The Future of European Defence Cooperation: a win-win for Transatlantic security

By Bolton Smith and Gabriel White

Mali – Barkhane French operation, part of the ‘War against Terrorism’. Photo: Fred Marie (CC 2.0)


Any mention of independent European defence efforts usually raises concern amongst pundits in Washington. From fears that European defence initiatives are meant to replace NATO to suggestions that Germany is trying to consolidate a European army under its command, commentary from the American perspective has the unfortunate tendency to grossly misrepresent the scope and intent of European defence reforms. Instead of raising false alarms, Americans should be supportive of these and future endeavours from Europeans which seek to reduce redundancy and take a more proactive role in their own defence.

Defense issues are on the minds of bureaucrats in Brussels and, increasingly, the minds of ministers in the member states. From most recent “State of the Union” speech given by President Jean-Claude Juncker to a speech given by Emmanuel Macron on the 26th of September, European leaders are sending clear signals of a renewed defense focus.  Changes to the European Security framework are coming, whether America wants them to or not, and progress has already been made.

In June of this year the European Commission earmarked some 1.6 billion euros for defence research and development couched in the “European Defence Fund” (EDF), which will allow the EU to dip its toes into competencies usually reserved for, and fiercely defended by, member states. Adding to this effort, Brexit will simultaneously remove the most historically obstinate opponent  to EU defence cooperation, politically opening a golden opportunity for ambitious reform. Along with internal incentives and moves, the perceived looming threat of Russian aggression lingers on, continually pushing Eastern European countries to call for greater European cooperation and competencies to act as deterrent. While the threat of overt Russian aggression is often assessed as being low, even along NATO’s eastern flank, the lingering possibility of conflict, intentional or otherwise warrants addressing the tremendous imbalance in conventional capabilities. The current environment is ripe for change, and Europe is, and will be in the future, planting seeds for greater cooperation.

Europe’s collective defence capabilities as of now are nowhere close to replacing NATO capabilities, much less enough to provide an effective independent defensive cover for the continent. Much of the initial EU  defence expansion and cooperation will have to make up for failures of the past or underperformance in the present. From the failure of enacting the European Defence Community, to attempts to create an operationally effective “eurodrone,”many good ideas in European  defence have lacked requisite political will. Even comparatively simple efforts, such as the creation of  EU battlegroups, such as battalion size formations designed for so-called Petersberg tasks, have yet to be deployed .

In the face of an aggressive Russia, following two separate wars into the former Soviet Republics of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the EU has largely failed to make significant progress to address the massive disparity in conventional capability with Russia. Worse yet, several member states (most notably Germany) face an uphill domestic political battle just to reach the 2% defence spending goal set by the 2014 NATO Wales Summit. In light of these prior failures and contemporary difficulties, the United States should be supportive, not apprehensive, of actual progress made by Europeans in security enhancement. Given Europe’s deterrence deficit in conventional capabilities, as well as other ancillary benefits of military integration and coordination, both practical and rhetorical  pushes for deeper European military cooperation are essential for beginning to chip away at imbalances and inadequacies.

The recent steps and proposals are small, but important efforts that will set the foundation for better future cooperation. The sum of recent changes in European defence cooperation effectively amount to a substantial increase in investment in streamlining of capability development opportunities – with the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) later this year. This growth promises to provide a framework for EU members to voluntarily opt in to various joint ventures. That being said, Europe still faces a long road to common procurement and addressing some challenges in interoperability. However, while issues persist, the existence of projects like the PESCO indicate, if anything else,  that deeper cooperation may be realized in the future.


NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: European Parliament (CC 2.0)


Other areas of potential growth offer perhaps the clearest cut value of European defence cooperation to NATO, a security/defence Schengen-zone. In 2016, former Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, first suggested the establishment of a European Defence Schengen Zone largely in to response to growing counter-terrorism challenges. Gentiloni’s government had suggested that the creation of a system to voluntarily pool capabilities in different scenarios might address individual shortcomings within the EU member states.  Others have rightly raised the logistic and legal difficulties of even moving NATO forces across the EU. In either case, both proposals offer opportunities to cut back on restrictions that make European defence more difficult.

Europe is moving in the right direction in terms of security, and both American observers and the U.S. government should recognise recent developments as a win-win opportunity worth supporting. Pre-emptive criticism and fears of a full European Army or even whispers of a joint-command nuclear weapon, are premature at best.  While these conversations will happen for the foreseeable future, allowing them to cast a negative light on contemporary positive steps is neither intellectually honest nor productive in bulking up European and Transatlantic security. Instead, American perspectives should appreciate that Europe is proving itself to be a committed partner in enhancing its own, regional, and global security. So long as this is the case, the Transatlantic Alliance can only benefit.


Bolton Smith is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service pursuing a Masters in German and European Studies. His research interests focus around German electoral and defense politics, paradiplomacy in separatist regions, as well as other topics related to European governance. You can follow him @BoltonMSmith  

Gabriel White  is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service pursuing a Masters in International Security. His research interests focus on military history, statecraft, and Eurasian affairs. He is 2017 a recipient of the NSEP Boren Fellowship, working on Baltic regional security issues in Tallinn Estonia. You can follow him @Gabriel___White

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