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NATO’s way or the highway: will Europe hit the road?


NATO’s way or the highway: will Europe hit the road?


Europe’s independent militaries are ill-organised and reliant on the US, but with rising autocracies and faltering democracies threatening conflict, the pressure is on the EU to make sure it can stand on its own.


– Europe stands at a precipice as it decides whether to stay in NATO or strike out on its own
– The EU could respond more quickly and effectively to military crises and earn more credibility on the diplomatic stage with an independent military force
– An autonomous force would struggle with disparate goals and separated defence industries


Security concerns are back in the spotlight, with the number of armed conflicts at its highest since 1946 and the total number of democracies in decline. These simmering concerns reached a boiling point in Europe when, in mid-November, French President Emmanuel Macron gave an interview with the Economist in which he said that NATO was ‘brain-dead’.

NATO has historically relied on the US to ensure European security. But as the souring relations between Turkey and other NATO members have shown, allegiances are no longer as clear as they were during the Cold War era. The US has placed economic sanctions on Turkey after Ankara acquired Russian S-400 anti-air defence systems and over the detainment of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Meanwhile, 58% of Germans want Turkey out of NATO after Ankara ordered an invasion of northern Syria. These conflicts are signs of internal discord that undermine the credibility of NATO’s core promise that an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all.

Concerns about collective defence have been exacerbated by the decreasing credibility of America’s Cold War pledge to ‘trade Boston for Bonn’. The US has closed hundreds of military bases in Europe since the 1990s and the US troop presence in Europe has declined by 75%, with only Italy holding a constant number of troops (11,500) since the end of the Cold War. If Europe were to come under imminent threat, the US has far fewer resources to commit to European security, leaving the immediate defence largely in European hands.


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Photo: Cpl. Kevin Sterling Payne/U.S. Army

The unreliability of US support is not on its own a strong enough reason for Europe to consider military autonomy. Several figures have made arguments for the increasingly peaceful state of international affairs, such as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who points to the decline of wars and death tolls in conflicts. In 2016, US President Barack Obama told the UN “[o]ur international order has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight wars.” With arguments such as these, Europe’s relaxed approach to security would seem justified. Yet despite these arguments, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and support for military activity in Ukraine’s eastern regions, the US-China trade war and the Indian revocation of Kashmir’s special status suggest world tensions are high.

In this environment, the EU has begun to find itself increasingly isolated and unprepared for future conflicts. The 2017 and 2018 US national defence and security strategies identified Europe and the Indo-Pacific as regions for great power competition. With America’s isolationist turn under the Trump administration and US resources increasingly stretched, Europe may perceive itself as vulnerable. Readiness and responsiveness are a major problem: the total number of deployable EU land forces dropped by 13% between 2013 and 2014, and the number of sustainable land forces dropped by 28%. This leaves the EU exposed to rapid strikes from rival powers, to which its US ally may only be able to respond by escalating the conflict.


Photo: CaptainMeo/Pixabay

Europe’s first major obstacle to an autonomous military force is achieving cooperation among the EU leaders. Macron has advocated strongly for a Europe-centric approach, raising concerns among other European nations that NATO may be splintering. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a November speech that it was her belief that “any strengthening of European defense also strengthens NATO’s European pillar”, whereas the “French are seeking strong European cooperation to replace NATO.” To bolster NATO, pro-alliance member states such as Poland, the Baltic states and Germany may invest more heavily in their military capabilities, shoring up the European members to defend themselves and assist a US intervention if called upon to do so. Indeed, Kramp-Karrenbauer has pledged to raise defence spending to a level that would make Germany the third-largest military spender in the world.

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The second obstacle is that Europe’s military-industrial complex is divided across 154 different weapon systems compared to the US’s 27. This impedes efforts to deploy combined arms operations, and makes arms more expensive to maintain and produce due to the nature of economies of scale. For example, the EU currently flies three different fighter jets: France’s Rafale, Sweden’s Gripen and the Eurofighter flown by Italy, the UK and Germany. Pilots trained to fly one jet must be retrained to fly the other two jets, and the UK, Germany and Sweden do not produce spare parts for the Rafale, making it more difficult to maintain.

Duplication of equipment and lack of cooperation currently costs the EU €25 billion per year, while not providing any greater improvement in defence capabilities. However, the costs of streamlining the industry are also stark. Many EU countries rely on their defence industries to create jobs and bolster the economy. Airbus, for example, employs 129,442 employees. Merging the defence industry would shrink Airbus’ military wing, costing jobs — and most likely votes. Expand this scenario to include the tank manufacturers and other defence industries, and the political and economic costs become apparent.

The EU has already made small steps towards improving their situation. The European border coast guard has increased funding by 26% and a €13 billion European Defence Fund will bolster the European militaries and encourage European cooperation. But if the EU is to protect and project its liberal ideas in the new world order, it needs to do a lot more to procure an effective military body.

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