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EU Defense Cooperation: Threat or Benefit for NATO?

Britain has long opposed an EU defense identity fearing it would undermine NATO. Post Brexit, the remaining 27 members can forge ahead.

October 12, 2016

EU flags in front of EU building in Brussels

Britain has always been a somewhat half-hearted member of the EU. The country has been reluctant to hand over competences to Brussels and principally opposed to “ever closer union” — even as it was eager to widen the EU’s membership.

As a reluctant (and soon to be ex) participant in European integration, the British worldview has been, and continues to be, Atlanticist rather than European.

As a firmly Altanticist nation, Britain has been vehemently opposed to any EU military structures. It deemed NATO as the one and only framework for providing security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

But with Britain set to leave the EU some time in 2019 – based on Theresa May’s announcement that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be triggered in March 2017 and the assumption that a successful exit is negotiated within the two-year time limit – a major obstacle to EU defense cooperation will be removed in the foreseeable future.

Determined to forge ahead

Negotiating Brexit will be a difficult and complex process that will occupy politicians and diplomats on both sides of the English Channel for some time. Even so, there are signs that the EU is determined that this will not prevent its defense agenda from progressing.

France and Germany have been leading calls for enhanced European defense cooperation (such as a permanent EU military headquarters and the sharing of military assets).

The Franco-German proposals were outlined by French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen in September 2016.

Von der Leyen called for a European defense union – initially comprised of a core group, but open to all EU members – comparing it to a “Schengen of defense.”

The recent EU summit in Bratislava – at which Britain was not represented – saw Franco-German proposals for defense cooperation generally well received by member states. The plan is therefore not just a Franco-German objective, but is likely to enjoy wider support in a 28-1 member EU.

Pooling and sharing: The European Defense Agency

A concrete example of how European defense collaboration could benefit from Brexit is the European Defence Agency (EDA).

The EDA was established in 2004 to “support the Member States and the Council in their effort to improve European defense capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future.” Its three main missions are to:

1. Support the development of European defense capabilities and military cooperation

2. Stimulate defense research and technology to strengthen Europe’s defense industry

3. Act as a military interface to EU policies

An increase in the EDA’s meager budget has been vetoed in the past by Britain. With its veto gone post Brexit – and given the generally positive reception of the Franco-German proposals at the Bratislava summit – a future budget increase for the EDA is a distinct possibility.

A better funded EDA would be better able to fulfil its role as facilitator for European defense collaboration. For defense procurement for example, collaboration is the key.

Pooling expertise and sharing development costs means that participating member states will have more funds left over to buy more units of each weapon system. This leads to better equipped armed forces — and hence improved capabilities.

European defense in context

As a continent, Europe has seen its military capabilities progressively dwindle. Years of defense spending cutbacks combined with ongoing inefficiencies in equipment procurement has left many of its core militaries severely depleted.

At the same time, the security challenges facing Europe have increased and diversified significantly. Terrorism, civil wars on its periphery, the migrant crisis and a resurgent Russia combine to form a complex, multidimensional and challenging threat environment that Europe cannot simply ignore.

Europe’s unpreparedness – at least in the military sense – can be plainly seen in NATO’s response to the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Though clearly in Europe’s backyard, it was the United States that led the way in reassuring eastern European NATO allies by deploying military hardware east.

The deficiencies in European defense capability – at least in relation to the US – are undeniable. Only a handful of European member states spend the 2% on defense stipulated by NATO rules. Britain is one of them.

As the EU will be occupied with the still unresolved eurozone and migrant crises for some time, significant increases in defense expenditures in the near to medium future are unlikely.

In light of these realities, any European initiative to improve its military capabilities through collaboration – and if not spending more then at least spending better – could go some way to mitigate the negative effects of tight defense budgets.

A threat or a benefit for NATO?

That European defense cooperation is a threat to NATO is mainly a British obsession. The British fear is that duplicating NATO structures is the first step in the creation of an EU army and an eventual EU super-state which would undermine (or even break up) the trans-Atlantic alliance.

But the U.S., which provides the majority of NATO’s hard power, has long accused Europe of not taking its alliance commitments seriously and “free-riding” on its collective defense guarantee.

A more capable Europe less dependent on the US would mean a more balanced NATO which, at present, is severely lopsided.

If anything, re-balancing the alliance by Europe contributing more to its capability would be welcomed by the U.S. government and ensure its continued engagement. The move would thus strengthen, not weaken, the alliance.

Defense cooperation inside the EU should not be seen as an attempt to replace NATO, but rather as an opportunity to complement it. As such, it would contribute to security in the euro-Atlantic area, which includes the security of Britain.


That European defense cooperation is a threat to NATO is mainly a British obsession.

Defense cooperation inside the EU shouldn't be seen as an attempt to replace NATO -- rather as an opportunity to complement it.

A more capable Europe less dependent on the U.S. would mean a more balanced NATO.

France and Germany have been leading calls for enhanced European defense cooperation.