Europe’s Global Power Potential: Locked in the EU28’s Defence Silos

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A British sniper on the Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland. Image: Sgt Russ Nolan RLC/Flickr

This article was originally published by Friends of Europe on 16 December, 2014.

The European Space Agency’s recent bull’s eye shot at a comet shows Europe can be at the cutting edge of innovation when it pools its national efforts. If Europe were to do this for defence, it could regain the global power status it enjoyed before World War I.

Today the EU28 spend only half as much as the United States on defence, even though their combined population is larger. Several factors account for this. First, even if the larger European states were to significantly increase their defence spending, they lack the economies of scale to project power meaningfully. The same would be the case if the United States were divided into many entities with their own separate defence establishments. The smaller European states have even less incentive to increase defence spending since they believe that this would have little impact.

Much of Europe’s modest defence spending disappears into an administrative black hole. Each of the EU’s members spends a disproportionate amount on personnel to run its separate headquarters, procurement, logistics, and intelligence systems rather than on the advanced weapons, transport, and integrated information systems that form the backbone of a modern military. Europe, in fact, has nearly two million active duty military personnel – more than the U.S. – but it cannot equip, transport or sustain them outside of Europe.

European defence is also undermined by differing national priorities. Southern Europe focuses on threats from across the Mediterranean; northern and central Europe are preoccupied with Russia.

Finally, some European states feel they can skimp on defence since the U.S. will always provide a safety net. They should think twice about being so complacent.

What Europe clearly needs is a commitment to break out of its national defence silos and merge them into an integrated defence establishment. To this end, each state would automatically pay a set percentage of its gross domestic product into a common European defence fund administered by the European External Action Service or European Defence Agency. The annual revenue would be used to fund European defence capabilities with the goal of merging the 28 militaries into a single military over time.

Common wisdom argues that public opinion would never give up national sovereignty. The facts are more complicated. According to a 2011 survey conducted for the German newspaper Die Zeit, 44 percent of French people favoured a federal European union, 35 percent were opposed, and 20 percent were uncertain; thirty-five percent of Germans favoured such a union, 43 were opposed, and 23 percent were uncertain.

European public opinion may shift towards greater support of a union that is limited to defence in the future for several reasons.

For one thing, the traditional American security guarantee will likely be less reliable in the future:

  • American military capabilities are declining as spending in support of its aging population cuts into its defence expenditures;
  • The U.S. will have fewer defence capabilities geared towards Europe as Washington turns increasingly towards East Asia to contain a rising China;
  • America is becoming less willing to use military power since the Democratic Party has become the dominant presidential (though not congressional party) party due to the rise of the Hispanic vote; and Democratic presidents are less inclined to use military force, given the more dovish nature of their party and their own predispositions; and
  • The U.S. may also become less willing to use its military power since its growing shale gas and oil production makes the defence of the Arab/Persian Gulf less vital at least in the medium term, although not to Europe.

In addition, Europe is likely to face a more challenging threat environment. Missile and weapons-of- mass-destruction proliferation will continue; and a hostile Middle East country or an armed movement like the Islamic State, which could capture a country’s missile sites, could represent a threat. While many European nations are currently uninterested in missile defence because they believe that only London or Paris, with their military presence in the Middle East, would be targets, missiles fired at these capitals could veer off course and hit other European cities.

Moreover, Europe may have to further secure its shores if African refugee flows increase from a continent whose population projected to increase from one billion to five billion during this century, according to a UN study. Europe may also need to have the capability to carry out new missions in Africa such as stabilising a large oil-producing region to try to counter decreasing security of energy supplies.

Self-interest does indeed require a united European defence, but it goes beyond that. A united European defence would raise the European Union’s status to that of a genuine world power. In doing so, it could galvanise Europe on the domestic economic front by instilling a greater sense of purpose. It would also lay to rest the common wisdom that the centre of the world is shifting to the Pacific by restoring to the continent the clout it possessed until the summer of 1914.

The recent European satellite that landed on Comet 67P demonstrates what Europe can do: the world needs another power based on the cradle of western civilisation, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Thomas Parker is a Professorial lecturer at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and has taught at the Universities of Haifa and Paris. He worked for three decades for U.S. national security agencies.

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