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Europe’s defense efforts remain underwhelming

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Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe’s futures fellow at IWM, Vienna, and a board member of ENI. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is now out with Polity.

Europe’s security order was broken well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

It was broken in the 2000s, when Russia invaded Georgia and began weaponizing energy. It was broken in the 2010s, when the Arab Spring slipped and gave rise to jihadi terrorism, shaking European capitals in its wake, and again when Russia annexed Crimea. It was then broken in the 2020s, when the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that interdependence, especially with China, isn’t just a source of peace and prosperity but also cause for insecurity and alarm. 

As this insecurity has mounted and the transatlantic bond strained under Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, Europeans started talking about defense — and it didn’t just boil down to words. 

Yet, in light of the dramatic deterioration of the Continent’s security environment, these recent defense efforts remain underwhelming. This isn’t only because of the war in Ukraine, the moribund nuclear deal with Iran, the risks of conflict escalation in the East Mediterranean and the Caucasus, the ongoing violence in Libya, or even the growing instability in the Sahel — it’s also because these crises are now deeply intertwined. And a lot still falls on individual member countries — not just the bloc as a whole. 

In recent years, the national defense budgets of European countries — while generally remaining short of the 2 percent of GDP mark set out by NATO — started rising. The EU also cobbled together a European Defence Fund that, while standing at “only” €8 billion for 2021 to 2027, matches the national research and development budget of a sizeable member country; and the European Commission is now the third largest investor in defense technologies in the bloc, after France and Germany.  

Then, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, European countries boosted their defense budgets even further. France has been increasing its spending by 7.4 percent year on year, with the goal reaching 2 percent of GDP in 2023. While, the United Kingdom and Poland, already above the 2 percent mark, are looking to spend what would see their defense budgets rise to 2.5 percent and 3 percent respectively.  

Meanwhile, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, and the Baltic and Nordic countries have all announced plans to increase their spending to at least 2 percent, and the laggards in southern and western Europe have stepped up too. Most significant is Germany’s announcement of an additional €100 billion in 2022, bringing its defense budget to 1.6 percent, and on a trajectory to reach 2 percent.  

On top of this, EU member countries have also activated their European Peace Facility to channel military assistance to Ukraine. And while its €3 billion pales compared to the $50 billion in assistance approved by the United States Congress, it is still unprecedented.  

Yet, as the geopolitical environment shifts, there’s still much more that can, and should, be done. Gone are the days in which conflicts were neatly divided between east and south, with some members catering to the former and others the latter, while bickering over which is the priority. 

Instead, today we see Russia making its presence felt not only in Libya and the Sahel, but in sub-Saharan Africa too. No wonder that no new gas supplies are expected from Libya. No surprise either that when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured Africa last summer, he visited countries like Egypt and the Republic of Congo, which are among Europe’s future LNG suppliers. 

And all this is happening while Europeans are in relative retreat from north and sub-Saharan Africa. With France having abdicated its security leadership in the Sahel as it was forced to leave Mali, European defense isn’t stepping up to its responsibility in this area — in fact, quite the opposite.  

As the war in Ukraine rages on, Germany brought its defense budget to 1.6 percent, and on a trajectory to reach 2 percent | Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

Overall, it looks like the east has now gone south, while the south is moving east — and nowhere is this clearer than with Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine war through the sale of drones, and possibly ballistic missiles, to Russia.

Certainly, there are material reasons motivating Tehran siding with Moscow — from the need for cash and grain to Russian fighter jets — but it’s hard to not see the political-strategic rationale too, which includes showcasing the country’s military capacity to its neighbors, signaling that it has given up on Europe and isn’t too shy to meddle in its affairs. 

Implicit in Iran’s choice is also the fact that the nuclear deal is most likely dead, and amid domestic unrest in the country, this implies that the risk of regional escalation is on the rise.  

Meanwhile, the strategic predicament facing the U.S. is becoming ever clearer. With growing tensions between Washington and an increasingly nationalistic Beijing, and the risk of war in Asia rising by the day, the 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy indicates that the U.S. will focus on China first and Russia second — and it won’t be able to fight two regional wars at once.  

The headwinds against European defense have always been strong. And today, the increase in the Continent’s demand for defense isn’t driving a parallel surge in European supply, but rather increasing European defense fragmentation and dependence on the U.S. 

Defense fragmentation has long been a problem for Europe. And while the increase in spending is welcome, it could paradoxically exacerbate the problem, with uncoordinated national short-term procurement decisions having long-term impact on the composition of the armed forces.  

EU institutions may be setting up funds and programs, but they are unlikely to reverse the tide, as these initiatives focus on long-term development and procurement, and they do not — and cannot — meet the short-term need to plug equipment gaps. Moreover, they can’t be a surrogate for the decisions that member countries need to take individually. 

With defense remaining a national competence, it’s up to European countries to radically revise how they think and act on their multi-billion national defense programs. There is only so much nudging Brussels can do.  



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