Since the end of the Second World War, Europe’s progress towards ever-closer integration has manifested itself in an ecosystem of multilateral organizations. The European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stand as arguably the two most preeminent institutions. The former is charged with economic and to a certain extent, political integration, while the latter is responsible for the region’s collective security. These two institutions, while operating under separate mandates, have shared fundamental values, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Along with sharing a large portion of Member States, these shared values have led to close collaboration between the two institutions. While collaboration between the EU and NATO has had a positive influence on regional and global security, NATO’s privileged position as the EU’s primary vehicle for its security has hindered its development as a self-sufficient security actor. In a time of rising global instability and uncertain future American commitment to the alliance, the EU and its Member States must recognize their responsibility for their own collective security and strive for a more autonomous, streamlined, and effective EU defense union.

Over the past few years, global security conditions have deteriorated. Near the EU’s eastern border, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided a dramatic return to the wars of conquest waged in previous centuries. The rising instability in northern Africa and the Middle East threatens the Union’s Mediterranean border. In the Indo-Pacific, a more confident and assertive China has escalated tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the United States (US). In the face of these international developments, most EU Member States still look primarily to NATO for their collective defense. Across the Atlantic, however, US isolationist tendencies are gaining traction. Although the establishments of both major political parties remain steadfast in support of the NATO alliance, the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump, has continually called into question NATO’s relevance to US foreign policy priorities. 

Since entering national politics in 2015, Trump’s critiques of the alliance have largely focused on the lopsided financial burden placed on the US. From the alliance’s creation in 1949 until 2017, US spending accounted for an average of 69 percent of all NATO military expenditures. A recent article by Rolling Stone magazine reported that if reelected, Trump plans on assembling an administration significantly more hostile to NATO. Trump’s ideological allies have also been developing a policy framework in preparation for a possible second Trump term. In one position paper, the author argues for a ‘dormant NATO’ policy, where the burden of European protection is shifted to Europeans while the US remains a balancing actor of ‘last resort’. Whether or not the Republican frontrunner wins next year’s election, the EU should use the threat of his return to the White House as a strategic impetus to cement significant progress towards a more autonomous and effective European military command.

Over recent decades, the EU has already made progress in this direction. Since the EU’s founding Maastricht Treaty of 1991, EU Member States have recognized both the necessity and advantages of further integration on matters of foreign policy, such as the creation and development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Within the CFSP framework, the EU’s Member States coordinate on missions under mutual objectives, including stabilization projects, non-prolifieration, and supporting third-countries. Over the past three years, additional collective EU action has been taken with the implementation of the European Peace Facility tool, an enhanced mechanism to coordinate security support, including the distribution of billions of euros in military and financial support to the Ukrainian military. Looking to further build on its advancements, in March 2022 the EU released its Strategic Compass, outlining concrete steps to strengthen the Union’s collective security and defense by 2030, including streamlining the Union’s internal processes, boosting innovation in crucial technologies, and solidifying its capacity to deploy troops, among other priorities. While a laudable step in the right direction, the document falls into the EU’s usual routine of relying on the American-led NATO alliance for the backbone of its security structure. 

Conferring greater national defense responsibilities to the Union would be a tremendous psychological barrier, however, it is helpful to remember that the history of the EU is one of Member States conferring to the Union responsibilities that are more effectively achieved at the community level. Allowing a certain level of flexibility for Member States, without damaging the Union’s principles of unity and solidarity, could facilitate this much-needed move to greater military centralization. A recent proposal suggests a multi-level EU and European community that would allow for different speeds of integration on various policy matters, including defense. This could facilitate a ‘military Schengen’ of Member States ready for more concrete military centralization at the EU level. Moreover, prioritizing European defense manufacturers and standardizing military hardware would strengthen the EU’s autonomy, streamline its collective forces, and boost domestic industries in a vital economic and security sector. 

Meeting this objective will undoubtedly raise opposition on several fronts. Internationally, while some Americans may applaud a more self-sufficient EU, the NATO ally may view the shift towards more autonomy and independence as a threat to the alliance. A more dynamic and prepared EU, however, would better serve the alliance as an effective European branch, capable of defending Europe and promoting shared-NATO values abroad. On the Union level, the 27 Member States hold varying perspectives on EU involvement in defense policy. Nevertheless, the 21st century security challenges facing the Union cannot be met at the nation-state level. In an age of superpower competition, only through a united EU will Europeans have a strong global voice. Pushback will also inevitably arise domestically, when financial resources currently dedicated to famously generous European welfare states may need to be diverted towards greater defense spending. These politically unpopular decisions, however, are essential and would underscore the EU’s seriousness for European security. 

For 75 years, EU Member States have used periodic bursts of resolute collective action to develop humanity’s most successful multilateral community. To secure these valuable advancements for future generations of Europeans, the Union must commit to ensuring its own security through a more autonomous, capable, and effective European defense union.

Written by Sergio Uribe Henao, Edited by Reed McIntire

Photo Credit: WikimediaCommons