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Washington de la Mancha: US Opposition to a Potential European Defense Union

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

On September 15th, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union address in which she emphasized the need for a unitary response from EU Member States in the face of growing global challenges to European integration and security. The heightened tensions in the Union’s neighboring regions, the changing nature of security threats and the EU’s unique experience in military, civilian and developmental missions were all featured in her speech as she set out the Union’s defense policy direction: integrating the military capabilities of Member States under a common European framework.


The theme of centralization informed most of the policy decisions von der Leyen announced, with the formation of a Joint Situational Awareness Center centralizing military intelligence and information cooperation, and the creation of a common European platform for the region’s defense industry increasing interoperability and decreasing external dependencies. This could go as far as even removing VAT for defense equipment produced in the EU, and passing the ‘European Cyber Resilience Act’ that would compile EU cyber defense policy and legislation into common standards. The speech’s concluding nod to France’s takeover of the EU Council and the adoption of a ‘Strategic Compass’ in 2022 pushed to the fore once again the debate over the federalization of Member States’ armed forces under a common EU flag.

Indeed, the discussion has resurfaced innumerable times in the past and was initially animated by strong aspirations under the Helsinki Headline Goal of 1998 – which introduced the idea of a 60,000 strong task force. Even in the face of a series of security crises, such as the Russo-Georgian War, the Syrian Civil War, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the lackluster evacuation of NATO troops from Afghanistan, it failed to mobilize support for any major shifts in European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). While the Commission President has attributed the Union’s hesitation to develop its defense policy to a ‘lack of political will’, time has shown how structural elements, especially US opposition, have precluded such developments and, at the same time, how a change in these variables might give the EU more leverage over its military unity.

The main reason the development of a defense union is stunted has been the United States’ opposition to the idea of an autonomous European authority for territorial defense. Washington’s perspective is mainly informed by ‘Atlanticist dogmatism’, a doctrine Secretary Albright sanctioned through the ‘three Ds’: ‘no duplicating, discriminating, or delinking’ of defense policy. While this policy reflects US concerns over the possibility of their waning role in the post-Cold War era and the supplantation of NATO by an EU defense union, the expansionary politics of Russia and the emergence of modern disruptive technologies leave little doubt over the relevance of the security bloc. Despite this, Washington has not moved away from its staunch opposition to EU ‘strategic autonomy’.

Under Donald Trump this opposition was instrumentalized as interest in the American defense industry. This came into sharper focus with the introduction of PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and the EDF(European Defense Fund). Washington has argued that restrictive third-country regulation over IPR, funding eligibility, and export control against non-EU entities creates ‘the prospect of future European defense cooperation with limited or no American industrial participation’. Indeed, while a majority of Member States are favourable towards third-country involvement – especially from the US – those countries that house direct competitors to US defense companies (e.g., Airbus, MBDA) are driven by a ‘European money for European companies’ ethos and seek emancipation from US influence. An effort especially spearheaded by French officials.


The other end of the spectrum sees eastern-European countries, most notably Poland and the Baltic states, showing the strongest hesitance towards a decoupling from the American military-industrial complex. This is symptomatic of the deeper political fracturing of the Union. These countries continue to view the US as their main security provider, with NATO as the only reliant bulwark against Russian westward influence. Therefore, as long as unanimity is required in order to pass common security policies through the EU, these countries will continue to act as Washington’s ‘trojan horses’ and undermine Brussels’ project of European defense integration.

Despite the EU’s aggregated defense spending of $200 billion, Member States still lack the enabling systems and capabilities, which are often expensive and beyond individual states’ acquisition capacities, and still rely on US support for expeditionary missions. In this sense, what we see is a ‘patchwork of national forces of mostly low readiness’. Declining equipment inventories, diversified types of equipment making joint training impossible and disinvestment in defense technology R&D are only a few of the logistical challenges the Transatlantic alliance faces. Recent EU initiatives should therefore be seen only as addressing the ‘incessant fragmentation, duplication, and waste’ of current efforts, with some political analysts agreeing that a centralized European military authority would strengthen rather than undermine NATO, potentially solving the inefficiencies of the arbitrary 2% of GDP requirement. For example, research has shown that European equipment procurement could be reduced by 30% ( $15 billion per year) if it were done at a centralized level. Other researchers have argued that the centralization of EU defense policy will lead to a mutually-beneficial ‘division of labor’ between NATO and the EU. The Union can play to its strengths in resilience against non-military threats, and long-term capacity building and military training missions in its neighboring region, as it has already been doing in several African nations.

Europeans have been averse to the reallocation of national resources towards national defense spending, but have been generally supportive of increased defense spending at EU level. This is usually taken to be the result of the widespread feeling that ‘the citizenship that needs protection [from the changing geopolitical climate] for many in the EU is not their national citizenship but their EU citizenship’. This collective awareness seems only to be strengthening as many on the continent are increasingly aware that the US is reorienting its foreign policy towards a ‘one-war standard’ on China’s growing influence over Asia-Pacific, leaving European security as a mere afterthought. This may prove to be just the critical juncture that will harness support for military integration across all Member States and enable EU policymakers to supplant the European defense ‘ecosystem’ with a European defense union.


This process could, however, take a generation– especially in the absence of US backing – and researchers predict that full ‘strategic autonomy’ would be unsustainable for regional security, emphasizing the inextricability of NATO. The Transatlantic alliance features in every scenario. Even if the Union achieves full commitment from all its Member States, the question remains: will the Biden administration revise its position towards EU military integration and stop tilting at windmills?


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Well done Andrei!

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