Slowly But Surely, Europe Gets Serious About Its Own Defense

The EU proposes to fund defense research while Belgium and the Netherlands pool the acquisition of new ships.

The Dutch Royal Navy replenishment and support ship HNLMS Karel Doorman is seen in the port of Rotterdam, September 3, 2014
The Dutch Royal Navy replenishment and support ship HNLMS Karel Doorman is seen in the port of Rotterdam, September 3, 2014 (Kees Torn)

The European Commission proposed a huge increase in defense research spending on Wednesday, the same day Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to jointly replace their aging frigates and minesweepers.

Both moves underscore that Europe is getting more serious about its own defense and come only weeks after the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, reiterated his support for an EU army.

The commission’s proposal

Under the commission’s proposal, the European Union would start spending €500 million per year in 2020 to support defense research.

It also wants to incentivize cooperation between member states in areas such as drone and satellite development.

The EU currently spends around €25 million per year on defense projects. Raising this would require unanimity from the member states.

The biggest obstacle so far has been the United Kingdom, which is wary of undercutting NATO.

But Britain is on the way out. It voted to leave the EU this summer and the expectation is it will exit by 2019 — just in time for the remaining 27 to agree on the bloc’s next seven-year spending plan, which is due to go into effect in 2020.

Belgian-Dutch cooperation

EU countries are also taking steps of their own to enhance military cooperation.

On the same day the European Commission made its proposal, the defense ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands signed a letter of intent to jointly acquire new frigates and minesweepers.

The Dutch have yet to decide how many ships they want, but the national broadcaster NOS reports that the Belgians are counting on two new frigates and six minesweepers.

The Netherlands’ defense minister, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said she hoped other countries would follow their example. “Our goal is to raise Europe’s military capabilities and today Belgium and the Netherlands are turning those words into action,” she said.

The Belgian and Dutch navies already share a command center. Together with Luxembourg, the countries are also due to pool their air defenses starting next year.

Dutch initiatives

The Dutch have spearheaded similar initiatives with other neighbors.

Earlier this year, Hennis agreed with her German counterpart, Ursula von der Leyen, to share the replenishment and amphibious support vessel HNLMS Karel Doorman.

As a result of budget cuts in 2013, the brand-new ship — the largest and most sophisticated in the Dutch navy — had been operating at half-strength.

The two signed a separate agreement to integrate Dutch and German panzer divisions.

Dutch Marines have trained and deployed together with their British counterparts for decades.

France and the United Kingdom agreed to enhance security cooperation in the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010.

Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 accelerated the trend to European defense integration.

Nordic front

Months after Russia seized the Crimea — which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet — Baltic and Nordic countries agreed to improve intelligence sharing and joint air force training.

This also came at a time when Russian warplanes were aggressively probing European air defenses.

Sweden announced it would acquire additional fighter jets and submarines and reestablish a military presence on the island of Gotland, situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea, after suspected Russian submarine activity in its waters.

Finland and Sweden signed a bilateral pact in 2015 for sharing communications and military bases.

Late last year, the three Baltic nations, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom created a joint expeditionary force of their own, outside EU and NATO frameworks. The same countries contribute to NATO’s new high-readiness joint task force, which consists of 5,000 troops and can deploy rapidly to counter threats on the alliance’s borders.

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