Dec 19, 2023

Europe’s Geopolitical Coming of Age Requires Greater Defense Efforts

The real benchmark for Europe turning into a geopolitical actor is its ability to militarily deter Russia and China. It is very far from reaching it.

Ukraine's Defence Minister Rustem Umerov and German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius attend a joint news conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine November 21, 2023.
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Having already experienced what life is like under a Donald Trump US presidency, the Europeans presently seem rather blasé about what a potential second Trump administration could entail for the European Union and NATO. For all his (very real) sins, Trump gave voice to the long-standing tensions at the heart of the transatlantic relationship. Will Europe spend more on its defense? Are Europeans willing to do more to defend themselves? Are Europeans ready to embrace Sino-American rivalry as the ordering principle of international politics? Europeans have only partially responded to some of these questions: The hard truth is that the hard truths hurt.

So, if it comes to pass that Trump wins the US presidential elections in November 2024, he will be sure to tighten the screws further on Europe. And, while the US leaving NATO seems unlikely and would face obstacles in the US Senate, there are ways for the United States to make things extremely trying for Europe. Think of how Europe would respond should the US pull its support for Ukraine. And what would a trade war look like should Europe not heed Trump’s calls to economically isolate China? We are yet to see the ways that Europe (and individual countries like France and Germany) might be instrumentalized during the US election campaign.

Yet, even if Trump does not win the next election, the wounds he seeks to pour salt in will remain for Europe. We are now familiar with the notion of a “geopolitical Europe,” and many have rightfully criticized its reality. Yet, assessing whether Europe has what it takes to be a geopolitical power very much depends on the mode of analysis. Some seem to think that Europe’s ability to play a geopolitical role is dependent on whether it can engage in crisis management operations (e.g. the Sahel), articulate a credible response to conflicts (e.g. the Middle East), or to autonomously evacuate citizens from crisis zones (e.g. Afghanistan).

The Real Geopolitical Play

Setting the bar at this level, however, misses the real geopolitical play at hand. Sure, no one likes conflict, crises, or coup d’états on their borders. But the reality is that these types of crises are second order events: The real power play for Europe is in defending itself—now and in the future—from Russia. By extension, and regardless of its current economic vulnerabilities, China is an authoritarian power that seeks to shape the global order so that it is amenable to its own interests. Russia and China, together or apart, are the real vectors through which to assess Europe’s geopolitical prowess.

To meet these two challenges, and in a context where Washington could harangue Europe, the EU and NATO need a plan of action for the coming years and a shift in mentality. The mentality shift cannot come from statements, concepts, or speeches, if those are not backed up by hard currency, metal, and some willingness to take risks. Beyond striving for lower energy and resource dependencies, as well as managing the demographic challenge, Europe needs to become far more serious about its military power.

Ramping Up Production

Today, there is a real risk that Europe could fall behind on ammunition production. As one study by the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw estimates, “the annual output of 155-mm artillery ammunition has ranged between 20,000 and 30,000 pieces at the largest production plants” in Europe, but Ukraine uses “25,000–40,000 pieces of such ammunition each week.” So we already know that one concrete geopolitical act would be for the Europeans to ramp up production of ammunition and to keep manufacturing rates at a high level—if China militarily attacks Taiwan, such ammunition will be invaluable, too. The finances for this boost in production are, however, being stalled in both the European Council and the US Congress. Such indecision comes at a time when Russia has announced a hike in its defense spending: Europe is still able to counter this increase with its own financial prowess, but only if it puts aside its in-fighting.

Yet, no geopolitical actor can be judged solely on how much ammunition it can produce. As Europe is not collectively a nuclear power, it will have to make contributions to defense in other ways. That comes with the hard steel of tanks, planes, and ships. The reality is that Europe has sacrificed the principle of mass production on the altar of high-tech, small-is-beautiful solutions. That will not do for the coming years, where there is a need to show Russia that the EU and NATO are an impregnable fortress.

A Long-Term Capability Plan

Yet, Europe’s military plans for doing so are disconnected from any industrial strategy. Neither NATO nor the EU—jointly or individually—have a coherent plan for how much of X is needed and how it will be produced or acquired. NATO apportions out capability needs on a national basis, and the EU has the financial weight of investing in these targets jointly. While the United States cannot be expected to put their defense industrial interests to one side (especially under any Trump 2.0 scenario), Europeans need to be bold enough to articulate a long-term capability plan based on credible military scenarios and joint financing. It is no good arriving at a list of capability categories without identifying what level of mass is required in each.

What’s more, when thinking about military mass these days in Europe we cannot do so only in terms of land power. Yes, we need to ensure the mass production of main battle tanks in Europe but let us not forget other capabilities that speak to Europe’s industrial strengths. In this respect, Europe should come up with a coherent plan to invest billions in the joint production of missile and air defense capabilities, as well as naval capabilities. Russia’s war in Ukraine has given the impression that war today in Europe is land centric, but, in addition, Europe is a maritime actor that needs to protect vital maritime spaces such as the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the High North and the Mediterranean.

Real Money Needed

Real money is needed too. Germany’s €100-billion “special fund” for its armed forces—eroded by inflation—has proven an insufficient amount even for one member state. It is a fact that even unlocking new sources of investment via the European Investment Bank (EIB) will not be enough. And while EIB sources should be tapped, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that the bank will solve all of Europe’s defense investment problems. In reality, above and beyond the EIB, European states need to considerably increase national defense spending. Ideally, additional money should be spent jointly in order to create economies of scale and better value for public spending.

Apart from doing better on the home front, developing the defense-industrial base will allow Europe to support partners globally. Much is made, for example, of whether and when China might invade Taiwan. Any such step would directly hit European interests. Although most consider a direct European military engagement unlikely, Europe would still need to deliver arms and munitions to Taiwan—possibly via the US—if China were to fail to create a quick military fait accompli. There would, one expects, be large-scale sanctions imposed on Beijing, too. Where, then, is the plan for how much these sanctions would cost and for how Europe would cushion their effects? If there is democratic deadlock after the next US elections, and China seeks to capitalize on the chaos, is Europe prepared to play any role in support of Taiwan?

These are just some of the steps Europe needs to take if it is to become a credible geopolitical actor. The trouble is, while most analysts would support this take, the political class across Europe is largely still given to avoiding seemingly catastrophic scenarios. In reality, most politicians know how to remedy Europe’s declining geopolitical status. The tragedy is that the European states that understand the geopolitical stakes rarely have the financial or political clout to act. Those with the means, however, (currently) lack the courage to step up and lead. Those in Western Europe that still bury their geopolitical heads in the sand do so because they do not consider Russia or China a direct military threat. That may be so, for now, but why should European security be auctioned off under such an assumption?

Daniel Fiott is Assistant Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Head of the Defence and Statecraft Programme at the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) and Non-Resident Fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute.

The IPQ Winter 2024 issue will be published on January 10, 2024, focussing on "Europe and Geostrategy."

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