Time for Hard Choices on Defense
EU strategic sovereignty in defense remains a distant goal. Member states are desperately clinging to their national sovereignty—but that’s the wrong approach.
“Strategic sovereignty" plays a prominent role in the coalition agreement of the new German "traffic light" government. It is first mentioned in the preamble, where the coalition commits to increasing Europe's strategic sovereignty. The new government is, thus, responding to calls for more European autonomy or strategic sovereignty (the terms are now used almost synonymously) that have grown louder in recent years. With a deteriorating security environment and a United States that is shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific, the need for Europeans to join forces in defense is not controversial any more.
In fact, the goal of strategic sovereignty predates the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) itself. Yet, surprisingly little has been done to achieve effective defense integration in the European Union since the Helsinki Headline Goal was set in 1999. Militarily, both European capabilities and ambitions have been steadily shrinking. The original aim of having 60,000 troops operational within 60 days has been steadily downsized. In the EU’s new Strategic Compass, a modular rapid reaction force of 5,000 soldiers is mentioned.
There is no lack of ambitious initiatives in other areas, though. Most recently, hopes were placed in the European Defense Fund (EDF), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD) for forging better cooperation in European defense. All of these initiatives did indeed provide new impetus and at times improved cooperation. But the EU has still not come any closer to actual "strategic sovereignty." All the theoretical goodwill cannot hide the political realities. In October 2021, an interim report on the development of European military capabilities concluded that the EU's level of ambition was not achievable at the moment.
There are three potential paths ahead for European defense: First, Europe could continue as before, inching from big promises to small initiatives. This would further diminish Europe's capacity to act and defend itself, leaving Europeans with a collection of militarily useless bonsai armies. The second option would see the EU choosing the pragmatic path and advocating for a strong European pillar in NATO. While European capabilities would be strengthened it would not necessarily establish autonomy. The third path would see the EU taking its own calls for sovereignty seriously. Treaty changes would, however, be required—as well as significantly higher investments in defense.
Path 1: Useless Bonsai Armies
Europe’s new modest level of ambition is no coincidence. Since 1999, Europeans have radically reduced their military capabilities—for four reasons: First, there were hardly any existential military threats in the European security environment between 1991 and 2014. Second, the financial crisis of 2008/09 led to an acceleration in the reduction of defense budgets and capabilities. As a result, Europeans have lost about 35 percent of their military capabilities and have accumulated an enormous investment backlog. Third, a number of hard-to-change defense economic processes make it ever more expensive and challenging to sustain full spectrum forces. Fourth, most of the much-vaunted cooperation initiatives that were supposed to solve these problems can be characterized as failures.
Today, Europeans face a fundamental question: What kind of armed forces do they want to have? Peer-to-peer conflict has become more likely than in the early 2000s, and the means of warfare are technologically more complex. At the same time, non-state actors are better equipped, making interventions and stabilization missions more challenging, too. Historically, military innovations and increases in complexity have meant that not all states have been able to provide state-of-the-art equipment and conduct modern warfare. Power asymmetries between large and small states have continuously increased during this process—and European countries now tend to be small states, whether in terms of the size of their armed forces or defense spending (if the data is adjusted for purchasing power). As resources become increasingly scarce, several investment dilemmas arise for Europe.
No European country has the political will to mobilize sufficient resources to simultaneously invest in future military domains, close existing capability gaps, modernize equipment, and increase readiness. Similar to the early 2010s, European states are now pursuing their own paths without coordination—generating significant capability gaps from a wider NATO or EU perspective. In France and the United Kingdom, nuclear capabilities are eating up the budget for conventional forces. The UK is reacting by prioritizing future domains and prestige projects while largely ignoring NATO's wish list for Britain’s contribution to European defense. Germany, on the other hand, is focusing primarily on modernizing existing capabilities—despite large capability gaps and a lack of force readiness.
Industrial cooperation on military and defense in Europe has not led to any significant economies of scale so far. Yet, Europe desperately needs a better division of labor and resources to produce increasingly complex armed forces and weapon systems. But military cooperation, defense industries, force planning, and the loss of sovereignty are highly politicized issues that prevent economies of scale at all levels. Juste retour clauses in joint armament projects, national operational doctrines that limit the cooperation of "integrated" multinational units, or incompatible communication devices are only the most obvious examples of national roadblocks. Those who are now pinning their hopes on instruments such as interoperability and NATO standardization will be disappointed. This system worked during the Cold War because large national formations at corps or divisions level were cooperating transnationally. Today, military integration is much more complex as it is expected at the battalion or even company level. This requires stronger intervention in national procurement requirements and standards, something that has not been achieved thus far.
If Europe does not deviate from the path it has taken for almost 30 years, it will soon end up with 27 useless bonsai armies, as defense expert Christian Mölling predicted 10 years ago. Sovereignty in defense is impossible to achieve if Europe continues on this path.
Path 2: A Strong European Pillar in NATO
If Europeans decide to be more ambitious instead of standing idly by while their armed forces disintegrate, there is always the option of escaping into a stronger European pillar of NATO. But this would require Europeans to use the existing instruments for cooperation much more intensively.
First, European NATO members would have to stabilize the growth of their defense budgets—regardless of any discussion about the 2-percent target. Otherwise, inflation will eat up any small increases without generating any additional purchasing power for necessary modernizations. This first step goes hand in hand with the commitment to spend sufficient resources on investments—research and development as well as procurement—which NATO has codified in its target of 20 percent of defense expenditure going toward the development and acquisition of equipment.
Given the problems for small and medium-sized countries to field full spectrum forces in the future, there needs to be a discussion about the division of labor in organizing military capabilities through national specialization again. It is inefficient for all allies to try to maintain the broadest possible spectrum of capabilities. Instead, specialization could generate economies of scale—even if this increases interdependence. A closer link between national capability planning and the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) is therefore necessary. This is especially true for countries like the UK and France that tend to pursue their national plans or even for Germany, which often overpromises and underdelivers on the NDPP. At the same time, the NDPP should plan for more multinational formations, continuing an internal planning reform that has already begun. An ambitious example of such a formation would be the European Joint Force (EJF) proposed by Mölling and former NATO Assistant Secretary General Heinrich Brauss.
NATO’s Framework Nation Concept has begun to horizontally integrate specialized national capabilities into larger military units. It is one of the instruments for operationalizing such formations. However, both the interoperability of equipment and the standardization of technical requirements and doctrines must be implemented much more consistently and at lower levels. Ideally, such integration would result in multinational standardized procurements.
Even if these steps sound pragmatic, they are highly ambitious considering recent experiences. While this approach would strengthen the European pillar in NATO, it is unlikely to lead to more European sovereignty. Europe would continue to rely on NATO and the United States for important niche capabilities and command and control instruments. The EU would have to significantly reduce its level of ambition. Current initiatives such as CARD, PESCO, and EDF would primarily have a financial benefit, rather than an organizational and coordination function.
Path 3: Strategic Sovereignty
In order to achieve actual strategic sovereignty—meaning to be able to decide and act independently of the US and NATO—Europe would have to go much further. In Germany, people like to believe that there is no contradiction between achieving sovereignty and remaining closely integrated in NATO. Yet, historically, the term was indeed used to describe European independence from the US and emphasized Europe's autonomy in security policy. This has always been a bone of contention in transatlantic relations and continues to be an issue.
Even though US President Joe Biden recently expressed his support for the development of European defense capabilities, complementarity with NATO is underlined at every opportunity. Europeans should not delude themselves: The US wants a strong Europe by its side, but one that adapts and subordinates its positions.
If Europe really wants more sovereignty, it will lead to conflicts with the US. If Europeans want to act independently, duplications with NATO will be hard to avoid. One example is already mentioned in the coalition treaty agreed by the new German government: the creation of joint European command structures and an EU civil-military headquarters.
Europe will also have to talk about supranational armed forces again. The idea has been dismissed time and again as utopian because countries are afraid to relinquish their national sovereignty. Yet, it is just as delusional to believe that EU member states still have any sovereignty in defense. As described above, most national armed forces are so small that they are already entirely dependent on their European and NATO partners.
In order to be sovereign as Europeans, transnational cooperation is insufficient. EU member states must integrate their armed forces vertically at the EU level. This is the only way to avoid duplication, and to overcome difficulties of interoperability and the investment dilemmas. The working group on security and defense policy of Germany’s governing Social Democrats (SPD) has already mapped out what a path toward these European armed forces could look like with its proposal for the 28th Army.
This option will not be achievable without treaty changes. New executive structures would have to be created, as well as an EU defense budget. The European Parliament would have to be given extended control functions. Germany’s new coalition government has already shown itself open to European treaty changes. In their coalition agreement, they write that in the framework of the conference on the future of Europe such reflections should "lead to further development toward a federal European state." In this context, European defense would also have to be thought through far more stringently.
Dying a Death of Sovereignty
Given the limited defense budgets across Europe, a worsening threat environment, and changing warfare, Europeans will have to die a death (of sovereignty) in defense. Though, they can still decide which one.
They can lose national sovereignty by either continuing as before. Then they will soon lose their deterrence and functional armed forces while becoming ever more dependent on the US. Or they lose it by deepening NATO's military integration and putting their national preferences aside. The result would be a stronger European pillar of NATO, but increased interdependence and no autonomous European capacity to act. Or they could be handing over their increasingly dysfunctional armed forces to a vertically integrated European army. This would increase Europe's strategic sovereignty and—together with other NATO allies—make a 360-degree security policy approach for Europe's southern and eastern flanks possible.
These days, most EU member states are trying to stay on all paths simultaneously. That’s not a strategy for increased European sovereignty. It’s time to make some hard decisions.
Sophia Becker is a research fellow for US security and defense policy with the German Council on Foreign Relation's (DGAP) Security and Defense Program.
Torben Schütz is an associate fellow in the DGAP’s Security and Defense Program.