Does Europe need an army? Jean-Claude Juncker seems to think so. “A common army among the Europeans,” the Commission president told Welt am Sonntag, “would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”
But Europe’s problem is not that it lacks an army. It is that it lacks a serious commitment to defence — national, European or transatlantic. European defence spending has been in serious decline for well over a decade.
In 2000, European Nato countries still spent 2 per cent of their combined gross domestic product on defence (the Nato target). By 2007, well before the financial crisis, spending had declined to 1.5 per cent of GDP. And since the crisis, spending has continued to decline by an average of 2 per cent a year.
The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s aggressive posture was supposed to put an end to this decline. In September, Nato leaders meeting in Wales pledged to halt the decline in defence spending and move to increase it in real terms as their economies began to grow. Ultimately, these leaders pledged to reach the target of 2 per cent within a decade.
An analysis by the European Leadership Network demonstrates that many European governments have failed to meet even the minimal test of halting the decline in spending. A survey of plans for the coming year shows that six countries are continuing to cut spending, including many of the largest: the UK, Germany and Italy.
Indeed, Britain’s anticipated cuts will result in spending below the Nato 2 per cent target for the first time in many years. France is planning to keep spending level, while the Netherlands and most Nato countries in eastern Europe are planning increases. Even so, only Estonia will actually spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defence.
Perhaps most surprising, and disappointing, is the fact that cuts in the British defence budget for this year will leave UK spending below the Nato 2 per cent target for the first time in many years.
This embarrassing fact has led the Cameron government to look for ways to pad the overall budget number, for example by including war pensions and spending on intelligence, to stay near or even at 2 per cent.
Other Nato countries have also resorted to this practice. Greece for example has long been above the threshold by including large personnel and pension costs. But the fact remains that real UK defence spending is set to decline.
As significant as overall spending levels is the reality that Europe has been spending in ways that do little to improve current and future capabilities. For years, much of annual defence spending has been on operations — in Afghanistan, for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and for peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and elsewhere — starving research, development and procurement funds of much-needed investment.
When compared with US spending patterns, the picture becomes even worse. More than half of all European defence spending goes on personnel, compared with one-third of the US budget. Less than 20 per cent of European spending went on investment, compared with more than 30 per cent in the US.
As a result, the US spends seven times as much on research and development, three times as much on equipment and four times as much per soldier as the European Nato countries combined.
If building a European army can address this sharp, steady decline in spending and capabilities, then the US would be the first to welcome the initiative. But there is no evidence that governments are more willing to spend for the defence of Europe than they are for their national defence or for Nato.
The issue is not whether Europe needs an army to demonstrate its seriousness about defending the values of the EU. The issue is whether Europe is serious about defending itself against real and growing security threats. Judging by budgetary decisions, the answer, unfortunately, is No.
The writer is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. From 2009-13 he was the US Ambassador to Nato.
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