Europe’s Center of Gravity Has Not (Yet) Shifted East
NATO’s eastern flank is increasingly making its voice heard when it comes to European security—but this does not translate into political influence yet. However, security dynamics are likely to change and will affect European defense integration more broadly.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
The idea that the center of gravity in Europe is shifting toward the East has been cited frequently in many expert papers and newspaper articles recently. At first sight, the claim seems salient: The countries most affected by the new security reality after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine acted fastest. Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states ramped up their defense spending and procurement, advocated for reinforcing the eastern flank and tough EU sanctions against Russia, and spearheaded EU membership for Ukraine. The dynamic between Western and Eastern European states changed thanks to geopolitical factors and Poland and the Baltic states’ leadership on Ukraine.
In contrast, France and Germany, traditionally seen as the “engine” for European policy, have (rightly) been accused of a lack of leadership on Ukraine. While Germany is now the leading European supporter of Ukraine in terms of total aid, the effects of the Zeitenwende, particularly regarding Germany’s military, remain to be seen. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has massively harmed the country’s credibility in Eastern Europe through requesting security guarantees for Russia and the French reluctance to publish precise information on France’s military support to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the interpretation of these dynamics as a shift of power—or even a shift of the center of gravity—to the East is premature and ignores the politics of European defense. Poland and the Baltics may have become more vocal (and are now being heard) and militarily stronger, but the EU political heavyweights remain Paris and Berlin, not least because of their economic weight. Whether this is going to change depends on the trajectory of European defense cooperation. Overall, more dispersed power within European defense would be a good thing.
Europe Is Now About Hard Power
With an aggressive and expansionary Russia, military power is a valued currency. Western European countries have recognized that their approach to Russia failed. Where dialogue, trade relations, energy cooperation were fruitless—deterrence and defense are now necessary. Eastern flank countries have been arguing that NATO should strengthen its defense posture in Eastern Europe since 2014. NATO resisted and offered compromises. February 2022 upended the status quo. Belarus and Ukraine are no longer a buffer zone. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are now the EU’s direct border with a war zone and Russian-controlled Belarus.
In response, the size and number of multinational battlegroups were increased, the alliance boosted its rapid reaction force, while allies committed to deploy stockpiles, facilities, and military equipment to the eastern flank. NATO countries additionally sent troops on a bilateral basis. The number of US soldiers in Central and Eastern Europe more than doubled to more than 14,000. Most of them are in Poland—more than 10,000. In an unprecedented move, the US V Corps Forward Command in Poland, which commands the eastern flank’s US land forces, has been made a permanent fixture. Eastern Europeans once felt like the difficult newbies in the alliance. This no longer applies.
What’s more, Poland, Romania, and the Baltics are now spending more on defense while also growing and modernizing their military equipment. Lithuania increased its defense spending to 2.52 percent of GDP, Estonia is planning to allocate as much as 2.9 percent in 2023, and Latvia plans to spend 2.5 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, Romania expanded its defense budget by 18 percent. Most notably, Poland is ramping up defense expenditure to 4 percent of GDP in 2023. This is currently the highest level in NATO. Military power gives Warsaw influence within NATO. Poland is likely to soon possess Europe’s strongest military. If an aggressive Russia poses a long-term threat to Europe's security—and this is to be expected even if a ceasefire were to come into force in Ukraine—the eastern flank has the potential to defend itself and stop the aggression from spreading to Europe.
Economic Power Still Matters
Whether military power translates into long-term political influence—particularly in the EU—is an open question, though. The recognition of the need for hard power, including US and British capabilities, has led to an affirmation of the vital relevance of NATO for deterrence and territorial defense. Even if all EU member states—including the most vocal advocates for a stronger EU defense, namely France—have always been aware that Europe could barely defend itself without the US, they now tend to express it more clearly.
Conversely, those member states that were traditionally reluctant to pursue defense cooperation within the framework of the EU because they feared a duplication of NATO structures or loosening of ties with the US, have also started to recognize the EU’s relevance as a security actor in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Its economic weight and financial tools have allowed it to use the tools at its disposal effectively, such as sanctions or the activation of the European Peace Facility to finance weapons for Ukraine. Indeed, the EU-NATO joint declaration, adopted in January 2023, also underlines this complementarity and the “mutually reinforcing roles” of both institutions.
While one might have anticipated that the strong focus of Poland and the Baltic states on defense cooperation within NATO might pull all attention away from defense integration within the EU, opposite tendencies have emerged in recent months. The most visible example of this is the Estonian proposal for joint acquisition of ammunition for Ukraine, which was backed by EU ministers in mid-March, and now aims to step up European production worth up to €2 billion.
However, it‘s unclear whether the EU member states with less important stakes in the defense industry will also be able to shape EU defense industrial policy in the medium to long term. Ultimately, the question of whether influence in EU defense integration will de facto shift to the east in the medium to long term will depend on money and the countries’ economic firepower when it comes to the defense industry. If EU member states are serious about strengthening the EU’s defense industrial and technological base, there is a good chance that France and Germany, with well-established defense industries, will remain in the driving seat.
In other words, central joint projects are more likely to be decided in Berlin and Paris than in Vilnius or Warsaw. Furthermore, given their economic weight and contribution to the EU budget, it seems unlikely that German and French influence in EU defense industrial matters could decline in the coming years. The investment of its special fund for the armed forces can become an important instrument for Germany to influence the EU’s industrial policy, while French President Macron is likely to keep pushing for an ambitious EU agenda. To sustain the influence in Brussels, Poland will have to adopt a similar playbook.
More broadly speaking, the sustainability of the influence of Poland and the Baltic states in European security and defense will also be manifested in the bloc’s security priorities going forward. While Russia is unanimously perceived as the most imminent threat to European security at the moment, France and other southern European EU member states in particular are also worried about the looming security challenges on the EU’s southern flank. Concretely, this could, once again, evolve into a financial question: Given that the European Peace Facility is an off-budget instrument, its use and financial means depend on agreement in the European Council. In case of an exacerbating security situation in the EU’s south, and potential negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the push for using the tool to equip partners in the south might be reinforced.
While the activation of article 44 of the EU treaty could help install ad hoc coalitions to operationally address security challenges in smaller EU coalitions of the willing, this does not apply to finding consensus on strategic priorities. Here again, Germany and France have left their marks in the past—the EU’s guidelines in the Indo-Pacific or European engagement in the Sahel being just two examples of France’s ability to drive the EU’s foreign policy agenda. Going ahead, it seems nevertheless likely that Paris and Berlin have learnt their lessons from Russia’s war on Ukraine—and will listen more carefully to Warsaw, provided there is a constructive Polish stance within the EU.
Shift of the East toward the West?
In conclusion, Paris and Berlin have come closer to Eastern European views on Russia, security and defense, and energy policies over the last year. But to enact a long-term “a shift of the center of gravity to the East,” Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states need more economic weight, strong bilateral relationships with Western partners, regional cohesion, and leadership on non-Ukraine related EU topics. Furthermore, they need to make their voices heard in meetings in Brussels. If they manage to do so, the current dynamics could look much more like a shift of the East toward the West. Russia’s war on Ukraine has shown that these dynamics can be very beneficial for European defense integration from a broader perspective—and that more dispersed influence in European defense should also be maintained without the pressure of a geopolitical shock.
Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska is a program manager in the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Warsaw office. She closely monitors issues related to Polish, German, and French relations.
Gesine Weber is a fellow at the GMF Paris office, where she focuses on European security and defence.