SAINT-SYMPHORIEN – Scarred by losing tens of millions of lives on their soil in two world wars, many European Union nations have been wary ever since about military spending.
Now, as Russian pressure builds at the Ukrainian border, they face a painful reality: Europe remains heavily reliant on U.S. might to deter another potentially big conflict on its turf.
Because of a half-hearted attitude to defense and security over decades, “the EU has almost nothing to bring to the table,” says Piotr Buras, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank. “So, Russia can simply ignore it.”
With U.S. President Joe Biden the most authoritative voice challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin on the European continent, some top EU policy makers know what they face.
“We have a choice to make. Either we seriously invest in our collective capacity to act, or we accept being an object and not a subject in foreign policy,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
“War, never again,” reads the visitors book of the Saint-Symphorien military cemetery south of Brussels, where some of the first and last casualties of World War I lie buried, German soldiers alongside former enemies. Bodies from the 1914-1918 war are dug up to this day in Flanders Fields, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. Memorial sites and monuments to war dead are scattered around the continent.
After an equally brutal World War II left an estimated 36.5 million Europeans dead, it was clear things had to drastically change.
Germany, which had set off both global conflicts, and neighboring France needed to be knitted together in a tight economic embrace that would make war practically impossible.
The alliance that eventually grew to become the EU began with a trading community focused on steel, coal and farming — not soldiers and bombs. An attempt at a European Defense Community and a potential European army was politically stillborn and never got past French ratification in 1954.
After the United States was decisive in winning both world wars and then developed a nuclear arsenal to face the Soviet Union, relying on Washington became a political no-brainer for Europe.
WHY THAT'S A PROBLEM
Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, set up in 1949, Europeans could shelter comfortably under U.S. military power, which grew significantly over the decades while spending by many of its Western allies lagged.
The Saint-Symphorien cemetery is close by NATO's military headquarters, called the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. It is invariably led by an American, ever since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Just outside its headquarters is a restaurant called “Chez L’Oncle Sam” or “At Uncle Sam” — well known for its burgers and Tex-Mex grills — and that’s how NATO feels to this day.
The EU has grown into a global economic powerhouse, but never developed security and defense clout to match.
“Often people would describe the EU as an economic giant, but also a political dwarf and a military worm. I know that is a cliche. But, like many cliches, it had a basic element of truth,” Borrell said.
It was painfully evident during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos declared it was “the hour of Europe,” yet it took U.S.-led NATO troops to make the difference.
To make matters worse, EU decision-making became more unwieldly as the bloc grew, with each individual nation able to threaten veto power on foreign policy and defense issues. This week, many in European capitals winced as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban went to visit Putin. He sought tighter relations through larger natural gas imports at a time when the rest of the EU wants to distance itself from Moscow.
Efforts to increase European defense spending or to integrate weapons systems have largely failed.
Here’s how NATO sums up the situation on its website: “The combined wealth of the non-US Allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. However, non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defense.”
American presidents going back a half-century have expressed irritation at Europe’s dependence on the U.S. military.
WELFARE VS WEAPONS
There are political and historical reasons for the gap.
The United States was intent to make the 20th century its own and massive defense spending came with that. In contrast, post-war Western European democracies built their welfare states. Spending on hospitals and school desks always trumped tanks, and any hint of military spending to bolster an aggressive posture could unleash demonstrations.
Even today, 15 years after committing toward spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense, 13 European NATO members still don't make the grade. Last year, major nations — like Spain with 1.02%, Italy with 1.41%, and Germany with 1.53% — still fell well short.
EU proponents note it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for keeping continental peace. Instead of hard power, it wants to be a giant of soft power, with its world-leading development aid, economic cooperation and cultural outreach.
But amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis, soft power doesn't pack the necessary deterrence. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, representing Europe's two nuclear powers, have a direct line to Putin, while the EU seems to be largely locked out of the diplomatic efforts again.
“In the longer term, this situation can only change if Europeans themselves straighten their backs,” wrote Alexander Mattelaer of the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. “Only from a position of relative strength can progress be made at the negotiating table with Moscow.”