BRUSSELS – The coronavirus has altered the best-established plans and priorities of many, including the European Union. But one of the biggest victims may be European efforts to build a more credible and independent European army.
For several years, especially since President Trump took office with his skepticism about NATO, European alliances, and multilateral obligations, leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have been pushing for what he has called European "strategic autonomy," the ability to defend Europe and act. militarily in your neighborhood without so much dependence on the United States.
But even before the virus hit so hard, and despite strong calls that the bloc was in greater danger from new technologies and a more aggressive Russia and China, the European Commission was already drastically cutting projected European military spending in the next seven-year budget.
Now, with the pandemic sweeping the economy, there will be an even fiercer budget battle. Recovery and jobs should be the priority, and Brussels continues to emphasize investment in a European "Green Agreement,quot; to manage the climate crisis. Military spending is very likely to be lost, making cries for Europe's boldness and self-sufficiency sound increasingly hollow.
And just last week, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the bloc's head of foreign policy, said the virus "will only increase the need for a stronger EU. Security and defense and for a stronger Europe in the world." The he called for more funds, saying that "the pandemic is a new threat and will deteriorate our security environment."
But despite such calls, a modest trend toward increased European military spending is likely to reverse. European governments were fighting hard for the size of the bloc's budget, especially after the hole Brexit left, even before the virus added new elements of uncertainty and massive fiscal deficits.
Washington's chaotic and self-centered response to the virus has made Europeans feel even more vulnerable.
"This pandemic has been another nail in the coffin of European confidence in the American leadership," said Radoslaw Sikorski, a European legislator and former Polish defense minister. "But if the idea of European autonomy has been strengthened by this crisis, the ability to finance it has been frozen."
Ben Hodges, a former commander of the United States Army in Europe, was frank.
"If there is no money for that, then you don't take it seriously," he said.
Two years ago, Europeans created, with much fanfare, two major programs, one for collective military acquisitions and investments in projects, known as I fish and funded by participating nations; and another, the European Defense Fund, to promote military research and development, financed with the bloc's new seven-year budget and projected at 13 billion euros, or 1.86 billion euros a year.
Pesco was a modest start, but the fund was a breakthrough, as it came from the collective budget. Another key proposal, according to NATO, was a € 6.5 billion mobility initiative to facilitate the movement of heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks across Europe should a crisis erupt with Russia. Those capabilities, including reinforced bridges, railroad cars, and bureaucratic permits, had been largely abandoned with the Soviet collapse.
But now, after the Russian wars against Georgia and Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the increase in Russian military pressure on the Baltic nations, the idea of an armed conflict with Moscow or its representatives no longer seems absurd. NATO improved deterrence by stationing troops along Russia's borders, but NATO needed credible means to reinforce them.
But even in the negotiations leading up to the European Union virus during the next seven-year budget, more controversial than usual due to the gap created by Brexit, military spending was destroyed. The European Commission cut the defense fund by more than half, to € 6 billion. The proposed funding for military mobility was reduced from 6.5 billion euros to 2.5 billion euros, then from 1.5 billion euros and now, in the latest proposal, to zero.
Europeans are now discussing how to include a massive virus recovery fund. The defense is hardly discussed.
Some analysts, such as Claudia Major of the German Institute for International Affairs and Security, warn that the budget negotiations have not ended. Given the pandemic, Brussels may decide to have a budget of one or two years, postponing more difficult options.
But the crises of six months ago have not disappeared, warned Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general.
"In any case," he said in an interview, "the virus amplifies problems," ranging from Russia and China to cybersecurity, terrorism, and civil wars in Libya and Syria.
In the past two years alone, he said, China has built 80 new ships and submarines, while Russia and China are investing in new missiles, nuclear capacity, drones, unmanned weapons and artificial intelligence.
He acknowledged that there is now a fight for investment, but insisted that the NATO military had proven its worth during the pandemic and that "investing in defense can be a powerful engine for economic recovery."
But it was obvious, Stoltenberg said, that "the European Union cannot defend Europe,quot; without the United States. He hoped Europe would do more in defense, "but it cannot replace NATO," he said.
If Stoltenberg is reluctant to criticize Europeans, Hodges is less shy.
"Any European leader who talks about strategic autonomy and a European army and can't find a single euro for mobility, well, nobody will take it seriously, neither in the United States nor among adversaries," said Hodges. who works with the European Policy Analysis Center.
Anna Wieslander, a Swedish defense expert at the Atlantic Council, said the funding debacle ruins dreams of European autonomy. "The way the EU defense budget was even before the crown crisis, even on the most important project of military mobility. Let's leave this naive dream behind," he said.
Europe's dangers have only increased with poor American leadership and "new tensions between the United States and China over the virus," he said. "The signal for Europeans is that we need to act, and perhaps even faster. Therefore, we must make NATO's European pillar stronger and more explicit. "
Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the United States, saw more disputes within NATO. "It will be more difficult for European governments, like Italy, to say that we need to spend more on defense to reach 2 percent,quot; of GDP, the NATO guideline that haunts Trump, he said.
Europe's withdrawal from military spending will complicate relations with Washington, with its enormous budget pressures, regardless of who wins the presidency. "With fewer resources to invest in key capabilities, Europe's dependence on the US as the leading common security provider will continue," said Derek Chollet, former US undersecretary of defense. USA
But that dependency, resented in Washington by both political parties, may not be reliable. Washington will focus its firepower on China regardless of who the president is, Wieslander said.
The United States "has to focus on Asia, but it will have exhausted resources," he said, and is unable to wage two regional wars at once. "It is not that the Americans do not want to come to the defense of Europe," he said, "but will they be able to do so?"
In Britain, which remains key to European and NATO defense, the virus postponed a defense and foreign policy review, intended to run in parallel with a spending review, said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of RUSI, a defense expert group. "The big options have been postponed," he said. "Now the reviews will be dominated by the pandemic and what the defense has done and can do to address this central threat."
Chollet sees a similar dilemma in the United States.
"There will be a new debate about what security is, as this virus has done more damage and killed more people than any conventional power could have done in such a short period of time," he said.
"The security of the Baltic countries may seem a bit theoretical these days," he said, "when none of this crisis feels theoretical."