Europe should chart a new course without the US
Europe can count on a two-million-member armed force but spends one-third of the US and has a fighting capacity and strength of only 15 per cent of the US.
With Russia again a possible threat to European security and US President Donald Trump questioning some basic tenets of Nato, is Europe strong enough to defend itself?
The current geopolitical conditions ask that question, and also offer a unique opportunity to answer it. In particular Germany, France, Italy and Spain - despite their national differences - are trying to develop more active EU defence policies and cooperation. The continent is trying to raise its game on defence due to the deterioration of its security environment to the east and south, as well as in the heart of its cities.
"Europe can no longer afford to rely on the military might of others," said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last fall. "We have to take responsibility for protecting our interests and the European way of life. If Europe does not take care of its own security, nobody else will do it for us."
But defence budgets in Europe have shrunk over the past decade even as other global actors upgraded their militaries on an unprecedented scale.
In 2016, the US spent $622 billion on defence while the EU including the UK invested $219 billion. China increased its defence budget by 150 per cent over the past decade, spending $192 billion last year. The disparity is reflected in actual power.
"Europe can count on a two-million-member armed force but spends one-third of the US and has a fighting capacity and strength of only 15 per cent (of the US)," says Gianandrea Gaiani, director of Analisi Difesa, a defence, intelligence and military magazine. In response, military expenditures in Europe went up a combined 2.6 per cent in 2016.
Last fall the European Commission proposed a European Defence Fund (EDF) and other initiatives to help member states boost research and spend more efficiently on joint defence while fostering a competitive and innovative industrial base.
Federica Mogherini, head of EU foreign affairs, also proposed a global strategy on security and defence that sets out a new set of goals for the EU and identifies actions needed to reach them. "The European Union always takes a soft approach to hard security, but we also have some hard power that we are strengthening," says Mogherini.
European plans are neither about creating EU army, duplicating Nato, nor about replacing national military planning and command structures. "Establishing voluntary European armed forces would mean that each European member state deprives its own armed forces, losing an instrument to prevail in its own interests," says Germano Dottori, professor in strategic studies at Luiss University, Rome.
But without surrendering military sovereignty, EU members are moving towards more integrated efforts. The EDF will start on a small scale this year to support joint R&D on defence equipment and technologies.
Brussels has already proposed ?25 million for defence research this year and expects the budget to grow to ?90 million by 2020. The European Commission intends to propose a dedicated defence research programme with an estimated cost of ?500 million a year after that.
"The European defence industry is a competitive global player that offers good and innovative weapons and military equipment," says Dottori. "We should adapt Obama's slogan of 'Buy American' to 'Buy European' to protect our arms industry."
"The EDF adds value to what member states already do," says Francesco Laera, spokesperson for the European Commission in Milan.
"The European defence plan will create more efficient spending and foster a strong, competitive and innovative industrial base," he says.
Spending on defence also has a knock-on effect on the European economy. The European defence industry already generates ?100 billion a year in revenues and 1.4 million highly skilled jobs directly or indirectly.
Germany has inaugurated a Cybernetic and Information Command in Bonn that "plans to bring together 14,000 people including strategic military intelligence and communications in the next few months", says Gaiani. The new facility was created to meet the mandates of Nato and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who calls defence against cyber-attacks one of her main priorities.
France has also placed priority on building better cybersecurity and specialised internal security units.
The new geopolitical course is reflected in Sweden, too, which has reintroduced military conscription.
But for now Europe's defence capabilities are underdeveloped, says Gaiani. "Europe has adopted non-efficient policies against terrorism. The EU speaks of integrating even penitent foreign fighters with programmes of re-education as if they were former junkies," he says.
"The big threat to Europe comes from Libya not from Russia. Europe is incapable of defending its own borders," he says. "In 1991, after the EU's failure to properly respond to the Gulf Crisis, Belgium's former Foreign Affairs Minister Mark Eyskens defined Europe "an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm". This definition of its fighting capability is still very appropriate," he says.
But "the fact that development of defence research and capabilities are now seen as vital strategic investments on behalf of the EU marks a radical shift in the way the EU thinks about and supports defence," says Daniel Fiott, Security and Defense Editor at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at Luminosity Italia news agency in Milan