Avoiding a worst-case scenario: EU security and defence in the new decade

Jacob Stokes | Europe and Eurasia Fellow


Increased defence spending in Asia, most notably in China and India, has shifted the centre of gravity of defence spending away from Europe and the U.S. and towards Asia and the Middle East. Asia overtook Europe in defence spending in 2012 with China alone expected to outspend a post-Brexit EU by early 2020. There has been a severe lack of motivation by EU members to commit to increased defence funding. European members of NATO have begrudgingly upped defence spending following repeated criticism from President Trump. However, nationalist sentiments have made contributing to, or even agreeing upon, collective EU defence initiatives difficult. This could have disastrous ramifications for the EU into the new decade, as the following hypotheticals illustrate.


As nationalist thinking prevails, Member States will lack the ambition to build towards a more assertive and defensively secure Europe, focused instead on domestic issues such as border management and reduced austerity measures. Insufficient defence spending will lead to Member States possessing inadequate defence capabilities, not ideal in a time when investment in new forms of defence technologies, including artificial intelligence and biological warfare, is rising. This leaves Europe unprepared and exposed to transnational terrorist groups and non-state actors, further exacerbating anti-EU sentiments if attacks increase in frequency.


A defensively weak and unstable EU would then become even more reliant on the U.S. for its security and defence. A despondent U.S., tired of being burdened with the responsibility of the safety and enduring existence of an entire political and economic entity, shifts its focus towards combating China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. troops are pulled from all NATO states below the 2 per cent NATO defence spending threshold and U.S. involvement in joint NATO exercises declines.


Such an event would have severe repercussions on the EU’s credibility as a global actor. Lacking the capability to effectively defend itself and unable to agree upon a long-term strategy for dealing with impending security challenges, Member States close their borders and withdraw from Schengen in an attempt to deal with cross-border threats.


This is, of course, a worst-case scenario. However, it does seek to highlight the importance of the development of a collective and ambitious EU security and defence policy. While the failure to do so may not result in the exact events speculated above, inaction will not go unpunished. It is vital EU Member States come together to adopt an improved European Agenda for Security.


Some positive steps have already been taken by the EU over the past few years. A permanent military operational headquarters, the Military Planning and Conduct Capability, was established in 2017 to help streamline the military chain of command, improve crisis response, and reduce operational costs. A further aspect of the EU’s security and defence policy, the Permanent Structured Cooperation, has also allowed Member States to deepen defence cooperation, with the aim of joint development of defence capabilities and maximising the effectiveness of defence spending. These agencies can help lay the foundations for a more secure and defensively capable Europe in the next decade. However, more work is needed.


The EU must develop an improved shared strategic security and defence culture, reinforced through joint military operations, defence education and training, and comparable defence capabilities across all Member States. Doing so will allow Member States to gain a greater understanding of what can and should be done with regards to security, a sentiment which would translate into the cohesive and unified defence white paper needed to solidify security and defence. Without this, it is unlikely that the EU will be capable of adequately responding to the global security challenges of the 2020s.


Jacob Stokes is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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