Following the end of the Cold War, Europe enjoyed a so-called peace dividend, and security and defense policy were pushed to the periphery of European politics. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has moved security and defense back to a more central position in European politics. The return of interstate war in Europe has also led to an increased focus on deterrence and territorial defense and a revival of NATO. What does it mean for the future of the European Union’s security and defense policy, not least given the latter’s traditional emphasis on “low-intensity” crisis management operations outside of Europe?
To be sure, the need to strengthen deterrence against a nuclear-capable great power underscores NATO’s role as the first port of call for most European countries, including EU member states. There is a debate about how Article 42.7 of the EU Treaty provides a foundation for collective defense in an EU context. However, Finland and Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership sends an unambiguous signal: when it comes to the core business of deterrence and defense, the European Union is no match for NATO. This is hardly surprising.
The European Union’s experience with security and defense is relatively recent, and has focused primarily on low-intensity crisis management operations outside of Europe, often “civilian” or “civ-mil” in nature, rather than military. Other than a small, supporting cell, the EU has no standing assets for the military planning, command and control of operations, and no experience in the area of deterrence and defense. Moreover, it explicitly acknowledges NATO’s primacy when it comes to deterrence and territorial defense.
For its part, the Atlantic Alliance has a state-of-the-art multinational command and control structure, highly developed processes for defense and force planning, prepositioned forces and assets under its command and critically, it includes the United States and United Kingdom, two nuclear powers that extend nuclear deterrence guarantees over all allied territory.
Should the European Union, then, simply give up, leave the business of deterrence and collective defense in Europe to NATO, and stick to low-intensity crisis management operations and partner capacity-building beyond Europe? No. Doing so would condemn the European Union to strategic and political irrelevance, which would ultimately weaken Europe and the NATO alliance.
But how can the European Union contribute to deterrence and territorial defense in Europe? Even as it recognizes NATO’s lead, the European Union can still play an indirect but critical contribution by helping to resource and enable deterrence and defense. Indeed, when it comes to industrial and technological innovation or the development of military capabilities—so critical to underpinning deterrence—the European Union holds significant competitive advantages. Its operation of a significant multiannual budget, its ample experience in areas like research, technology or industry, and the wielding of specific instruments like the European Defence Fund (EDF), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PeSCo), the European Peace Facility (EPF) or the recently proposed European Defense Industry through common Procurement Act (EDIRPA) underscore the European Union’s potential to help generate the technologies, capabilities, and skillsets needed for deterrence. Even if such technologies, capabilities, and skillsets are eventually channeled operationally through NATO, the European Union can play a critical role in generating them.
Elevating deterrence to the center of EU security and defense policy could translate into several lines of action.
First and foremost, any effort to tackle deterrence and territorial defense in an EU context should be done in close coordination with NATO, and would require a radical reconceptualization of the EU-NATO relationship. So far, EU-NATO relations have been primarily structured around external crisis management, even if the recent EU-NATO declaration includes references to cooperation in areas like cyber, space, resilience, or military mobility. As already argued, NATO will likely remain at the front end of any operational initiatives aimed at strengthening deterrence, and thus at ascertaining what kind of operational concepts, capabilities, and skillsets are required for deterrence. For its part, the European Union can play a critical role in the enabling and resourcing of deterrence by helping fund and acquire the technologies, capabilities and skillsets needed. Ultimately, that would require a strengthened link between NATO’s defense planning process and EU initiatives on technological innovation, capability development, and arms procurement.
Deterrence and territorial defense should be at the center of the implementation—and eventual revision—of the EU Strategic Compass, a document which outlines the European Union’s strategic priorities in the area of security and defense. Concretely, deterrence-related considerations should inform work in at least three of the compass’s four so-called baskets: capability development, partnerships, and resilience. While the European Union should not abandon the fourth basket (external crisis management) or, for that matter, capacity-building efforts outside of Europe, the environment for such endeavors will become less and less permissive politically and militarily. Critically, the European Union should acknowledge that low-intensity crisis management operations outside of Europe should take a back seat in relation to deterrence and collective defense, not least at a time when the European security architecture is under attack.
The European Union should focus its spending on efforts to strengthen deterrence. Such “deterrence first” thinking should then transpire onto EU defense financial mechanisms, and spearhead a necessary expansion of EDF and EPF, a prioritization of EDIRPA, and their reorientation toward deterrence and territorial defense. These instruments present two sets of shortcomings. First, they have been primarily framed around the need to resource and enable low-intensity crisis management operations outside of Europe—even though the EPF has been recently redirected toward supporting Ukraine, and EDIRPA was proposed after the Russian invasion. Secondly, and relatedly, the amounts currently assigned or discussed in the context of these financial vehicles are insufficient to spur the necessary adaptation of EU member state technologies, capabilities, and skillsets to meet the impending deterrence and territorial defense challenge.
The European Commission should consider elevating defense modernization to the top echelon of its political-strategic priorities, alongside the green transition and digital transformation. This could have a number of practical and concrete implications, such as the application of possible exemptions for defense spending in the context of the Stability and Growth Pact —which outlines maximum limits for government deficit and debt—and in ongoing debates about the future of European fiscal rules. Additionally, the commission could consider including defense modernization in the context of NextGeneration EU, an economic recovery package to help European countries recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has nonetheless turned into a broader vehicle to further Europe’s green transition and digital transformation. Defense modernization should be part of the mix.
The United States’ Role in European Security
Trends in U.S. national security and defense thinking—notably the increasing prioritization of China and the Indo-Pacific theater—seem to provide an additional incentive for a rebalancing of European security policy toward deterrence and territorial defense. Against the backdrop of growing Chinese assertiveness and Russian revisionism, there is much debate about the challenges associated with resourcing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe simultaneously, and even the prospect of a two-front war.
Some argue that the (so far successful) experience in Ukraine could be an attractive model for the United States to navigate the problem of strategic simultaneity. The logic is that preparing to fight two high-intensity wars against two near-peer competitors simultaneously is far more challenging than preparing to fight one war directly and another by proxy, à la Ukraine. Such ideas raise several questions. For one thing, it is unclear whether the one war the United States should prepare for is war against China or any war involving a great power—the former would require Pacific-centric capabilities: the latter all-purpose war capabilities. It goes without saying that these are ideal-type dilemmas. For one thing, U.S. force structure will probably have to strike some balance between prioritizing China and preserving all-purpose war capabilities. For another, even if the U.S. Department of Defense were to prioritize fighting a direct war with China, and approach any other contingencies indirectly, there are degrees in how directly or indirectly the United States might fight.
Though a prioritization of China may reduce the United States’ margin of strategic and operational maneuver elsewhere, Europe should still expect a meaningful U.S. role in deterring and defending against threats to European security. Such a role would include not only the enabling of European operations (i.e., through command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) or the provision of strategic cover (e.g., missile defense, cyber defense, electronic warfare, nuclear deterrence) but also a contribution to conventional deterrence and defense, even if a diminishing one. This logic appears to be broadly in line with the 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy, which clearly identifies the Indo-Pacific as the priority region and argues that U.S. posture in Europe “will focus on command and control, fires, and key enablers that complement our NATO Allies’ capabilities and strengthen deterrence by increasing combat credibility.”
How direct or indirect the United States’ strategic role in Europe will be in the coming years will ultimately be informed by U.S. domestic politics, and will also enable developments in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. At any rate, however, the pressure for a stronger European role in conventional deterrence and defense is only likely to intensify. This has already triggered debates within NATO about the need for Europeans to play a greater role in conventional deterrence and defense. The European Union should thus take part in that broader rebalancing toward deterrence and defense in European political and strategic thinking.
Luis Simón is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and director of the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute.