At the end of June, 25 years after Madrid last hosted a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, the Spanish capital will once again be the scene of a new chapter in European security. And Europe will have to be the protagonist for the most part. Ultimately, the forthcoming meeting of the alliance should help us Europeans to stand up and take responsibility for the security of our continent. That is the best and most necessary contribution Europe can make to the future of NATO.
The geopolitical context today is very different from that of a quarter of a century ago. At the Madrid summit in 1997, NATO invited three former Warsaw Pact countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to join. Moreover, after the signing that year of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the subsequent establishment of the NATO-Russia Council, Europe looked forward to a future of unprecedented rapprochement with the Kremlin. Now, of course, little of that optimism remains.
NATO has proven to be indispensable to Europe’s security and the best guarantee of their national security for a growing number of countries. One of the major consequences of the war in Ukraine was Finland’s and Sweden’s applications to join NATO – two countries with all the credentials to make a positive contribution to the alliance. Following the recent decision by Danish citizens to align themselves with the defense policy of the European Union, the institutions that form the basis of European security are increasingly aligned.
For decades, a false dichotomy between Europeans and Atlanticists has fueled a sterile and unproductive security debate in Europe. Today, few doubt that Europeans need to contribute more to the alliance and European security, and that they need to develop the capacity to lead in future security crises. The question is therefore how Europe can best contribute to NATO’s mission.
A strong Europe is indispensable to revitalize the transatlantic security bond. During one of my first meetings as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a former British chief of defense staff aptly described the direction this relationship should take. “A Europe that remains tied to the United States only because of its own weakness,” he said, “is of limited value.”
Strengthening transatlantic relations implies recognizing that their European component has changed. The events of recent months have shown that the EU can respond to security threats in a coordinated and robust manner. Extensive sanctions against Russia, joint financing of arms supplies to Ukraine and the idea of drastically reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy were unthinkable a few years ago.
The European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following measures taken by the continent to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, has confirmed that Europe is getting stronger in times of adversity. It is true that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has made it easier for Europe to unite. But the ambition of the leaders is remarkable, given the economic cost to Europe of some of the measures.
The basis for advancing European defense integration is already in place. Progress over the past 20 years in the areas of common security and defense policy, the experience of both civilian and military EU missions, the work of the European Defense Agency and the adoption of the Strategic Compass have put Europe in a good position to meet the challenge.
The willingness of the national public and EU institutions to fund joint projects to strengthen the European defense sector is an essential first step. The German government’s recent policy change — nearly doubling defense spending to 100 billion euros ($107 billion) by 2022 — presents a historic opportunity to fund projects with other European partners.
And Germany is not alone. The war in Ukraine has prompted EU member states to announce unprecedented increases in defense spending totaling €200 billion over the next four years. These commitments contrast with Europe’s previous slowness in this area. Over the past 20 years, the percentage increase in EU member states’ combined defense spending has been three times less than that of the US, 15 times less than Russia’s and 30 times less than China’s.
Fortunately, the size of military expenditure is less important than how it is spent. We need to spend better, together and as Europeans. Joint defense spending is more efficient than national efforts and helps to strengthen Europe’s industrial and technological base. The European Commission’s recent pledge to allocate €500 million for joint defense purchases suggests that Europe is on the right track.
Europe currently relies on spending beyond its borders for 60% of its military capabilities. More and better defense spending should prevent Europe from becoming more dependent on other countries’ arms industry, as this undermines efforts to achieve greater European strategic autonomy. But while we should encourage investment in an all-European defense industry, the proposed European Defense Union by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen should not create new internal dependencies that benefit a few national industries in Europe.
The development of the EU’s common defense policy does not entail a division of responsibilities with regard to European security, nor does it purport to replace the vital function of NATO. The responsibilities of the organizations behind the transatlantic security band remain the same. It’s about taking on those responsibilities with all of our existing capabilities.
The American commentator Walter Lippmann said that alliances are like chains: they cannot be strong with weak links. On the eve of the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022, this is the best way to describe the political challenge facing the transatlantic relationship. Only the political will of Europeans and their leaders will be able to strengthen the security of our continent.