Coalitions of the Willing: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle for European Defense
Russia’s war against Ukraine has confirmed the importance of both NATO and the EU in European security. The thinking now needs to move toward “European defense space.”
NATO or the European Union, which organization should reign supreme when it comes to integrating European security and defense policy? The question is an old one. Debates have been often been conducted with an almost theological rigor, sparking unnecessary disputes—with the media face-off between French President Emmanuel Macron and then-German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2020 the perfect example. Both ardent transatlanticists and those advocating for European strategic autonomy yet always agreed on the key issue: the need for a more capable European defense.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has ended these debates, at least momentarily, by forcing Europeans to act. It has hence led to a clarification regarding the (primary) roles of both organizations: NATO has demonstrated unity (while members such as Turkey and Hungary have played their special roles) and showcased its vital importance for territorial defense and deterrence. The EU, meanwhile, has managed to mobilize instruments from its security and economic toolkits to show that it can truly have an impact as a geopolitical actor.
While this division of labor worked effectively, the steps ahead might be more challenging, given that EU-NATO cooperation is still very much in the making. In the medium-to-long term, questions about the “burden of sharing,” as Mathieu Droin puts it, will surely resurface. In this debate “coalitions of the willing” should play a central role. They can be a powerful tool for enhancing the Europeans’ capacity to act, would bridge gaps between EU and NATO, and potentially pave the way to a “European defense space.”
Risk of Fragmentation?
The reason why coalitions of the willing were often left aside is that they are considered a “second best” option. The need for building them, one might argue, also implies that there are unwilling states blocking European defense cooperation on a specific issue or within a specific format. It also likely means that there is no consensus within the EU or among NATO allies to act—wouldn’t it be preferable to resolve the underlying conflict than maneuvering around it?
According to this reasoning, coalitions of the willing would, at best, only constitute a short-term solution to address a security problem whilst enhancing the risk of fragmentation through multi-speed defense integration. Particularly Germany, which is generally in favor of an EU-27 approach toward integration, had been wary of coalitions of the willing; the more so since the German constitution renders the deployment of military forces outside the structures of the EU, NATO, or the United Nations challenging, the argument went.
Furthermore, coalitions of the willing in European defense are also costly for member states: while the participation in missions of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) could benefit from EU funding, formerly through the Athena mechanism and today through the European Peace Facility (EPF), coalitions of the willing weigh heavily on national budgets. In other words: going “minilateral” had a financial price that European states needed to be willing to pay.
Rethinking the European Defense Space
Nevertheless, coalitions of the willing offer distinctive advantages. EU member states with a high level of ambition for European defense integration within the EU, a framework spearheaded by France, have often called for smaller groups of able and willing states, that could then benefit European defense as a whole. As they are normally created on an ad hoc basis, coalitions of the willing are mostly launched based on operational needs or concrete problems to be solved. Due to this ad hoc nature, the absence of decision-making mechanisms or bureaucratic structures often makes them more agile than existing organizations. Therefore, they can be a useful complement to existing institutions both for operational needs and for strategic thinking.
Particularly when a security crisis requires a fast answer, coalitions of the willing can help bridge gaps in Europe’s ability to act when disagreements or institutional blockage render action through the EU or NATO slow. Furthermore, they allow states willing to deepen their cooperation, for example through joint exercises or regular exchanges, to go further. This enhanced cooperation can lead to forming “core groups” either within existing organizations, or across organizations, and thereby also facilitate forging consensus.
Accordingly, ad hoc coalitions can bridge ambition and action for European defense. Over time, they might go further and have a “pull factor” for other European states to increase their level of involvement, too, and hence either join the coalition or agree on integrating the cooperation efforts in existing structures. In other words, coalitions of the willing can serve as the missing piece of the puzzle to bring Europeans closer together on de facto cooperation in security and defense. This breaks with a logic conceptualizing European security as an interplay of EU and NATO, but envisions it as a “European defense space”—which the French eloquently call “l’Europe de la défense.”
Rethinking this “European defense space” also is particularly relevant in times of post-Brexit Europe, since the United Kingdom remains the elephant in the room—or, more precisely when it comes to the EU, outside the room. While London has always confirmed, and during Russia’s war on Ukraine once more demonstrated, its commitment to European security and defense through NATO, Brexit has created a capability gap for the EU. Formal EU-UK military cooperation based on an agreement is still not in sight, and a bold or formalized cooperation between the EU and the UK seems elusive. But in fact, a prime example for a coalition of the willing is led by the UK: the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a format of defense cooperation launched in 2014 by 10 Northern European nations, which allows London to remain engaged with EU member states at a time when Brexit has dominated the British domestic and foreign policy discourse. This includes, most recently, Joint Protector, a multi-domain exercise and planning for various operations to prepare for future threats, as well as joint maritime patrols in the Baltic Sea in 2021.
Similarly, France, since President Emmanuel Macron came to office in 2017, has beefed up its efforts to launch coalitions of the willing in European defense with two notable successes: the European Intervention Initiative, a format of now 13 European states working to foster a common strategic culture and, potentially, common deployments, and the “Tabuka” task force in Mali, which integrated European special forces as a special unit in the French Barkhane mission (but ended with France’s withdrawal from Mali in 2022). Both formats, while rarely discussed, de facto contribute to fostering better mutual understanding and military cooperation. In other words, they promote European defense integration on a day-to-day basis.
Coalitions of the Willing in 2023
While these formats of cooperation still seem to be rather the exception than the rule in European defense, they might be a blueprint for the years to come. In fact, the EU’s Strategic Compass, published in March 2022 and comparable to an EU defense white paper, tasks EU member states to agree on the modalities of the use of Article 44 of the Treaty of the EU. This article enables EU member states to delegate a task of the CSDP to a group of willing and able member states—and thereby helps to overcome institutional obstacles. Any kind of CSDP action normally requires unanimity, so that states tend to block decisions they do not wish to execute; applying Article 44 would allow the member states to overcome this quagmire by supporting only the delegation of a task, but not being directly involved in its execution.
Furthermore, Russia’s war against Ukraine has shuffled patterns of power and influence in European security and defense more broadly, in so far as the UK has reaffirmed its central role, and Poland has gained much more weight. In the medium term, Europeans will also need to face certain trade-offs between addressing security challenges on its Eastern and Southern flank, so that ad hoc coalitions, based or not on Article 44, could help European states focus on the engagement perceived as most relevant for them without overstretching their capabilities.
For Europe, this is good news. Both the fundamental security challenges posed by Russia’s war against Ukraine and looming ones at the southern flank will require determined and potentially fast action, and the flexibility and agility of coalitions of the willing would hence benefit European defense.
Gesine Weber is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office.