The Future of the EU Security in a Time of Transatlantic Uncertainty

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The integration of EU member defense institutions will improve security across Europe, but can only be accomplished through doctrinalization and subsidization from within. With effective consensus between European partners, a robust subsidy regime will likely follow. But it must move quickly. Europe’s ability to depend on its transatlantic partner has not faced this much uncertainty since 1939. The only certainty: Russia is watching and biding its time. To secure itself against this eastern threat, Europe must push forward its defense development with or without NATO.

Of course, efforts for security cooperation are not new. European Battle Groups were proposed as early as 1999 to encourage joint operations between EU states. However, this program only became operational in 2007 and has faced a number of challenges since its inception, such as an insurmountable bureaucratic process and lack of political will to subject domestic units to a multinational chain of command. Since their operationalization, Battle Groups have not seen combat. An additional challenge to European security integration: the loss of the United Kingdom, and its substantial military capacity, has given Theresa May greater political latitude to refuse surrendering Britain’s operational control to a multinational chain of command, if she so desires.

Brexit also presents a unique opportunity for Europe to deepen its security integration. The United Kingdom has consistently opposed proposals for European defense cooperation. In the months since the Brexit vote, key European policymakers were freed from British obstruction and pushed forward a broad spending spree to foster joint cooperation and increase access to military technologies. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has been the major proponent of this push on defense. But she has not acted alone.

NATO’s brittle force structure in Europe is a remnant of Obama-era austerity measures that saw a drawdown of U.S. forces across the globe. While NATO support does not appear to be faltering, there remain uncertainties surrounding U.S. commitment to European security. Paired with a sudden freedom from British obstruction, Europe must seize this opportunity to improve its material posture against Russia, and foster a culture of cooperation and consensus between European militaries. Now is the time to develop a permanent and doctrinal European force structure, and to move beyond the ad-hoc nature of Battle Groups.

Independent European action on security will alleviate tensions felt around America’s role in Europe - tensions that are felt on both sides of the Atlantic. These tensions, however, are short-term in nature - based somewhat in European skepticism over NATO pressures to increase national defense expenditures. Continued European integration does not supplant NATO’s role as a political institution, however. If anything, it will build new energy around NATO’s stated intent to build an effective deterrent model to prevent further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. This policy would accomplish an important strategic challenge that the United States has faced since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. The only way to accomplish this goal, however, is through EU defense subsidies.

For an example on the effectiveness of fiscal incentives, just look at American aid regimes during the Afghanistan War. In 2006, when it became clear the United States would not achieve a quick victory, it began seeking NATO support in the form of troops and materiel. This policy of multilateralism, however, met with opposition in the public opinion of many European states. To diffuse public opinion challenges and overcome policymakers’ skepticism, the United States employed a wide-ranging foreign aid regime to horse-trade for allied support. States like France and Germany, who had no need of American aid, answered America’s call but attached significant national caveats, or limitations on how their forces might be used.

Europe’s situation today is comparable but not entirely synonymous with America in Afghanistan. First, its security challenges are defensive in nature. Additionally, the states who attached national caveats in Afghanistan are now operating with some consensus on defense. As in the past, European integration depends on Franco-German cooperation. To that effect, French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel have evidenced a compact over security integration and autonomy and appear to be the willing paymasters of a European-led defense architecture.

Continued and expanded subsidies are a necessary first step to establishing a pan-European consensus on defense policy. By providing financial incentives for EU members states - especially those furthest from meeting NATO’s recommended defense expenditure - to develop interoperable military standards and invest in similar technologies, the subsidy regime will enable security policymakers to gradually move toward operational and autonomous European security in the form of multinational units with quick-reaction capabilities. This force, which may operate independently of NATO but does not reduce the institution’s importance in building transatlantic security consensus, will ensure continued European security in the face of threats from its Eastern flank.