Artículo World Politics Review, 20.07.2022 Alexander Clarkson, profesor de estudios europeos (King’s College-London)
Just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Europe still reeled in shock, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that it was time for what he called a Zeitenwende, or sea change, in how the country approaches national and collective defense. Announcing huge increases in Germany’s defense budget, Scholz’s speech to the Bundestag—the German Parliament—on Feb. 27 represented an epochal shift in Germany’s strategic priorities. But it also reflected a wider reassessment across the European Union over how to respond to military threats facing Europe’s neighborhood.
The dilemmas that rapid rearmament has raised for Germany are vast. Having been worn down through decades of underinvestment, the German military is now riddled with institutional dysfunctions that will require a huge effort to tackle. Coupled with frantic attempts to prepare German society for the toll that ending Russian gas imports will exact on businesses and consumers alike, the dilemmas Germany alone now faces will absorb the attention of German policymakers for years to come.
Yet the scale of the challenge facing the EU goes far beyond Berlin, in ways that are reshaping every state connected to the EU system. Though much time was subsequently wasted by German and other Western European governments, the shock of the Russian seizure of Crimea in March 2014 already drove a shift in perceptions across the EU of the threat that an aggressive Russian regime under President Vladimir Putin posed to European integration. Russia’s subsequent willingness to project military force—directly in Syria and using mercenaries in Libya, the Sahel region and other pressure points around the EU’s borders—infuriated Italian, Spanish and French officials who may otherwise have been less willing to view Putin as a dangerous adversary.
As Europeans faced Russian aggression, the antics of former U.S. President Donald Trump left a legacy of doubt over Washington’s willingness to protect Europe. And despite attempts by President Joe Biden to restore confidence in U.S. reliability, concerns over China’s power are increasingly drawing U.S. policymakers’ attention toward the huge challenge of sustaining U.S. dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, Europeans continue to worry that Washington’s renewed enthusiasm for NATO in support of Ukraine could be the last hurrah of the U.S. role in the defense of Europe, rather than a sustainable revival of it. And the fact that the U.S. has proved so essential to NATO’s collective efforts to support Ukraine indicates that for the next decade at least, Europeans will struggle to mobilize their militaries without U.S. help.
In addition to catalyzing Germany’s Zeitenwende, these twin fears over Russian aggression and U.S. reliability have led to three fundamental shifts in the U.K. and the EU that mark the first steps toward what is often called European strategic autonomy. This ability of European states to protect themselves and their neighborhood without relying on U.S. assistance has the potential to accelerate European integration in a way that would transform Europe’s relations with the wider world.
The first shift reflects the realization that European strategic resilience needs to be bolstered in ways that reduce dependence on the United States. Germany is the most prominent example of how the abrupt reengagement with defense needs will have to overcome decades of institutional dysfunction in military affairs. But other European states guilty of similar neglect—such as Spain, the Netherlands and Czech Republic—have also undertaken similarly brutal reassessments of how far their own military underinvestment has endangered the survival of an EU system in which their own fortunes are inextricably bound up.
Fears over Russian aggression and lingering doubts about U.S. reliability have also forced the U.K. to reengage with European security. This reexamination of British procurement and deployment priorities has opened up space to maintain close relations with allies in the EU, despite continuing tensions between London and Brussels over managing the impact of Brexit.
The second shift in European security has been the reconsideration of the value of neutrality for EU member states that are not in NATO. Much has been made of the speed with which Sweden and Finland discarded their neutral status in favor of NATO membership after Russia invaded Ukraine. But while the recent surge of support for joining NATO has been remarkable, it was the product of a debate in both societies that has been building since 2014. The institutional foundations for this seamless shift to full integration in NATO’s structures is the product of years of work, in an environment in which Russia’s aggression alienated most people in the Baltic states and Scandinavia. With Sweden and Finland now on their way to formally joining the alliance, the majority of EU states are now NATO members, which could lead to a gradual merger of the strategic priorities of both institutions.
Even more remarkable has been a similar reassessment in Ireland of the importance of defense capabilities in the context of European integration. Though abandoning neutrality for NATO membership is still too great a step for Irish society, the specter of Russian aggression against a former colony has rekindled strategic anxieties among Irish policymakers acutely aware of how far their state’s security is dependent on informal cooperation with its own former colonial power, the United Kingdom. Though there is no question that London would use its security leverage to pressure Dublin, the deterioration in relations between Ireland and the U.K. over the Northern Ireland Protocol, coupled with a surge in Russian and Chinese intelligence activity on Irish territory targeting key parts of the global IT and pharmaceutical sectors, has led to a sudden appreciation in Ireland of the importance of military and intelligence resources.
The result is an unprecedented 50 percent increase in Ireland’s security and defense budget, from 1 billion euros to 1.5 billion euros, or roughly $1.5 billion dollars. Announced on July 13, the additional spending will prioritize cyber, naval, air defense and special forces capabilities in cooperation with European partners. This marks a complete rethink of the limits that neutrality should place on Ireland’s room for maneuver as a security actor, one that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
The final shift in European security is the growing involvement of the European Commission in defense policy. Though it is taking place at a much slower pace than the other processes, it could over time become the most significant change of all. In developing structures to integrate Europe’s fragmented arms industry, setting up more wide-reaching sanctions against Moscow than expected and working with the U.S. to provide crucial financial assistance to Kyiv, the commission has done more to breathe life in the idea of a common European defense policy in the five months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than in the five decades that preceded it. Though this will still take many years to evolve, the possibility that the EU’s institutions could in time take over the United States’ central role in leading European responses to security threats may ultimately be the legacy of the Russo-Ukrainian War that has the greatest impact.
Current debates over European strategic autonomy have fascinating parallels with how European monetary integration took shape at the end of the 20th century. In a changing geopolitical environment shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union and growing tensions with the U.S. over trade policy, the idea of a shared currency to assert EU ambitions to become a global player gradually evolved from the realm of fantasy to economic reality. This process, by which a project that was initially viewed as hopelessly unrealistic took shape until it became part of European everyday life, is a precedent to keep in mind when it comes to Europe’s strategic ambitions.
Yet the emergence of the euro also holds up a warning to today’s generation of European leaders. Even after the euro’s introduction in 2002, many Europeans remained convinced that in a supposedly stable world, the process needed to consolidate a common currency could continue at a glacial pace. Yet by 2010, the EU found itself in an existential struggle to save the euro, as half-built institutions suddenly had to make decisions in hours for which European leaders thought they would have decades.
Even as momentum begins to take shape toward European military integration, there are worrying signs that EU and U.K. leaders have forgotten the lessons of the eurozone crisis. When it comes to questions of war and peace, Europeans cannot afford to assume that they have decades to develop the capabilities they desperately need, only to stumble into a crisis where they run out of time.