The European Union’s Defense Ambitions Threaten to Undermine European Security

Signing the joint notification on the permanent structured cooperation. Photo Credit: Tauno Tõhk/European Council.

In recent years, the European Union has put forth a host of initiatives aimed at improving the region’s defense and security. These proposals are wide-ranging, covering areas from defense spending to a “European Army.” While efforts to create improvements in defense capabilities among European states are commendable, these plans have the potential to undermine the existing NATO-led force structure. As it pursues its defense ambitions, the European Union must take steps to maintain both NATO and European cohesion.  

Since 2017, the European Union has implemented multiple comprehensive policies meant to restructure defense cooperation and organization. These include the following: The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which aims to improve European defense capabilities and cooperation with an emphasis on joint defense-related research projects; The European Defence Fund (EDF), a mechanism for funding PESCO projects and incentivizing greater cohesion and efficiency within Europe’s defense industry; the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), which provides evaluation of military capabilities, progress of improvements, and opportunities for greater cooperation; and, the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), meant to coordinate joint military operations.[i]

Late last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested the idea of a “European Army.”[ii] The concept’s origins can be traced to the early 1950s, when the Eisenhower Administration actively supported the Treaty establishing the European Defense Community. The agreement would have created a supranational defense structure, headquartered in Paris, which would include a unified army supported by six western European states. The treaty met its ends with France’s refusal to ratify. [iii] Successful European integration efforts of the time instead focused on economics. The EU’s forerunners, the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic Community, were all established by the end of the decade. With their emphasis on economic integration, European states found themselves increasingly reliant on the US-led NATO force structure to ensure the security of the continent against the looming Soviet threat. In a world in which NATO has played the dominant role in European security for the past seventy years, a revival of the European Army concept, along with the EU’s other defense proposals, threatens to further separate two organizations already experiencing strains on their relationship.  

The EU’s shifting perspective toward defense comes amid reduced economic and political commitments to NATO on the part of the United States. The defense spending of NATO members has been a frequent target of President Trump, who has criticized NATO members for relying on the United States to “subsidize” European security.[iv] This criticism has evolved into policy in recent months, with the United States shifting $771 million in military construction funds from the European Defense Initiative to fund construction of a border wall on the southern border of the United States.[v] The Trump Administration is also backing a proposal that would shift its contributions to NATO common funding, used primarily to address administrative costs, from 22.1 percent to 15.9 percent, while Germany’s share would go from 14.8 to 15.9 percent.[vi] Although the withdrawal of American funds represents a small sum of total US expenditures for European defense, the greatest impact of spending reductions is their political message of decreased American support. As the United States actively seeks ways to reduce its security support for Europe, the European Union’s pursuit of a more independent means of security assurance is understandable.

Another threat to the relationship between NATO and its European members is the anticipated withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Assuming that “Brexit” does take place, 80% of NATO defense spending will then belong to non-EU members, exacerbating concerns that NATO may not value input from its European members.[vii] This is compounded by the fact that, historically, the UK has acted as both a primary liaison between the EU and NATO as well as an obstacle to European security initiatives outside of NATO. The British government has utilized its bilateral relationship with the United States and its status as Europe’s chief military power to bridge the interests of the EU and NATO. At the same time, the UK has demonstrated its preference for a NATO-centric European security policy, vetoing the creation of a proposed EU military headquarters in 2011 and rejecting budget increases to the European Defense Agency.[viii] A European security apparatus without the United Kingdom will be more isolated from NATO and more incentivized to construct independent security policy. 

An increasingly parallel relationship between the EU and NATO brings with it the practical concerns of redundancy and a lack of coordination. This is especially true in the area of military deployment. EU leaders have stressed that the new defense policies will exist to complement NATO, not supersede it. In reality, EU policies have already expanded operational autonomy outside of NATO. The MPCC was originally limited to “non-executive” missions, defined as “operations that support the host nation with an advisory role.”[ix] Notable examples include EU training missions in Somalia, Mali, and the Central African Republic. But in November 2018, the MPCC was expanded to oversee “executive,” or traditional combat, operations of a battalion-sized unit of up to 2,500 troops.[x] This is an encroachment upon the combined operations command role traditionally reserved for NATO.  

EU defense policies may hinder coordination through the issue of resource prioritization. Earlier this year, the EU approved a European Defence Fund budget of €13 billion for years 2021-2027.[xi] The move was met with U.S. criticism due to fear that specific provisions of the EDF would unfairly favor European defense suppliers and block out American firms.[xii] But the more concerning security issue is that this spending will be focused on EU priorities, separate from those of NATO. This could create an acquisitions environment that is more accommodating of increasingly divergent priorities. Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Andrea Thompson, have argued that this raises the possibility of redundancy in procurement, while decreasing the interoperability of EU and non-EU members of NATO.[xiii] The issue here is not the desire of EU member states to increase defense spending, but doing so in a way that is separate from NATO priorities, which could further undermine the relationship.

Some of these issues are already presenting themselves. A review from the European Court of Auditors, released September 12, raised concerns that the current European Union defense ambitions are out of touch with the reality of current capabilities. Member states were found to have “clear strategic differences” as well as divergent views on rules of engagement and use of force. Furthermore, the review concluded that the large increases in EU defense spending lack “proper control systems” to align with policy objectives, questioning whether EU initiatives would be able to avoid “duplication and overlapping” with NATO.[xiv] 

To address the challenge of increasing EU defense autonomy while not eroding NATO integrity, European defense advocates should pursue a defense framework modeled on the recently formed European Intervention Initiative (EII). Led by the French, the Initiative currently hosts ten members and exists outside of both the EU and NATO.[xv] Its intent is to incorporate “able and willing” members into a structure for intelligence sharing and joint planning to respond effectively to future crises in the region. The Initiative is developed with flexibility in mind, anticipating integration into NATO, UN, or EU command in a time of crisis. The critical difference of the EII compared to EU-specific defense policies is that it exists outside of the EU structure. Its flexible design allows it to function as a form of compromise between the desire among EU states for greater autonomy and the need for maintaining a strong NATO relationship. Future European defense ambitions should incorporate this design in order to minimize the challenges presented by the strict barriers created by EU membership.[xvi]

An additional characteristic of the European Intervention Initiative is its ability to incorporate non-EU members. This will allow the United Kingdom to maintain its status as a member of the Initiative in a post-Brexit environment.[xvii] It is critical that the European Union establish a similar mechanism to keep the UK in the fold on security issues. Recent proposals to include the UK on select PESCO projects offer a possibility for integration.[xviii] A schism with the UK not only threatens Europe’s defensive cohesiveness but also encourages the UK to pursue a more bilateral security relationship with the United States, further dividing European and non-European members of NATO.   

Given the current state of US attitude toward NATO and the state of US-EU relations, it is understandable why the EU has pursued a more independent defense policy in recent years. Considering the limited state of European military capabilities, the efforts are frankly admirable. However, EU member states must exercise caution in this endeavor, as the development of an increasingly independent European security apparatus outside of NATO will weaken the security alliance, and subsequently European security as a whole.


[i] “EU’s New Defence and Security Initiatives,” Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, accessed October 15, 2019,

[ii] Maia De La Baume and David M. Herzenhorn, “Merkel joins Macron in calling for EU army to complement NATO,” Politico, November 13, 2018, accessed October 15, 2019,

[iii] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Is Europe Ready to Defend Itself?” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2019, accessed October 15, 2019,

[iv] John Haltiwanger, “Trump keeps criticizing NATO allies over spending. Here’s how NATO’s budget actually works,” Business Insider, August 21, 2019, accessed October 15, 2019,

[v] Joe Gould, Sebastian Sprenger, and Valerie Insinna, “Trump drains US spending in Europe to pay for wall with Mexico,” Defense News, September 5, 2019, accessed October 15, 2019,

[vi] Anne Gearan and Michael Birnbaum, “Trump may score symbolic victory in long fight with Germany over NATO spending,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019, accessed October 15, 2019,

[vii] “Brexit’s Impact on NATO and European Security,” NATO Association of Canada, accessed October 15, 2019,

[viii] Stephanie Hofmann, “Brexit will weigh heavily on European security. Here’s why.” Washington Post, October 18, 2018, accessed October 15, 2019,

[ix] Thierry Tardy, “MPCC: Towards an EU Military Command?”, ETH Zürich, Center for Security Studies, June 13, 2017, accessed October 15, 2019,

[x] Brooks Tigner, “EU to expand its military headquarters but bigger decision lies in money for its operations,” Jane’s 360, November 21, 2018, accessed October 15, 2019,

[xi] “EU budget for 2021-2027: Commission welcomes provisional agreement on the future European Defence Fund,” European Commission, February 20, 2019, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xii] Steven Erlanger, “Europe Vows to Spend More on Defense, but U.S. Still Isn’t Happy,” New York Times, June 6, 2019, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xiii] Paul Mcleary, “State, DoD Letter Warns European Union to Open Defense Contracts, Or Else,” Breaking Defense, May 17, 2019, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xiv] Martin Banks,”EU defense ambitions may come up short, audit warns,” Defense News, September 12, 2019, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xv] Clement Nicolas, “Finland becomes tenth participant country in European Intervention Initiative,” Euractiv. November 9, 2018, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xvi] Olivier-Remy Bel, “Can Macron’s European Intervention Initiative Make the Europeans Battle Ready?” War on the Rocks, October 2, 2019, accessed on October 15, 2019,

[xvii] “The European Intervention Initiative (EII/EI2),” UK Parliament: House of Commons Library, September 23, 2019, accessed October 15, 2019,

[xviii] Alexandra Brzozowski, “Brexit uncertainty delays EU’s defence industry plans,” Euractiv, May 9, 2019, accessed on October 18, 2019,

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