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Getting serious about European defence

Jun 02,2022 - Last updated at Jun 02,2022

BRUSSELS — Russia’s war in Ukraine has forced the European Union to address longstanding strategic challenges. The most immediate task is to end Europe’s dependence on Russian energy imports, and this process is now underway, with a gradual oil embargo that will reach 90 per cent by the end of the year.

More broadly, Europe must also develop an effective security and defence policy, as well as the capabilities required to implement it. While this ambition itself is not new, there is a fresh impetus for it. Russia’s war makes clear that we need a step change toward greater pooling of defense investments. That was the main conclusion from the European Council’s discussion about defence this week.

No two political problems are identical. Sometimes, a challenge seems so new and unprecedented that it cannot be addressed until there has been a proper assessment of a changed landscape. And sometimes, the solutions are known but the resources for them are lacking. The European security and defense debate falls into a third category: The diagnosis and prescriptions are clear, but there has been a deficit of political will.

We have known for years — even decades — that European governments have been spending too little on defence, and in too fragmented a manner. The result is that we lack the military capabilities to guarantee our own security or serve as a capable partner for NATO. We need to spend more, and we need to do more of that spending together.

Over the years, many European politicians, institutions, defense ministries, think tanks, and others have issued reports and proposals calling for more and better defence spending. These exhortations have reflected a clear and firm consensus among experts on the issue. Moreover, in 2004, the EU created the European Defense Agency (EDA) to support member states with joint research, development, and procurement projects.

But many countries cut their defense spending following the 2008 financial crisis, reducing the shares of their budgets devoted to collaborative security investments. Since then, governments have too often paid lip service to joint spending while continuing to put national procurement first (often for political reasons, such as to support domestic industries and employment).

The net result has been dramatic. Between 2009 and 2018, member states’ cuts amounted to an aggregate defense underspending of around 160 billion euros ($171 billion). Worse, many others around the world have raced ahead. In the last 20 years, EU combined defence spending increased by only 20 per cent, compared to 66 per cent for the United States, almost 300 per cent for Russia and 600 per cent for China. Even more alarmingly, Europe reached a new low in 2021, when only 8 per cent of equipment spending went toward collaborative investments — a far cry from the 35 per cent that EU member states themselves have set as a target.

This underspending and lack of collaboration is costing EU countries (and thus taxpayers) tens of billions of euros per year, because of redundant spending and inefficiencies. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is within our own power to change course, and we already know the way. 

Through the Strategic Compass, EU institutions and all 27 member states have drawn up a roadmap. We have tools and frameworks in place — starting with the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund — to help member states pursue research, development, and investments in a more coordinated manner.

But other pieces still need to fall in place. We must provide financial incentives for joint procurement and move toward more strategic programming. We also need to strengthen the EU’s defence industrial and technological base by supporting research and development and harnessing the potential of disruptive new technologies. As I told European leaders this week when they endorsed this approach, both the European Commission and the EDA can help with coordination.

Yes, it is a cliché in European politics to say that we lack only the political will to use the tools at our disposal. But clichés are generally true. We Europeans tend to make tough decisions only when we have tried everything else and are facing an acute crisis.

Those conditions have clearly been met. We are watching Russia wage a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine — one that has underscored Europe’s own vulnerabilities, revealing longstanding capability deficits and new needs (such as to refill our depleted stocks). Moreover, this crisis comes on top of many other threats, both in our own neighborhood and beyond. European interests are being challenged in all strategic domains, including cyber, maritime, and space.

We need to develop the means to protect ourselves in a dangerous world. That will require not just more defence spending but better defence spending. To ensure our collective security, we must invest more together.


Josep Borrell, high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is vice president of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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