Europe is in a state of flux. Since the Second World War, Western European countries have been determined that there should be no further wars between them – hence the creation of the European Union. With the fall of Communism and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe and the Balkans have sought greater integration with the western part of the continent. However, these countries are acutely aware of the threat they face from Russia and its expansionist ideas, which, as the situation in Ukraine shows, are far from theoretical. The EU and the U.K. are adjusting to the idea of life without each other (although to what extent remains very unclear), and the relationship between Europe and the U.S. is fraught.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was set up in 1949 as a mutual defense organization against “attack by any external party,” which primarily means Russia, whether known as the USSR, the FSU or Russia. NATO members span much of Europe now, including former Soviet republics such as Estonia and Latvia, Balkan countries in former Yugoslavia such as Croatia and Montenegro, as well as the more obviously North Atlantic countries of the United States, Canada, U.K. and Norway. Partner countries include most of the rest of Europe. Yet, NATO is not a European army – instead it is a commitment that these countries will work together in the defense arena. Its stated aim is “to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” and, when necessary, to resolve disputes between member states peacefully. Each country commits a certain proportion of its GDP (gross domestic product) to defense spending, with the current target, originally requested by the U.S., set at 2 percent.
Currently only a handful of NATO’s members meet that target, for a range of reasons – mostly economic. President Donald Trump, who does not seem to have a positive approach to international organizations such as NATO, has pushed for all members to reach the target, particularly given that the U.S. spends about double that percentage on defense. Mr. Trump described NATO as “obsolete,” and has questioned why American soldiers should risk their lives for NATO allies who are far away and have little connection or importance to the U.S., such as Montenegro.
On the back of this, with the risk of the U.S. pulling out of NATO, there have been suggestions that Europe should have its own army as a supplement to each country’s army, and potentially replacing NATO’s combined forces, as a European defense force. In recent months, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel have called for a “real, true” European army. This suggestion was backed by the European Commission, whose president Jean-Claude Juncker was “delighted” with their message, saying that he had suggested it several years ago. A spokesman for Mr. Juncker said, “This is a commission that wants Europe to have a meaningful defense identity.”
However, there is somewhat of a “chicken-and-egg” situation: Europe is currently very reliant on American security assistance. As Mr. Trump did not hesitate to point out, the American input into both World Wars was critical in their outcome. It would be very difficult both practically and psychologically to sever all defense ties with the U.S. all at once. But gradually building up a European army while maintaining the status quo would be virtually impossible. Mr. Trump, while deriding NATO, is also not enthusiastic about the idea of a European army.
François Heisbourg, Senior Advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Special Advisor at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, has said that Mr. Trump “prefers transactional one-on-one relations at the expense of multilateral frameworks such as NATO.” But, he said, “The fear of being seen as pushing the Americans towards the exit will also limit European endeavors unless it becomes clear that the Americans are ceasing to invest in NATO.” As he pithily put it, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, “We have to hedge. But it is a very tricky situation: When does the hedge become a wedge?”