Notes on European defense and the signs of a new world and European order

By Pedro Pereira (Master's Student in EU Law at the University of Minho)

1. Introduction

Defense policies in the European Union (EU) and how they should be conducted are an old topic. In any case, it is defensible that i) the fact that European defense was provided by the United States of America (USA) during the historical period of the Cold War, as well as ii) the circumstance that in more recent times, European defense was materialized and operationalized through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decisively contributed to the deepening of the rights of the European citizen and to the intervention of EU Member States in the development of sociality – something that shaped the way European integration was being built around the Rule of Law and the Welfare State.

The hypothesis of a progressive gap in transatlantic relations (EU and US) – or, at least, the revival of this debate – returns whenever an external threat to European security arises. But world geopolitics may actually be at a turning point, motivated mainly by the return of war, due to the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine– which requires a reassessment of European strategies in terms of foreign policy, security and defense. Recent events, in a way, contradict the thesis of an inevitable European dependence on the US, as well as urge a restructuring of the EU’s defense – which, despite still depending on NATO, aims to be more robust and autonomous. To this extent, the change in the way the EU presents itself on the international scene may be imminent.

2. The political and historical circumstances of European defense

The European integration and unity project, which we now call the EU, is the result of a necessity – that of drastically breaking with the disastrous European reality of the first half of the 20th century. The war on the European continent – which twice in 20 years claimed the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians and which twice spread to the world – provided fertile soil for the construction of a distinct Europe. This soil actually is the legacy of a dark memory, one of tears, blood and unspeakable human suffering as a direct result of highly industrialized war confrontation and inhumane politics. Essentially, an ambition was established, that what had happened in European territory would not repeat itself. – There is nothing like misfortune to motivate the convergence of wills[1]. The European Integration began with the economic sector that had fueled the German and French war machine in the previous decade – the coal and steel sector. In 1951, in Paris the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was born – not without a tortuous process of advances and setbacks. The history of European integration would initially make use of two “Trojan horses” to promote the ultimate goal of political integration: i) the imminent fear of the war coming back; and ii) the need to rebuild a bloodied continent.

Interconnected, these two bastions shared the idea that one would neither attack an economic partner, much less a military ally. The Communities that emerged in 1957 – the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) – reinforced this idea. Furthermore, EURATOM showed some concern with each Member State defense objectives, as it would aim to ensure that no nuclear materials were allocated for warfare purposes.

In fact, common defense is a gargoyle of European integration, because even before the emergence of the EEC, in 1954, there was an unsuccessful attempt for a European Defense Community. In 1952, in Paris, the founding members of the ECSC signed the treaty that founded the European Defense Community. However, in 1954, the French National Assembly refused to ratify the treaty. The Defense Community would fall to the ground at the hands of the French State, which, curiously, had most impelled European integration through the Schuman Declaration.[2]

In any case, the EU’s inability to gather consensus and adopt common positions on external action has always been a constant – for example, the response to crisis situations and military conflicts, such as the Gulf War and the Yugoslav War. The failed attempts at coordination stemmed from the lack of effective European institutions built for this purpose, as well as the divergent interpretations by each Member States in regarding the conflict and the positioning of their own respective interests, which led to the overlapping national vision on top of the European integration interests as a whole. There has always been a contrast between the economic dimension of European integration and its weight in the external political sphere. European defense has always been excessively influenced by the US leadership of NATO[3] – that is, by the influence of those who effectively held the global defense capacity, in the face of the (intentional?) lack of strategic European investment. Something that is still relevant today and that raises questions regarding the autonomy and independence of the EU in this area.

However, it is not correct to say that the EU is not endowed with any active capacity regarding security and common defence. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), that currently includes the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), is divided between Title V of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU)  and Part V of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The European Union, endowed with legal personality, is able to establish a network of delegations and sign international conventions with third-party States and international organizations[4]. Article 3(5) of the TEU defines that in its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens. It shall contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of the child, as well as to the strict observance and the development of international law, including respect for the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Making it clear that the European Union follows the same principles in its external action that historically follows for its internal policies.

But the truth is that, regarding defence, and despite the fact that each Member State naturally enrolls in their own military programmes, the EU does not assert itself as a global military power. The Union’s military potential would be enormous, considering all the human, technological and armament resources that each Member State has at its disposal and which it could put at the service of a hypothetical European army. It is estimated that this could save the Member States EUR 600 million – if, perhaps, their military resources were shared.

However, the historic development of European integration is anything but military in nature – despite embryonic attempts by the European project in this regard. The way the globalized world perceives the Union, as well as its own citizens from within, is one of an unprecedented political construction – for which the internal market served as a motto. That is why it would not be appropriate to convert the EU into a pole of military influence per se, similar to the dichotomous world of the second half of the 20th century, under the sphere of influence of two blocs in permanent and latent tension – on the one hand, the West/USA and, on the other, the Soviet Union.

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact signatory Nations were perceived as opponents by West. The US had established itself as the security “provider” of Western Europe through NATO. The dimension of Europe’s security and defense thus fell under the responsibility of NATO and the alliance heavily depended on US nuclear power[5] – a kind of power that European nations did not have, at least not to extent that was enough to face the one that emerged from the other side of the “iron curtain”.

Under the NATO “umbrella”, the EU was able to channel its focus on the development and sophistication of the Rule of Law and the Welfare State. Thus, a common defense policy was being sidelined – and, although it appeared sporadically, it was not seen as an urgent issue. But it is possible to wonder what the EU would look like if it moved ab initio to a common defense policy – or whether there would even be an EU in the absence of a US-led Western nuclear bloc.

However, in no other existing liberal democracy the fight for civil, social, environmental, labor and economic rights is prioritized as in the EU – and, above all, in such an extensive way. It is therefore defensible that there is a causal link between the deepening of human rights and European citizenship, on the one hand, and the reluctance to move towards an effective common defense policy, on the other. In other words, it is intuitive that the lack of concern for defense – motivated by NATO’s protection and the peaceful climate experienced in the EU – has contributed to this outcome.

Deep down, until recently, Europe was under the illusion of the end of the war. Perhaps as a result of peace, prosperity, freedom of movement, or the progressive democratic transition of several States in the last 30 years – including the former states of the Soviet sphere of influence –, Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” project seemed to be on the way to being fulfilled in the European Union. Kant explained that there would be a remote possibility of overcoming wars between States, on the condition that all those States were republican (or democratic)[6], considering the consent of citizens – which is expressed by the exercise of their political rights and is reflected in public opinion – it would be an inhibiting factor in the exercise of war because it would directly affect them.

With the end of the Cold War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU used its soft power projection to control its areas of interest and spread its values – of Rule of Law, democracy, and human rights. On the other hand, NATO and the US shifted their attention away from Europe and adopted an increasingly global vision. Moreover, in recent times, the decline of NATO’s role as a “provider” of European security has led to the emergence of Europeanist initiatives in terms of security[7].

There certainly has been a densification of the TEU’s provisions on external security and defense. The figure of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as the European External Action Service, was introduced into the treaties. The CFSP absorbed the CSDP, ending what Jacques Delors called “organized schizophrenia”[8]. However, such institutional advances did not create an effective, material and operative status for the EU on the international stage – nor did they solve the problem regarding European dependency on NATO. This area of integration must be perceived as a work in progress – characterized by the alternation between moments of stagnation and moments of evolution.

3. Evidence of an unfolding new world order

The Crimean Peninsula crisis in 2014 has shaken the relations between the EU and the Russian Federation. The hypothesis of NATO’s eastward expansion, as well as the enlargement of the EU – that included States that previously belonged to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence – were considered a threat by the Kremlin[9]. From the Russian perspective, the dual alignment of those States with the EU and the Russian Federation ended up resulting in a competitive climate between the two blocs. In the face of Russia’s primary objective of restoring itself as a global superpower, Russia’s newly adopted aggressive strategy has brought back past fears – which re-qualify it as a threat to a united Europe.

The peaceful climate in European territory – which would even lead NATO to consider in 2010 that “the Euro-Atlantic area (was) at peace and the probability of conventional attack on NATO territories (would be) low[10] – would only last until 2014 with the invasion of Crimea by Russian military forces. The return of a climate of hostility to the European continent led to the orchestration of NATO’s rapid reaction plan. This plan meant that in 2015 the available troops tripled, increasing from 13,000 to 40,000 operational personnel (land, naval, air and special operations) concentrated in the vicinity of the Russian Federation[11]. Considering that 28 of the 30 NATO Member States are European – and that 21 of the 28 European States are EU Member States – the impact caused on the Union’s foreign policy should be expected.

In addition, several successive events shook the international political scene – and, although independent from each other, they ended up mutually influencing each other, contributing to the current state of the art. Among the various controversies introduced by the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the USA, the declared intention to withdraw the US from NATO stands out[12]. The threat meant an attempt to exert political pressure and to instrumentalize NATO for the defense of what its understood as US‘s own interests or priorities. As a result, the Trump administration would launch a climate of instability on the international scene, contributing to the construction of an image of little cohesion among NATO members – and such a message was naturally perceived by the Russian Federation.

After publicly considering leaving NATO, an ultimatum was issued on May 22nd, 2019 in Washington. The then US’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Michael Murphy, was harshly critical of European defense policy and called for greater alignment with Washington. He stated that the EU would be faced with the dilemma of aligning with the US, or facing external threats alone – as would be the Russian threat, with which the Union shared borders[13]. On several occasions, the Trump administration has criticized the EU, urging it to strengthen its defenses, but never wanting it to follow an individual and autonomous European policy. The result was growing European concern about the future of transatlantic relations.

At the same time, the EU was experiencing its own domestic drama with the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit – which meant the loss of a Member State with transatlantic concerns and whose eyes would be more often laid upon the Atlantic than on the Continent. On the other hand, with Brexit, the conditions were met to achieve a deepening of the EU’s external autonomy and independence, as the United Kingdom repeatedly played an ambiguous game of international politics between the European plane and the Commonwealth.

In any case, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022 was the decisive event – the one that triggered the hypothesis that a new world order may be at the dawn. The invasion of Ukraine is on a plane that is difficult to characterize and distinguish between, on one hand, the past reality of the Cold War and, on the other, a new state of affairs. If it is true that Ukraine’s rapprochement to the West was never well received in Moscow (which harks back to the bipolar world of the Cold War), it is also true that the strength and influence of liberal democracies is under pressure (which would be a new element in this equation). So the pressing question in terms of European defense would be to try to unravel whether and to what extent the EU should remain aligned with the US.

What is certain is that with Russian hostility at the European gates, the transition to European autonomy and independence regarding defense seems dangerous. In comparative terms, US defense budget in 2020 was 3.7% of its GDP; the average percentage of the GDP of Canada and the European States belonging to NATO was fixed at 1.77%[14]. Such a disparity would be evident if the EU opted for a common defense policy, one that is independent from NATO allies. It is certain that resources allocated to other sectors could be channeled into a defense effort. But in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, such resources are necessary for the European economy restructuring. For that matter, the NextGenerationEU plan, points to investments in the order of 806.9 billion euros[15].

In any case, the issue of defense has returned to the stage of European political discussion. Considering the position of Emannuel Macron who, even before the invasion of Ukraine and taking advantage of the French presidency of the EU’s Council, launched the debate on the autonomy and independence regarding the defense of the European Union[16]. It is important to remember that Article 42 of the TEU foresees the respect for the obligations arising from the NATO treaty – and that breaking with NATO would necessarily imply altering the EU’s constitutive Treaties, something that generates great controversy and political difficulty. In any case, the debate on the consequent and solid construction of a common security and defense policy will be temporarily suspended due to the war in Ukraine – as it will not be the best timing to reveal breaches in the necessary Western cohesion in the face of the Russian aggressor.

4. Conclusion

The initial failure of the European Defense Community, as well as the protective role of NATO based on the US nuclear power, may have promoted the favorable circumstances for the development of the Rule of Law and the Welfare State in the European Union. Recent political events that have impacted the perception of geopolitical reality may be inducing the rise of a new world order. The debate on autonomy and independence in terms of common defense and security seems to be unavoidable. The EU will be able to put into practice the provisions of Article 42 of the TEU, but independency from NATO would require an amendment to that Treaty – which would trigger divergences and possibly internal fragmentation.

Furthermore, the rise of the EU as a military super power on the international stage would imply a change in its role and external and internal relevance – which has an impact on the definition of European political priorities as well as the allocation of European resources. Anyway, in response to such significant events on the international scene, it is important to question whether there is another option left for the European project. Is it perhaps the time to redirect European integration towards another type of concerns – which, in the same way, add to the preservation and deepening of Rule of Law, democracy and the social market economy, and that are still in favor of increasing the quality of life of the European populations? Could it be time for a new political-legal scenario and a new worldview with different priorities – strictly speaking, priorities that are complementary to those that have always marked the integration process? Is a new world order incoming or not – or at least a new European one?

[1] Originally: “Nada como a desgraça para patrocinar a convergência de vontades”. Silveira, Alessandra. Princípios de Direito da União Europeia Doutrina e Jurisprudência. Lisboa: Quid Juris, 2011. P. 20.

[2] Camisão, Isabel, and Francisco Pereira Coutinho. “Ação Externa”. In Direito da União Europeia. Elementos de Direito e Políticas da União, edited by: Alessandra Silveira, Mariana Canotilho and Pedro Madeira Froufe, 1187–235. Almedina, 2016. P. 1198.

[3] Camisão, Isabel, and Francisco Pereira Coutinho. “Ação Externa”. In Direito da União Europeia. Elementos de Direito e Políticas da União, edited by: Alessandra Silveira, Mariana Canotilho and Pedro Madeira Froufe, 1187–235. Almedina, 2016. P. 1199.

[4] Idem. P.1190.

[5] Erciyas, Ahmet, e Abdullah Soydemir. “Transformation of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy After 2014 Regarding Ukraine Crisis”. Güvenlik Stratejileri Dergisi, January 2022.

[6] Gaspar, Carlos. “Três proposições sobre a guerra e a democracia” In Comunicação & Cultura, n.º 4, 2007, pp. 83-95. P.83.

[7] Erciyas, Ahmet, e Abdullah Soydemir. “Transformation of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy After 2014 Regarding Ukraine Crisis”. Güvenlik Stratejileri Dergisi, January 2022.

[8] Camisão, Isabel, e Francisco Pereira Coutinho. “Ação Externa”. In Direito da União Europeia. Elementos de Direito e Políticas da União, edited by: Alessandra Silveira, Mariana Canotilho e Pedro Madeira Froufe, 1187–235. Almedina, 2016. P. 1189.

[9] Erciyas, Ahmet, e Abdullah Soydemir. “Transformation of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy After 2014 Regarding Ukraine Crisis”. Güvenlik Stratejileri Dergisi, January 2022. P.11.

[10] Idem P.14.

[11] NATO, Nato’s Readiness Action Plan Fact Sheet, July 2016.

[12] Barnes, Julian E., e Helene Cooper. “Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. From NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia (Published 2019)”. The New York Times, January 15th 2019.

[13] [13] De Miguel, Bernardo. “EE UU da un ultimátum a Europa para que rectifique su plan de defensa”. El País, June 3rd 2019.

[14] BBC. “Nato summit: What does the US contribute?” BBC News, June 14th 2021.

[15] European Union. “NextGenerationEU”. European Union. Last seen on June 27th, 2022.

[16] Santos Pereira, Carlos. “Europa reforça aposta na defesa em nome de autonomia estratégica”. DN, January 2nd, 2018.

Picture credits: Robert Waghorn.

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