defence. By doing so and since it is one of the EU’s most important defence initiatives and it was recently activated; this paper will focus on PESCO and its recent evolution. In addition, this essay will also focus on EU member states’ reaction and response towards the Russo-Ukrainian War (with a special emphasis on the major actors and their respective threat perception) and briefly on the US and NATO’s role. By doing so, this short analysis will aim to study whether PESCO and the apparent unity and the response to the ongoing war have helped the EU in developing an effective defence capability and strategic culture, and autonomy.
This essay has found that despite the general positive assumption that the EU’s collective response to the war had opened a new chapter regarding its ability to act collectively and to effectively respond to a given threat (reflected by Josep Borrell’s characterization of the EU response as a “geopolitical awakening”); the union still lacks a practical and effective defence capability and is still internally divided and highly dependent on the US and NATO. This study concludes that the EU has still a long way to go to achieve strategic autonomy and identifies its most pressing challenges.
Starting with PESCO, it is worth highlighting that despite being a significant feature of the Lisbon Treaty ratified in 2009, the former was only launched in 2017 after the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. Indeed, the initiative was established on 8 December 2017 with the involvement of twenty-five member states. PESCO, which is an institutionally sophisticated arrangement that combines aspects of state sovereignty in an intergovernmental process, aims to “enhance collaboration in the areas of investment, capability development and operational readiness”. The most tangible of the twenty commitments signed by the contracting parties is the obligation to take part in at least one of a list of capability projects that the participating states agree to be “strategically relevant”. This is thus linked to the general commitment to helping address through collaboration the common capability shortfalls that the EU determines.
Moreover and since PESCO has been written into EU law, it can be considered in this sense “different” from previous initiatives. Not only will the Council of Ministers annually study whether the member states are fulfilling their commitments, but the signing states are also required to produce an annual National Implementation Plan. This strengthens PESCO because states will have to explain any failure to do so to their fellow member states, the public, and parliaments. Additionally and as a result of the collaborative nature of the projects, the participating states also serve to control each other.
Regarding PESCO’s evolution, it is necessary to highlight that the defence arrangement went from having seventeen initial projects to forty-seven in 2018, and they all should help increase the European defence industry’s competitiveness and avoid unnecessary overlap. However, the first list of PESCO projects did not distinguish between “strategically relevant” projects and others, closing the door to prioritizing certain needs. Furthermore, although the European Commission sent a strong signal by taking legal action against EU member states (such as Italy, Poland and Portugal who were accused of violating EU defence-market legislation); there is still prevalent protectionism by European countries within the mentioned sector. Indeed, even the most recent procurement trends during the Russo-Ukrainian War have shown that European defence procurement is still not happening in a coordinated fashion. In fact, and since European governments are still channeling their budgets to domestic firms or buying off-the-shelf from third countries suppliers; only 18% of all defence investment by member states was conducted in cooperation with other EU countries. Recent data has shown that the level of investment in European collaborative equipment procurement is on the decline.
Moreover, the fact that many of its members have also joined other schemes like NATO’s Framework Nations Concept (FNC) (which also seeks to promote cooperation and possibly integration) represents another challenge for PESCO’s success. In addition, although France and Germany represent the key original authors of PESCO and its key members, both states have not been primarily concentrated nor solely focused on the arrangement. While NATO’s FNC was originally a German idea and many in the Bundeswehr still prioritize the transatlantic alliance and its scheme; France decided to launch another arrangement in 2017 called “The European Intervention Initiative”. Therefore, despite these developments showing that several European states are convinced of the need to build more integrated defence capabilities; the emergence of the already mentioned different and highly similar schemes suggests that there are too many parallel initiatives, putting each other at risk. Consequently and since neither France nor Germany has clarified its ultimate plans, this harms and blocks PESCO’s development.
In addition, the problematic disagreement between France and Germany was even further reinforced when Paris openly disapproved of Germany’s decision to pledge extra defence money in buying US-made equipment, reflected by its decision to buy 35 F-35 last year. The tension did not stop there and after Berlin recently launched its European Sky Shield Initiative, France complained again that it had not been consulted and objected to German plans of building the shield with German, US, and Israeli systems (so without other European suppliers). As a result, while Berlin possesses fair concerns about the fact that France could be promoting a “buy European” policy to benefit its defence firms, Paris has a valid point when accusing Germany of not contributing to forging an EU defence industrial base.
Concerning the declarations of defence spending by numerous EU member states, it is unclear how fast and to what extent European governments will increase their spending level in real terms. Analysts have already questioned whether Germany’s injection of 100€ billion will close the gap on its 2% GDP commitment. Finally, the same doubt can and should be raised about other member states’ increase in defence spending since the ramification of the war could create additional financial pressures (added to the ongoing worrying inflation and long procurement times), which could plunge European governments even further into debt.
On the other hand, moving to the second part of the analysis, it is necessary to focus not only on EU member states’ reaction and response to the Russo-Ukrainian War and how the latter has impacted European defence but also on how this wartime context has shaped the role of the US and the transatlantic alliance in Europe. This will help us to deeply analyse and understand the current state of EU security and defence.
First of all and concerning the initial reaction to the war, the EU managed to act relatively collectively. Indeed, most member states agreed on imposing an extensive range of trade, financial, and individually targeted sanctions against named individuals (with certain exceptions such as Hungary`s refusal to sanction Russian oil and gas). In addition, the EU has also implemented numerous macro-financial measures including assistance to refugees within and beyond Ukraine’s borders. Regarding the military response by the EU and its member states, the latter decided to make use of the EPF, which is a financial instrument allowing EU funding of equipment and infrastructure for the militaries of third countries. Despite the EPF having been used little before the 2022 Russian invasion, the fund has now been employed on five occasions to provide Kyiv with cash and equipment to the value of 2,5€ million to support Ukraine’s defence needs.
However, the collective action through the use of the EPF contrasts with the separate direct national military equipment contributions of EU member states in Ukraine, which has been characterized by significant stark differences in the levels of support. Regarding this development, EU Eastern member states have often been at the forefront of the European response to the war. This proactive role vis-à-vis Ukraine adopted by Poland and the Baltics has been mainly reflected by the fact that they have made the most significant on-the-ground response in terms of military support provided and also by its stark opposition and harsh tone towards Moscow. By doing so, they have played a leading role in shaping the EU’s collective response. Nevertheless, Poland and the Baltic states have been traditionally skeptical of the EU defence role and continue to be the strongest and most loyal NATO supporters within the union.
On the other hand, the robustness of Poland’s and the Baltic states’ efforts have stood in stark contrast to France and Germany’s initial pragmatism and pusillanimity, so the critics of the former towards Paris and Berlin’s respective efforts to preserve a diplomatic channel connected with Putin and their initial opposition to sending military aid were quick in coming.
Therefore, this “supposed and apparent initial European unity” vis-à-vis the war has been dissolving (Besch, 2022) and can be understood as a clear consequence and reflection of the phenomenon analysed and highlighted by Meijer and Brooks (2021). Indeed and through elaborating a bottom-line assessment and systematic coding of national threat perceptions across twenty-nine European countries, scholars distinguish five main categories of countries based on their threat assessment and strategic orientation, reflecting a certain clash between some. Thus, while Russia is the dominant threat by far for Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland; key EU actors such as France, and Germany but also Italy and Spain among others, do not share this same threat perception towards Moscow at all. As a result, the Old Continent and the EU are marked by profoundly divergent threats assessment and ensuing strategic priorities and cultures.
Finally, the coordination of collective European military responses to Russia through NATO, the swift made by Finland and Sweden to join the transatlantic alliance, and the extent of US political and military material support to NATO states bordering Russia and to Ukraine; have led to a recapitulation of the primacy of the US and the transatlantic alliance in European defence and security. Thus, it has been NATO, with its inter-governmental decision structures and US security guarantees, and unquestionable leadership role which has been the primary organizational pillar and main actor within European defence and reaction to the war. Last but not least, mainly because domestic defence industrial and geopolitical interests dictate that US policy needs to continue to prioritize arms sales to Europe, it is improbable that the US will voluntarily renounce the profits US-based industries are making from arms sales to the Old Continent (which has been taking advantage from the fact that many EU and NATO countries are in need to replenish their stocks after they have decided and/ or have also been pushed by Washington to transfer some of their stocks to Ukraine).
Despite US officials having long looked to Europeans to do more regarding their defence, they have also expressed reservations that EU defence integration and strategic autonomy could duplicate and undermine NATO structures. Indeed and also because an autonomous Europe would also diminish US influence in transatlantic security affairs and also negatively affect American defence exports, recent US governments have embraced the more critical view about EU defence initiatives and the idea of strategic autonomy.
Despite significant steps taken by the EU and its member states, such as the activation of PESCO and increased defense spending, several factors hinder the success of building a common defense. These include the prevalence of national interests in European defense procurement, lack of consensus on EU strategy, differing views on strategic autonomy, and insufficient financial funding.
Contrary to the EU’s rhetoric, the war in Ukraine has not spurred geopolitical unity or strengthened defense integration and strategic autonomy. While most EU member states agreed on imposing sanctions on Russia, they lacked unity in assessing the crisis and Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. Two major opposing views emerged: one supporting Ukraine militarily and aligning with the US, UK, and NATO (mainly embraced by Poland and the Baltics), and another favoring a diplomatic solution to the conflict (initially embraced by France and Germany).
Due to PESCO’s failure to demonstrate independent capability development, divergent threat perceptions and strategic cultures within the EU, and the reinforced role of the US and NATO in European security (resulting from the war and unwavering support from Poland and the Baltics), the EU remains far from achieving strategic autonomy. Overcoming three interconnected challenges is crucial: addressing strategic disagreements, managing internal geopolitical competition, and reducing the dominant influence of the US in European politics, security, and defense.