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Foreign Policy, Opinion

How Europe Can Cooperate for a Stronger Defense

Today, we feature a piece by Lee Ciocia, a junior in CAS studying International Relations. His policy interests include international security, economic development, and public health, especially with regards to nutrition policy and mental illness.

In the midst of an ongoing debt crisis, the task of deficit reduction has forced some European Union member states to make significant cuts to their budgets. Defense spending, which since the advent of NATO has made up a small percent of European budgets, has been a popular target for cuts. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, the majority of middle-sized European countries has cut defense spending by 10 to 15 percent on average. European military powerhouses like Germany and the UK have decided to cut defense budgets by 8 percent between 2011 and 2015. The most recent data on military expenditures released by the European Union shows that 12 European countries decreased defense spending between 2011 and 2012. If spending is telling of policymakers’ priorities, then it’s safe to say that Europe has put defense concerns on the backburner for the coming years.

Compounding the problem of shrinking military budgets are low levels of military coordination between European countries. The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), a framework which in part governs how the EU runs military operations, is paralyzed by its inability to utilize enough European troops to create and command a military of a national scale; this in turn is caused by the reluctance of EU member states to relinquish national security sovereignty. Instances in which EU countries do come together to pool troops are small and insufficient. The Eurocorps, the EU’s largest military group, can only total up to 60,000 soldiers at one time. The Headquarters 1 (German/Netherlands) Corps can accommodate up to 50,000 soldiers, some of which are provided by non-EU member states like Turkey and the U.S. And the Lancaster House Treaties, which were signed by the British and the French, only apply to the British and the French. All other coordinated military groups are for foreign crisis intervention, not defense.

Not so long ago, this severe lack of defensive capabilities would have been a non-issue. The responsibility of defending European democracies since the Cold War traditionally fell to NATO, which was (and still is) primarily funded by the U.S.

But that was then, and this is now. The U.S.’ strategic pivot to Asia and its deep cuts to military spending as a result of the budget sequestration have shifted American military resources away from Europe. In 2012, President Obama announced $487 billion in cuts to the Pentagon. As part of those cuts, the U.S. Army removed two of its brigades stationed in Europe, which the Washington Post estimated would result in a reduction of about 10-15,000 soldiers. This would leave, under 2012 estimates, 30,000 troops in Europe by 2017, a reduction of more than half from the original figure of 80,000. In terms of personnel numbers, the Pentagon has considered bringing the size of the Army down to 420,000 soldiers by 2019 from over 500,000 soldiers today. All in all, the total spending cuts leading up to 2015 will downsize the Army to pre-World War II levels.

This doesn’t bode well for the American presence in Europe. U.S. defense officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as free riding on the part of European countries. For example, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented in 2011 that most European countries weren’t meeting the amount of military spending recommended by NATO, which is two percent of GDP. If they continued down the path of spending cuts, he warned, European countries would risk “collective military irrelevance”. His successor, Leon Panetta, echoed the sentiment. The current Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, has called for increased military spending in Europe, noting that “America’s contributions in NATO remain starkly disproportionate”. Although the U.S. in 2013 still accounts for the vast majority of major NATO military expenditures (73 percent to be exact), American policymakers have made it clear that U.S. support to Europe won’t last. For the moment, the U.S.’ priorities lie in the Pacific Basin.

Of course, the whole issue with declining European defense budgets presupposes that there’s a credible threat to Europe’s security, which in turn merits more resources being put forth for defense. Historically, Europe has been its own greatest threat; it spent centuries tearing itself apart in dynastic feuds and worldwide conquests. In more recent memory, European countries worked out their long-held distrust for each other to form the EU, which along with the U.S. presence in the region, secured peace and greater prosperity for the Continent against a looming Soviet threat. The dissolution of the USSR and the tumultuous early years of the Russian Federation led European countries to focus on social welfare at the expense of defense, and rightfully so–Europe had never been more secure until that point in time.

Vladimir Putin’s time as President of Russia has changed all of this. Russia under Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev in the interim) has become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy toward Europe, utilizing its military to bring former Soviet satellites into its sphere of influence. Cyberattacks attributed to the Kremlin in 2007 shut down Estonian government websites, daily newspapers, and even its biggest bank. In 2008, Russian and Georgian forces clashed in a dispute over who would govern South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist region in Georgia which few states in the international community regard as legitimate. And just last month, Putin requested, and the Russian parliament approved, a military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which since the breakup of the Soviet Union has legally belonged to Ukraine. As Russia forcefully expands its influence closer to the EU periphery, the prospect of liberal democracy in non-EU member states greatly diminishes, and the security threat to EU countries increases. And worst of all, without U.S. support, the EU won’t be able to do anything about it.

The EU doesn’t have to succumb to a hawkish Moscow. Collectively, the EU has the potential to field a strong military which can adequately provide for Europe’s defense without the US having to get involved. The major problem with forming such a force thus far has been the political and operational issues. For example, who would command such a military? How much would each member state and/or associated state have to contribute to maintain the military? How would the EU decide (at least somewhat democratically) when and where to deploy its military? Precise answers to those questions could fill several white papers. Here, I only want to give the criteria and a basic outline of what a strong, inter-European defense could look like.

First and foremost, an EU military would need to strike the balance between being rapidly deployable and democratically controlled. It’s important for EU member states to reach a consensus when it comes to launching large-scale operations, but at the same time, the threshold for reaching a decision through voting shouldn’t be so high that it hampers a rapid response when needed. The latter presents a major problem for a unified European military under current EU law: according to the CSDP, efforts to create a common defense require unanimous approval from all EU member states. In the case of a sudden attack, this becomes very restrictive–if just one country refuses to vote in favor of military action, the undertaking is doomed. Europe won’t be able to raise a sufficiently strong military if it’s burdened by unanimity.

The second issue with establishing an EU military is that of financing. Namely, how much should each country contribute toward maintaining the military? Countries with smaller economic output will naturally contribute less toward expenditures, and this raises the fear of free riding among larger countries. There’s no plausible way to change this dynamic, so the method for financing a European military will have to incentivize larger economies to help pay for the defense of smaller ones. The key question to answer here is this: what should larger economies get in return for their disproportionate contributions to the budget?

There are many other dimensions to establishing an EU military that there isn’t room to delve into here. Some dimensions are quite important, but only after a military is created. For instance, how free would national militaries be to pursue their respective countries’ interests while they have an obligation to contribute troops and resources to the EU-wide military? (If a European military sticks solely to defense and not intervention, probably very free.) Likewise, some issues are just a matter of letting politics play its course. The appointment of a general to command the EU military is sure to raise nationalistic squabbling, but much like the appointment of Cabinet officials in the U.S., a qualified person would likely be sworn in regardless. So, in designing the foundational rules upon which a Euromilitary could function, I look back to the two issues that I brought up previously: financing and commanding.

The most logical way to finance a Euromilitary is to charge member states based upon the size of their military budgets. Each member state would pay some percentage of their military budget; the percentage would be determined by a vote in the European Defence Agency (EDA) every four years. Countries which don’t want to contribute any money for the Euromilitary in a given year would have the opportunity to opt out that year. The countries which choose to opt out would not be able to participate in the voting procedures of the Euromilitary and would not be entitled to any defense provided by it, either. This pooling of EU military budgets has the potential to form a well-funded military. If a combination of countries which makes up only half of the combined EU military budgets opts in, the Euromilitary would have a budget of about €91 billion. If official figures are accurate, this is greater than Russia’s military budget of $61 billion in 2012.

The second major issue with creating a Euromilitary is figuring out how to command it. More specifically, how would the EU decide on when and where to deploy the Euromilitary, and how would it do that while preserving the democratic essence of European governance and incentivizing larger European economies to contribute? As I alluded to before, the answer is a voting system which takes into account the contributions of each country. The mechanics of the voting system are relatively simple: each country that contributes money to the Euromilitary would be allowed to petition the EDA to use some portion of the Euromilitary’s capabilities in the case of attack from another country. The contributing nations would then conduct a vote on the petition. The weight of each vote would be determined by the percent of each country’s contribution to the total Euromilitary budget–this would be its vote share. The table below shows the military budgets and vote shares assuming that most EU countries choose to participate.




If the vote shares total more than 50 percent, then the petition succeeds, and the Euromilitary must act to defend the country or countries listed in the petition. If it fails, the Euromilitary cannot take action. In this way, the EU can deploy troops in a democratic manner, avoid political paralysis in times of a security crisis, and incentivize larger economies to contribute.

It’s doubtful that every member of the EU will want to sign on to a Euromilitary. After all, in the short run, Western European countries are safe from conventional military threats. Here, however, Europe needs to think about the long run. How safe will these countries be if, defenseless, they come up against a Russia which is eager to re-assert itself in the West? If the situation in Ukraine is any indication, then not very safe at all.

-Lee Ciocia



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