How Europe Can Fight for Its Own Future

The dedication ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels last week. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
The dedication ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels last week. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Donald Trump attended a meeting of NATO leaders here last week. Addressing his peers in front of a new memorial for the Sept. 11 attacks, the embattled American president refused to commit himself clearly to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, according to which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all. The only time in NATO’s history that this principle of collective defense has been invoked was immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite that, Mr. Trump once again castigated his NATO allies for failing to make progress toward the target of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, jointly agreed to in 2006 and to be achieved by 2024. The number of countries that have met the 2 percent target since the agreement has fallen from six to five, showing that some European Union countries are in reverse gear.

It is true that European countries do need to focus more attention on defense. For too long in Europe, we have relied on the United States for our collective security. The growing threat of an expansionist Russia, combined with President Trump’s reluctance to recognize this threat and Britain’s increasing retreat to isolationism, shows that Europe needs to take more responsibility for its own security.

As Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, put it: “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.” Speaking after last week’s NATO and Group of 7 meetings, she said, “We have to fight for our own future ourselves, for our destiny as Europeans.”

For me, though, the real debate to be had in the coming years is not whether the 2 percent target is met by the 27 European Union countries. It is rather the fact that Europe’s defense forces are riddled with inefficiencies and duplication, which have undermined the union’s capabilities.

So far, despite some progress, it has proved extremely difficult for member states to pool their military resources and reduce the needless duplication of military capabilities. The European Defense Agency, set up precisely to share resources, has had an uphill struggle to achieve its goal.

There has been some success in the integration of battle divisions within Europe. Czech units are becoming increasingly integrated with German forces, as are the Dutch, each playing to their strengths. The Eurocorps, a permanent multinational rapid-reaction force involving troops from nine member states and established for both NATO and European Union purposes, was declared operational in 1995. This model of integration could be the nucleus from which fully integrated military forces under the aegis of the European Defense Union could grow.

Such a union could also enable member states to develop a credible joint defense target, which would be based on contributions to the union’s operational capability, rather than an arbitrary goal for national spending.

A common defense union would allow a more joined-up approach to intelligence-sharing and cybersecurity. The leaking of malware designed by the National Security Agency by Russian hackers represents a serious threat to European infrastructure, as we saw with the recent ransomware attacks that hit many European countries. Experts suggest this was an amateur criminal operation, but the next attack could be far more devastating. The European Union could establish a common cyberwarfare capability at a relatively low cost.

For the first time, the European Commission is preparing a budget for military spending to fund joint defense research projects, an aim I firmly welcome. Again, this could facilitate the purchase of common assets and create the economies of scale necessary to enable the European Union to build a strong, united modern military, instead of 27 parallel structures. The European Defense Fund should therefore be a start toward the more effective acquisition of joint assets and capabilities.

A European Defense Union could also work to complete Europe’s defense market, to ensure the strategic autonomy of the European defense industry and strengthen its global competitiveness. This would create a sustainable and integrated European defense technology and industrial base.

The open and liberal character of our societies can be preserved only if our internal resilience is strengthened. That also includes reinforcing our capability to deter attacks against our territory and our ability to project power and stabilize our regional neighborhood. No European Union member state can face these tasks alone, which is why the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, should seize the initiative and present proposals for the wide-ranging European Defense Union I have outlined.

The European Union should not undermine or seek to create structures parallel to NATO. The treaty organization must remain a bedrock of our common security, but a robust European pillar under NATO would ensure that we spend our limited resources efficiently, increase the union’s ability to act and better guarantee the security of our citizens.

Europeans have dithered about common defense for more than half a century. The election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency in France, together with President Trump’s unclear commitment to his NATO allies, provide the opportunity for us to have an honest political debate about European security and how best to realize the NATO target we’ve agreed to.

Guy Verhofstadt, the prime minister of Belgium from 1999 to 2008, is the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament and the author of “Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union

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