In a speech on October 2, European Council President Charles Michel declared that “2022 will be the year of European defense,” indicating that defense will be a very high priority for EU leaders in 2022 and beyond.
The statement comes amid widespread doubt that Europe can protect itself militarily, and recently, long-standing worries about Europe’s military capabilities and a lack of coordination between EU member nations resurfaced following the hasty and ill-executed U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Adding to this, Australia recently canceled a $66 billion submarine contract with France and announced it would join the U.S. and the U.K. in a tri-lateral security partnership called AUKUS. The top priority of the partnership is the development of new nuclear submarines for Australia.
Michel’s comments were made at the ceremony to award this year’s Charlemagne Prize to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and sets the stage for a summit in Slovenia on October 5, where the 27 EU heads of state will discuss European defense and security. Stated Michel, “So what is it that we are trying to achieve? We want less dependence, and more influence because we have values to promote, interests to defend, and citizens to protect.”
The greater autonomy stands on two strategic pillars: socioeconomic development and security. However, while calling for greater strategic autonomy, Michel emphasized that NATO remains the backbone of European defense policy. “Strengthening Europe’s defense policy means strengthening the Alliance, because stronger allies make stronger alliances,” Michel said.
Following the upcoming summit, one of the main topics when the European Council convenes in March 2022 will be European defense. The European Union is also set to draft and adopt a new strategic partnership declaration with NATO. Michel also mentioned that NATO has begun to review its “Strategic Concept,” which will be on the agenda of the next NATO summit in Spain in 2022.
While declaring 2022 “the year of European defense” is a strong statement, there is still quite a gap to close before EU member nations are spending as much on defense, relative to GDP, as the U.S.
Less dependence in security matters, coupled with greater influence, is, of course, not free and comes at a price in the form of higher defense expenditures by EU member nations.
Since 2016, EU defense expenditures have grown considerably, and EU nations that are also members of NATO have increased their defense expenditures by 48.3 percent, compared to a 23.6 percent rise in U.S. defense spending over the same period. In 2016, the U.S. spent 3.9 times as much on defense as EU NATO members; however, that figure is expected to fall to 3.2 this year.
Furthermore, in 2021 EU member nations are projected to account for 21.3 percent of total NATO defense expenditures, up from just 18.3 percent in 2016. Among EU member nations, in 2014, only Greece met NATO’s defense expenditure guideline of 2 percent of GDP, but in 2021 Greece, Croatia, the Baltic nations, Poland, Romania and France are all expected to exceed the 2 percent level.
While most EU members still fall short of the 2 percent guideline, major improvements have been made over the past seven years and spending is up across the board.
The launch of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which is an EU initiative to support collaborative defense research and to foster an innovative and competitive defense industrial base, is also a strong indicator that the EU is getting more serious about defense collaboration within the Union.
The EUR 8.0 billion ($9.3 billion) budget from 2021 to 2027 will amount to less than 0.5 percent of total defense expenditures by EU member nations over the same period, and will therefore not in itself bring about a massive change in the European defense industrial base.
The big impact will come from the ongoing rise in defense expenditures among EU member states. However, the launch of the initiative itself speaks volumes and is a key step forward in the right direction.
Europe and the EU understand that security in an ever-changing world is paramount. NATO is at the core of European defense policy and Europe will most likely continue to depend on the U.S. for its own security for years to come.
However, with rising defense expenditures within the EU, this dependency will be reduced over time. The crucial part is that a stronger and more secure EU automatically translates into a stronger and more capable NATO.