Judy Asks: Is Defense a Priority Across Europe?

Defense is at the top of the policy agenda in European capitals, but the sense of urgency varies. Governments must quickly move from rhetoric to action for Europe to be able to defend itself.

Stefanie Babst – Strategic advisor and former NATO deputy assistant secretary general

With a few exceptions, most European politicians are true masters in paying lip service to strengthening Europe’s defense. From setting an ambitious European Headline Goal in 1999, including a 60,000 men strong rapid reaction force, to long forgotten fancy labels like the Prague Capability Initiative, the Defence Capability Initiative or Smart Defence, Europeans in the EU and NATO did not lack creativity when underscoring their preparedness to improve their meager military fire-power. Yet more than twenty years later, Europe still lacks a credible military posture. Even external shocks like Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 did not prompt Germany, Europe’s largest economy, to take serious steps toward rebuilding its cannibalized armed forces.

Has Moscow’s large-scale war against Ukraine generated a sense of urgency in European capitals to make military defense and civil resilience a top political priority? The answer is a straight “yes” for Poland, the Baltic and Nordic countries, but less so for Germany and other wealthy European countries. We must prepare for a Russian aggression in five to eight years, says German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. In other words: not now.

Seemingly, Europeans need an even more powerful disrupter than a brutal war in their neighborhood: someone like Donald Trump. The gloomy prospect of no longer being able to rely on U.S. security support could push Europeans out of their comfort zone and make them seriously invest in defense. Perhaps.

Heinrich Brauss – Former NATO assistant secretary general for defense policy and planning

My judgement as a former NATO official is affected by two imperatives: continued massive military and financial support for Ukraine against Russia’s attack and a substantial increase in NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities against Russia, which is the most significant and direct threat to Europe.

Yet, defense has so far only been a priority in Eastern European countries bordering Russia, albeit only since 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea and the Donbas. Western and southern Europe have wasted a lot of time and reacted too slowly, even after February 24, 2022. That seems to be changing now.

Donald Trump’s irresponsible remarks that he would surrender to Russia those allies that would not pay enough for U.S. protection have caused a shock in Europe. If he were to become president again, we would no longer be able to rely on U.S. help as part of NATO’s collective defense pledge. Now, European allies are further increasing defense spending, there is talk of nuclear armament even in the EU, and Germany is building a new factory for artillery ammunition.

Regardless of Trump, the Europeans must do much more for Europe’s security, as America’s strategic center of gravity is moving to the Indo-Pacific.

Elisabeth Braw – Senior fellow at the Atlantic Council

Of course defense is a priority across Europe: No European government would argue that it’s not taking national security seriously. That said, some NATO member states—and even neutrals like Austria and Ireland—do seem to assume that other countries will provide both deterrence and defense as global security deteriorates.

The problem when defense types bewail insufficient defense spending, though, is that they don’t consider the enormous pressures European governments are under. Yes, governments should spend on defense, but they also have to spend on healthcare, social care, welfare, education, infrastructure, and so on. When it comes to such expenditures, the expectations on the U.S. federal government are much lower.

That raises the question defense types will need to answer: If European governments should spend more on defense, what should they spend less on? That’s the choice politicians face. If we want more money for defense, which will be unavoidable if Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election, and perhaps even if he doesn’t, we need to have to have this conversation across our societies, including in defense circles.

David Cadier – Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Groningen

Not equally and not sufficiently. A few countries, particularly exposed geo-strategically and with a history of self-reliance, really do. Finland is a prime example. Some others, like Poland or France, have long-established strategic cultures that have led them to take defense seriously. But many have been all too happy to rely on the U.S. security umbrella and not think about defense.

Russia’s war against Ukraine and the prospect of Donald Trump’s reelection are electroshocks. Europe is facing particularly stormy weather and there might be holes in its umbrella. A genuine shift is slowly taking place, yet much more needs to be done.

It’s not just about spending, procurements, and investments, not just about the totem of the 2 percent, however. It’s also about mental structures. Collectively, Europeans have not just outsourced their security to the United States, they have also largely relinquished strategic thinking—in the sense of defining ends and choosing adequate corresponding means.

The ideological knee-jerk reactions to the mere notion of “strategic autonomy” exemplify this—as if all that was to be wished for was “un-strategic dependency.” Simply making the interests of close allies—be it the United States or Ukraine—our own, rather than defining them for ourselves first and then pursuing them jointly where they align, is not strategic thinking either. Call it what you want, but Europe needs to be in a position to defend itself and make its own assessments and choices.

Andrea Christou – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh

Speaking at an informal Foreign Affairs Council press conference, Josep Borrell said “stop saying please and [do] something,” referring to the devastation in Gaza and ceasing the supply of arms to Israel. Yet, not everyone shares these sentiments as we are again faced with conflicting priorities across Europe on defense. Governments are still divided over whether they will act through NATO or the EU, let alone how to approach the current security environment. With the two-year anniversary of Russia’s war on Ukraine pending, governments continue to grapple with which of the two organizations can keep Europe safe and which policy areas require increased spending, rather than taking decisive action that could truly effect change on the ground.

Europeans must finally “do something” and make tough decisions that would allow them to act collectively. For starters, they should decide who can keep Europe safe and commit to it. By doing so, they can make defense a priority at a time when it is needed most. Nevertheless, they must also attract legitimacy from European citizens to ensure that defense not only remains a priority, but that it is credible and effective. Without it, we will likely face this question again.

Andrew Cottey – Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

The answer is increasingly yes—but not yet enough. Most European states have increased defense spending since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are beginning to ramp up armaments production and procurement. The twin strategic shocks of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the possible re-election of Donald Trump are causing European leaders to wake up.

In much of Europe, however, with many other economic and social challenges, publics probably still do not view defense as a top priority. Not many candidates in the forthcoming European Parliament elections will campaign on a security and defense platform.

Ukraine is the immediate test. With U.S. military assistance increasingly in doubt, can Europe provide Kyiv with the ability to defend itself in 2024 and beyond? European leaders recognize the challenge, but translating words into action will require sustained political support.

Increasing defense industrial production requires addressing a thicket of different companies, institutions, interests, and supply chains. Governments should consider appointing a national defense industrial point person to drive progress on the issue.

Good strategy is often said to involve identifying a small number of real priorities and focusing attention on these. Europe should prioritize increasing production of artillery shells, air defense ammunition as well as missiles and other key items for Ukraine. Over time, this can be widened to strengthen broader European defense capabilities.

John R. Deni – Research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute

The degree to which defense is a priority depends on where one sits. The turn-around in NATO Europe defense spending, which began in 2015 following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, was broad-based but uneven. For obvious reasons, the largest gains were seen in Europe’s east. The problem for NATO is, that’s not where the big member states are, in terms of military strength, population, GDP, and diplomatic heft. Instead, the Big Four—France, Germany, Italy, and the UK—have rebounded from the post–Cold War lows relatively slowly. Together, these four countries account for two thirds of NATO Europe defense spending—if they’re not in overdrive, European defense remains understrength.

And overdrive is what’s needed. Not collectively, but individually. As we’ve seen many times, pooling and sharing is a recipe for inaction and buck-passing. Instead, Europe needs these four champions of continental security—perhaps augmented someday by Poland and Spain—to be independently capable of fielding fully enabled, fully equipped, fully manned corps-size military formations of roughly 40,000 soldiers, with comparable air, maritime, cyber, and space components. We’re very far from that goal today, but unless and until it’s achieved, European security will remain dependent upon American enlightened self-interest, Russian restraint, and/or hope.

The views expressed above are the author’s own.

Federico Fabbrini – Professor of EU law at Dublin City University

Donald Trump’s recent threat to withhold U.S. support to NATO members who have not paid their dues should come as no surprise to those who pay attention. Not only because Trump had said the same when he was president. But also because U.S. calls for Europeans to shoulder the costs of their security predates Trump. The NATO target of 2 percent defense spending dates to 2014, when President Barack Obama was in office. Yet despite the war in Ukraine, many EU NATO members still fail to reach that minimum.

All this should be a reason for the EU to take its defense seriously. However, structural factors hamper these efforts. On the one hand, obsession with balanced budgets complicates investment in defense. On the other, national jalousies reduce the space for transnational cooperation, which would be key given the defense industry’s economies of scale. The EU’s failure to meet its ambition to deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine in a year is a sobering reminder of this state of affairs.

Historically, external military threats have been a primary driver of integration in federal unions of states. As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues and the transatlantic insurance becomes even more uncertain, it’s time for the EU to be ambitious: What about reviving the European Defense Community?

Justyna Gotkowska – Coordinator of the Regional Security Program in the Center for Eastern Studies, Warsaw

We still have a split in Europe regarding threat perceptions and policy priorities. The countries on NATO’s northeastern flank feel a real threat coming from Russia. They believe the probability of Moscow staging an armed attack on a NATO country is high—though dependant on several factors like the course of the war in Ukraine, a possible crisis in the Indo-Pacific, credibility of deterrence in Europe, and political cohesion within NATO. This perception is reflected in these countries’ investments in national defense, which exceed 2 percent of GDP, and in the speed of strengthening their armed forces with new capabilities.

Views in Western Europe are much more reserved. These allies do not really believe that Russia is able to militarily challenge NATO countries. Nevertheless, there is a consensus that deterrence and defense in Europe need to be enhanced, albeit not to the extent the northeastern flank countries deem it necessary. This conviction is reflected in the military expenditure where 2 percent of GDP for defense is a ceiling and not a bottom line as well as in the scope and pace of the modernization of Western European armed forces.

Camille Grand – Distinguished policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

As the latest figures from NATO suggest, the European allies have turned a corner when it comes to defense spending, rising from $235 billion in 2014 to $380 billion estimated for 2024, reaching on average the 2 percent of GDP for the first time in decades (1.47 percent in 2014). Countries often identified as outliers, such as Germany, are now reaching the objective and all allies are making a substantial effort. This good news should, however, not pave the way for complacency.

Firstly, NATO allies fall into three broad categories: One third—mostly in Europe’s east and north—is clearly above target, one third is reaching it, and one third is lagging behind and lacking proper plans to meet the target soon. This mixed picture signals that defense might not be as much of a priority for those who feel less exposed.

Secondly, to demonstrate the importance they attach to defense, a sustained effort—not a bush fire—is needed, and allies should be evaluated on their ability to deliver and sustain capabilities in the long run. For defense to be a real priority for the next decade, credible plans to rebuild forces are necessary and too often only in development. This is fiscally sustainable but requires political will over time.
Calle HåkanssonAssociate research fellow at the Europe program of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)

No, at least not enough. While we are seeing positive signs with rising defense budgets across Europe, they still fall short considering the security challenges we continue to face. Moreover, increased defense spending needs to be allocated more collaboratively in Europe and directed toward the right priorities. Therefore, despite existing security threats, there is still a lack of real urgency across large parts of Europe.

In this context, European states should assume greater responsibility for the defense of Europe for several reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, the Russian war on Ukraine highlights the urgent need for increased European capacities. Secondly, fair burden-sharing within NATO is crucial, especially as the primary U.S. foreign policy focus shifts toward the Indo-Pacific theater and the threat posed by China. Thirdly, we must consider the potential consequences of a U.S. administration that is more skeptical—or even opposed—to transatlantic cooperation taking office. Should the fate of Europeans really be determined in Texas or Ohio rather than in Stockholm, Warsaw, or Berlin?

Dominik P. Jankowski – Deputy permanent representative of Poland to NATO

To short answer is—to use a fitting German expression—“jein.”

On the one hand, since 2022, serious decisions in Europe have been taken to step up collective defense. These include among others increased defense spending in European countries—eighteen NATO allies have reached the 2 percent GDP on defense threshold—and a more robust approach of the EU to security and defense—for example, the Act in Support of Ammunition Production or the EU Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine.

On the other hand, considerable gaps still exist. In the coming months, European allies should concentrate their efforts on four issues. First, they should considerably ramp up defense production in support of Ukraine and fill the existing shortfalls in their own military stocks. Second, they must invest in enablement and logistics in Europe. The recent decision by Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands to establish a military mobility corridor from the North Sea to NATO’s Eastern flank is a step in the right direction. Third, European allies should upgrade the general readiness of their armed forces to match the higher level of ambition of NATO’s deterrence and defense posture. And fourth, they need to spend more money on defense. Without that, the three previous pillars will not materialize.

Linas Kojala – Director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius

We find ourselves in a paradox. On the one hand, British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps admits that we are “moving from a post-war to pre-war world.” The usually cautious intelligence and defense officials from countries ranging from Denmark to the Netherlands have issued warnings about Russia’s imminent threat to NATO.

Yet, life in many European countries proceeds as if it’s business as usual. While defense budgets are on the rise, the process is incremental; familiar red-tape hurdles persist as if time were on our side. We celebrate the EU’s €50 billion ($54 million) support package to Ukraine—a worthy achievement, no doubt—even though it is just a modest step forward. After all, over four years, it represents just 0.08 percent of the EU’s GDP.

In the meantime, Russia has adopted a war footing; the regime is on a path dependence that will prove difficult to divert from, even if the desire ever arises.

This paradox could still be resolved. Europe is prosperous and possesses great potential. What is required now are leaders with a strategic mindset who are prepared to take bold actions rather than make headline-grabbing declarations.

Oana Lungescu – Distinguished fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and former NATO spokesperson

Yes, but not enough.

As Jens Stoltenberg just announced, defense spending across NATO’s European allies and Canada has gone up by an unprecedented 11 percent over the last decade, or €600 billion ($644 billion). A majority of allies, eighteen out of thirty-one, are expected to meet the NATO objective of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense this year. I expect that will include not just the UK, Poland, and other countries close to Russia but also Germany.

But not all Europeans are on 2 percent. And the trend needs to shift toward 3 percent for them to meet the capability and readiness requirements for NATO’s new defense plans—currently being tested through Steadfast Defender, the alliance’s largest exercise since the Cold War—and to step up support for Ukraine as it enters the third year of Russia’s war.

Trump’s statements should focus minds, but more talk of European strategic autonomy risks deepening a transatlantic divide just as the world’s autocracies are coming closer. If Europeans are serious about defense, as they should be in a dangerous world, they need to put their money where their mouth is.
Alexander MattelaerAssociate professor at the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy of the VUB Brussels School of Governance

Putin’s war against Ukraine has catapulted defense to the top of the policy agenda in many European capitals. However, this sense of urgency is distributed asymmetrically across the continent. Poland, Romania, Finland, and the Baltic states are running ahead in recapitalizing their defense establishments, whilst other European states such as Italy, Spain, and Belgium are increasingly lagging behind. This cannot help but put European unity at risk.

One question haunting decisionmakers is whether national capitals should remain in charge of procurement processes—promising agile decisionmaking and strong political control—or delegate the authority over defense industrial and acquisition priorities to the European Commission, which promises some economic benefits of scale but at the cost of reduced freedom of action and with more sluggish decisionmaking.

The much-vaunted European Defence Fund is struggling to meet the high expectations. At the same time, national defense staffs are articulating the urgent need to resource the Regional Plans for deterrence and defense that were approved at the Vilnius summit. Beyond the wrangling over industrial workshares loom deeper questions pertaining to the human resources required for effective defense. More leadership will be needed to make European societies truly willing to defend themselves.

Pol Morillas – Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)

We might soon witness the beginning of a new reactionary wave. 2024 shall represent what Brexit and the election of Donald Trump did in 2016: the first steps toward the rise of Euroskepticism, a global nativist alliance and the questioning of multilateralism.

This time, though, a more belligerent and prepared Trump might induce a fatal blow to the shared security structures of the Euro-Atlantic space, including the EU and NATO. As Trump said: “I would not protect you, in fact I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.” A few months before November 2024, the European Parliament elections will witness the rise of the far right and various nationalist, Euroskeptic forces, which will in turn influence the formation of new majorities in that parliament.

Back in time, the election of Emmanuel Macron, Joe Biden, and the European response to the pandemic were all signs of relief. The good news this time is that, should the populist momentum come back with a vengeance in 2024, Europe will have learnt the importance of security in its wider form: socioeconomic, technological, environmental, and health security, among others.

Unfortunately, a core building block of security—defense—is still a lesson for Europe to learn. Not individually, thanks to increased defense expenditure in member states, but collectively and through an integrated approach in the EU. If Europe’s Zeitenwende started timidly with Ukraine, will an isolationist Trump 2.0 do the rest? The task will be more urgent than ever, and then we shall acknowledge that the language of strategic autonomy should never have vanished.

Hanna Ojanen – Research director at Tampere University

In Finland, defense has always been a priority. Last year, joining NATO started a rearticulation of what defense is. The “credible national defense” of past decades is now fitted into new alliance realities, and new policy descriptions are sought out as a reorientation of defense planning proceeds.

But what is the role of the EU?

In the past, Finland was an EU member state that spoke about European defense more than many others. From the start, Helsinki stressed the security-enhancing impact of membership. Later on, it was keen on discussing what the EU’s article 42.7—the mutual defense clause—might mean in reality.

The recent presidential election campaign may have led the public to think that the EU no longer matters in defense once the country is in NATO. For reasons of division of competences, EU foreign and security policy is not on the (Finnish) president’s table while NATO is. Now, it is time to resume the discussion on European defense in Finland, too, and to put the two on the table together.

What would help in this is a clearer and more vigorous voice of the EU itself, explaining the new realities of what the union does in defense and what the EU’s role with regard to NATO is.

Ester Sabatino – Research analyst for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Defense is a priority for Europe. Since 2022, the vast majority of EU member states have been increasing their defense budgets, providing equipment support to Ukraine, and activating new defense industrial instruments at the EU level.

The question is more if member states are serious in transforming the priority into tangible results and so far, it seems not.

Defense spending trends are upward, but still too low and the minimum 2 percent of GDP in defense is spent by only nine EU-NATO countries. On deliveries of equipment support to Ukraine, national stances and political considerations have either delayed deliveries, temporarily halted decisions, or reduced potential firepower of instruments, diminishing the capacity of EU states to support Ukraine. From an industrial perspective, military equipment production still follows a peacetime production logic, with few exceptions. Production time, capacity, and readiness are therefore insufficient. Moreover, to rebuild armed forces, countries are acquiring off-the-shelf, negatively impacting the systems’ interoperability and the defense technological and industrial base.

To translate priorities into deeds Europeans need concrete and realistic goals, and must dedicate enough funding to re-emerge from the catatonic state of the last decades. Trump declarations are questionable, but they could provide that strong external pressure, so much needed for the Europeans to make progress.

Stanley R. Sloan – Author, most recently of De-Trumping U.S. Foreign Policy: Can Biden Bring America Back?

In my 1985 book, I developed the term and concept of a “new transatlantic bargain” in which the European allies took on more of the burdens and leadership roles in NATO. The need for improved burden sharing drove American perspectives on the alliance before and ever since. It also inspired much European rhetoric, without substantial real increases in capabilities.

The threat of a second Trump presidency cannot be discounted, particularly because his attacks on NATO strike a chord with a minority but vocal part of the American electorate. Moreover, many who worked inside the first Trump White House think we should believe his threat to remove the U.S. commitment and encourage Russian President Putin’s aggression.

The fact is that turning around the ship of European defense complacency will be a challenge, even with the evidence provided by Putin’s threatening words and actions. It is also likely that defense and deterrence in Europe will rely on a leading American role for many years to come, even in the best of cases. If the U.S. electorate rejects Trump’s candidacy for a second term, transatlantic defense relations would nonetheless be healthier politically and stronger defensively with more substantial European and Canadian defense efforts.

Carsten Søndergaard – Former Danish ambassador to Russia, Ireland, NATO, Germany, and Turkey

The short answer is that there is movement in that direction. But Europe is still very much behind the curve.

There is generally more focus on the need to increase defense budgets. But in some countries the wish to strengthen the industrial base has been given a higher priority, despite the situation in Ukraine. No ammunition to Ukraine before the factory is up and running! It remains to be seen whether such a position is sustainable.

In some countries the higher priority is due to the threat perception. Hence there is broad political support. Even the idea of conscription is being revisited. But in other countries you can detect the attitude of “we have to do it due to our membership of NATO”. It is striking that the membership fee-argument still plays such a role.

Donald Trump’s recent statements about NATO have triggered a debate in Europe—also about nuclear weapons. Many Europeans have expressed concern. The way ahead for Europe to avoid a very difficult debate about nuclear weapons is simply to do more on defense and support Ukraine in winning—not because Donald Trump says so, but because it is in Europe’s interest.

Paul Taylor – Senior fellow at Friends of Europe

West European leaders are talking the talk on strengthening their defenses, but most are not yet walking the walk—in terms of major increases in defense budgets, supplies to Ukraine, rebuilding European defense industries, military recruitment or resilience. Central European states closer to Russia are leading the way but Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands must do more.

We hear warnings of a potential Russian attack on NATO within 4 to 10 years, but we’re not seeing enough action to provide urgently needed kit to Ukraine now—German Taurus missiles, F-16 combat aircraft, more Patriot air defense batteries and artillery munitions.

Nor are we yet seeing long-term orders, coordinated investment in expanded production capabilities, jointly defining equipment needs or buying equipment in common. European Commissioner Thierry Breton will present a European defense industrial strategy this month. It must lead to joint investments, backed by common borrowing leveraged on the EU budget or European Investment Bank loans, to plug key capability gaps identified by NATO and the EDA.

The EU must change regulations to spur private investors to fund defense industry expansion. We need a whole-of-society effort to improve resilience against hybrid warfare, and a whole-of-Europe drive, including the UK, Norway, and Switzerland, to renew our infrastructure for military reinforcements. That would make defense a real priority across Europe.

Pierre Vimont – Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

As America’s military assistance to Ukraine confronts opposition in the U.S. Congress and EU nations are becoming increasingly aware that Ukraine’s future may in the end rest solely on their shoulders, the longstanding unfinished business of European defense lays bare.

With the growing possibility of former president Donald Trump moving back to the White House in November, a new awareness among Europeans strikes deeper with the fear that Europe’s long-term security may be at stake. There is little doubt this wakeup call stretches over the whole EU. But to conclude that security is now the top priority for all EU members would be far-fetched.

As too often with the EU, deeds lag behind words. More than half of the member states are still short of the 2 percent goal of gross domestic product and the numerous calls for European defense industries to move into war mode have not yet delivered the expected results.

This reality check only highlights that, for Europe to make defense its top priority, a complete new strategic mindset must be installed with both Brussels institutions and member states mobilizing and coordinating their efforts and persuading EU citizens that a more security-oriented Europe must now take priority over other union tasks.

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