The question of Europe’s ability to stabilize its neighborhood and even to defend its own territory was high on the agenda this year. The election of Donald Trump—who repeatedly questioned the relevance of NATO on the campaign trail—again underlined the need for Europeans to invest more in their own defense capabilities. In an interview, Trump particularly singled out Germany as a rich country that would not contribute enough to international security.
The U.S. call for greater burden-sharing between Europe and the United States within NATO is not new. U.S. commentators often refer to the low defense expenditures when criticizing a lackluster European defense. True, looking only at the numbers, Germany is set to spend a mere 1.22 percent of its GDP on defense in 2017. This number already represents an increase of 8 percent in the defense budget compared to 2016. For an economy of the size of Germany, reaching NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is still a distant goal. Berlin would need to inflate the defense budget to over €60 billion yearly, well exceeding the defense spending of France and the UK. Not only would that increase be politically difficult to achieve within a foreseeable timespan, it is also questionable whether a defense giant in the middle of Europe with a troubled history will be perceived favorably among European partners.
While investments have to be made, an increase in expenditure alone is not the solution to German and European deficiencies to contribute to international stability. Instead, Germany has high hopes that a more self-assured German hard power will be vested in stronger EU cooperation on defense matters. Especially since the UK’s electorate voted to leave the Union this summer, some member states, including Germany, are more ambitious to advance EU defense cooperation.
Those with hopes for bold EU reforms will be disappointed when EU leaders discuss proposals to reform the EU’s common security and defense policy (CSDP) at the European Council meeting in Brussels this week. Proposals have been prepared and presented already in recent months. EU member states take small steps in the right direction, especially regarding plans to coordinate their defense capability developments more closely. Better coordination alone could help Europeans avoid wasteful duplications of between €25 billion and €100 billion annually. The European Commission proposes a €5 billion per year defense fund for common procurement and development of key technologies, but member states still need to write the checks. However, despite advances on the defense industry and research policies, member states are not able to agree on building serious common structures and capabilities on an EU level that would help them to run joint missions abroad more effectively.
The lack of progress in European defense cooperation is a blow to Germany, which has been among the key proponents of ambitious reforms. Germany together with France, Italy, and Spain pushed for permanent and autonomous planning structures to prepare and conduct EU military operations. They also proposed the establishment of a European medical command and a logistics hub to assist in crisis management operations.
In the preparations of this week’s European Council, these proposals did not go down well in some of the other European capitals. The Baltic states and Poland were particularly skeptical. These countries are mainly concerned about being a target of potential Russian aggressions. Hence, they especially value a strong engagement of NATO in Europe and see only limited value in expanding EU defense cooperation beyond low-risk crisis management. Ireland and Austria were equally reserved, as they do not want to see their neutral status compromised. The UK—which normally pushes the break on further EU defense cooperation—was able lean back and see the discussions unfold without having to play the spoiler this time around.
Consequently, EU foreign and defense ministers agreed in November only to establish a boiled down version of an “EU headquarters,” which will be limited to assist with civilian and military training missions. Military operations, such as the operation Sophia against human trafficking on the Mediterranean Sea or the anti-piracy mission of the coast in Somalia, will continue to be organized from national headquarters. The idea of the medical command or a logistic hub was taken up in an implementation paper by Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, but ministers did not agree on taking the initiative further. Some of the reforms might now be introduced among a core group of member states with Germany, France, and Italy at its center.
Germany’s key argument for introducing these joint structures is that the EU needs to play a bigger role in stabilizing the African continent and in fighting the root causes of migration. A small scale “EU headquarters” is seen as useful in out-of-area crisis interventions, for example in Northern Africa and the Sahel region. At the same time, Germany is extremely cautious not to create overlapping with NATO’s role and priorities. Germany’s latest white paper on security policy clearly states that “NATO remains the anchor and main framework of action for German security and defense policy.” A greater role of the EU in Africa is, however, seen as complementary to NATO efforts, as the transatlantic organization never had a prominent role in the region.
A reason why Germany has been unsuccessful with its proposals might partly be that European partners have been disappointed in the past with Germany’s contributions to EU defense. Germany’s lack of engagement was visible when it abstained from the UN vote on the no-fly-zone over Libya in 2011. Most of the German contributions relate to the EU’s civilian or military training missions involving a low level of risk. Germany is often criticized for seeing EU integration as an end in itself, focusing too much on structures and institutions and too little on strategies and concrete deployments. Just recently the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pointed out that he has always been “in favor of an operative EU defense rather than a declarative defense,” a clear message to its European partners that France is interested in results on the ground.
The EU partners thus welcome Germany’s shifted position on military engagements in recent years. After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, Berlin started to contribute to the deterrence in the Baltics and pledged to send 650 soldiers as well as Leopard 2 tanks to Lithuania as part of the NATO deterrence efforts. Military experts see this move as largely symbolic. However, it is politically of importance, as it would put German soldiers on the frontline if an armed conflict ever emerged. Germany helped France in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 by sending more soldiers to Mali thereby easing the burden of the French forces. A German reconnaissance airplane and frigate assists the French-led air campaign over Syria.
The German government has very good reasons to act carefully on defense matters. German public opinion as well as the historical experiences restrain the country from engaging lightly in military campaigns and push it to invest in international diplomacy as an alternative means to foster stability in neighboring regions. However, Germany’s military engagements—which might in the future also include high risk combat missions in crisis regions—are also a useful signal to EU partners that it is committed to a strong European defense. In return, the EU might be able to take bolder steps to strengthen its defense cooperation in the future.
Niklas Helwig is a TAPIR fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.