The European Union finally wants to spend big bucks — and serious energy — on military cooperation, but it will be a jarring shift for a bloc that has long been all-peace, no-war.
That’s the conclusion from a group of senior experts, including civilian and uniformed leaders from NATO and the EU, elected officials, policy analysts and industry representatives, gathered by POLITICO last week for a discussion on European defense spending.
The push for greater military and security cooperation, and billions more in investment, is a response to the growing assertiveness of Russia and to pressure at NATO, particularly from U.S. President Donald Trump, to meet an agreed-upon target of 2 percent of GDP in annual defense spending.
The common theme on virtually every topic was the need for greater integration and cooperation among Western allies with shared values and security goals. In other words: a common response to a common threat.
“We should be working together on the industrial side,” one participant said, pointing to a need for common standards, open markets and procurement that favors “the best available technologies regardless of their origins.” Recent European efforts at common defense policy, including the European Defense Action Plan, the European Defense Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) should be welcomed by the EU’s allies. “A stronger Europe means a stronger NATO,” the participant said.
Those attending the gathering took part on the basis that their comments would not be attributed to them by name in order to facilitate lively frank debate.
Here are the four most important takeaways from the discussion.
1. NATO’s 2 percent goal, perhaps necessary, definitely not sufficient.
Participants shared a general consensus that spending must grow, but many raised doubts about focusing on NATO’s 2 percent goal. They urged a conversation focused on capabilities, and value for money. In Germany, especially, they said, the push for 2 percent has provoked a public backlash.
“Europe needs to spend its money better,” one participant said. “Europe also needs to spend more, but more money by itself will not solve the problems we have on the European level ... Cooperation only makes sense when if it leads to more efficient spending.”
“We will need additional money,” this participant continued. But “the effect will not be so good as it will be when we really are talking on the hard points: industrial capabilities in Europe. Are we really willing to share capabilities? For example, if France would be willing to accept that the next European battle tank is produced under German leadership. And if Germany would be willing to accept that, for example, [French manufacturer] Dassault will build the next European fighter jet. In the end it makes sense to spend more, if we can ensure that the money is spent right.”
Still, some participants called the 2 percent target crucial. “In some sense there’s an artificiality to it, but it is being used to raise awareness in a very important way … to focus attention of NATO allies on ... the amounts going into defense budgets.”
2. Reshaping capabilities to face modern threats.
Participants agreed that Europe and its allies face a dramatically different set of threats than even just five years ago, and are scrambling to respond after being lulled into complacency after the end of the Cold War. “The capability targets that NATO has put in place, they are very much focused on transforming the alliance from a light, mobile force suitable for foreign expeditions, for foreign operations, to again a heavy force — conventionally armed but highly mobile nevertheless. For this, it takes a major transformation.”
“Why are we looking now at heavy mobile conventional [forces]?” the participant asked. “It’s that the threat has changed since 2014. All that is what is driving the capability targets.”
For military commanders, one participant said, spending has a straightforward purpose: “It’s to have credible forces that can do the job” and to be able to respond to the “strategic competition” Russia is engaged in with the West.
Efficiency is nice, this participant said, but effectiveness is more important. “We will have a long, tough journey to go to change our defense organizations from shrinking organizations to growing organizations.... Efficiency should meet effectiveness at some point.”
3. Protectionism persists, and it’s not just America First.
When French President Emmanuel Macron recently reiterated his call for an EU army, he also urged Europe to build its own weapons and hardware. For participants in POLITICO’s discussion, this kind of pressure — to turn military needs into local economic development and jobs programs — is harmful, especially in an age of global supply chains, and internationally-mobile employees.
It raises prices and creates redundancies, participants said. “Sustainment is 70 percent of life-cycle cost” of defense equipment, one participant explained. “So in many cases you have a strategy and say, ‘I can put one shop in Europe to sustain the whole fleet,’ be it aircraft or military vehicles or ships.”
“Then you go to the nations, the same people that are saying, ‘The best value for money.’ I would say the military wants the best, and they don’t care about the origin … but then you have to deal with the ministry of economy … they want domestic capability.”
“Six years ago, we said we can deal with Europe with one shop,” this participant said, citing one concrete example. “Now we already have three shops in three countries and probably a fourth is coming up.”
There are also obstacles between the U.S. and Europe that prevent companies getting involved in other markets. “It’s all this discussion about eligibility or whatever,” the participant said. “Certain workshops [in Europe] take place talking about capability development, and we are not even allowed to participate ... they say, ‘Yes, but your headquarters are in the U.S.’ Or soon it will be in the U.K. You cannot participate.”
4. Jury still out on EU defense commissioner.
Participants were mostly apprehensive about naming an EU defense commissioner, potentially to oversee a directorate-general of defense. They wondered what the commissioner would do, other than add bureaucracy.
One participant said the EU should first overcome barriers in its treaties that prevent the EU Military Committee from advising the Commission: “So if we want to have a DG-Defense or a commissioner, then try and also [change] the way decisions are made and not just the person.”
Another participant was a flat no on a defense commissioner: “It [will] be more confusing.”
Several said they were open to the idea, but with conditions. Two participants said it would make sense to have a manager for the proposed €13 billion European Defense Fund. Only one was enthusiastically in favor. “A commissioner makes sense even though she or he has no power at the moment,” this person said. “You need to have some person you can identify who drives the process … On the European level, I think it would be helpful if there would be one person I could call if there is a problem.”