Ukraine War Gives European Defense Union New Urgency

Countries had already been spooked by Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on NATO.

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron arrives in Berlin, Germany, January 25 (Elysée/Soazig de la Moissonniere)

European leaders agreed in Versailles last week to step up military cooperation in the EU. They asked the European Commission to prepare concrete proposals by May, which would be discussed at another leaders’ summit in June.

I looked into what closer defense union would mean for the Netherlands’ Wynia’s Week. Dutch readers can click here. What follows is a summary in English.

French ambition

The French have long favored military integration in Europe, and outside NATO. It would put them back on an equal footing with Germany, which is economically stronger but militarily weaker. France is the only nuclear power in the EU and the only member state with a serious expeditionary capability.

Defense union could also give a boost to the French weapons industry.

The war in Ukraine has brought other member states around.

Britain was the strongest opponent of defense union, but it left the bloc in 2020. Atlanticist Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania also preferred to rely on NATO and the United States. Four years of Donald Trump warmed them to European defense integration. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed them over the edge.

Pacifist Germany was unwilling to invest in defense at all, whether under an EU or NATO umbrella. That too has changed. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has doubled defense spending to €100 billion, meeting NATO’s 2-percent target for the first time in thirty years and giving Germany a larger military budget than Russia.


Despite thirty years of cutbacks, Europe’s defenses remain formidable — on paper. European countries have almost 1.3 million troops, compared to 1.4 million for America and 1 million for Russia. They spent €200 billion on defense last year, four times more than Russia.

But those figures disguise critical holes in military capabilities.

The European Defense Agency, currently a small office in Brussels, reports that just 60 percent of European soldiers and weapons are deployable.

European countries don’t have sufficient air defense and area denial systems. They have had to rely on the United States for even troop transport in recent wars.

Many weapons systems are interoperable within NATO, but EU members Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden are not NATO allies. Some of their systems can’t “talk” to those of their NATO counterparts.

There are sixty military integration projects in the EU under the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Many are joint procurement proposals, ranging from a successor to the Eurocopter Tiger to a European drone. But all projects are voluntary, and Denmark and Malta don’t participate in any.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, put it succinctly when he said, “the EU can’t defend Europe.” NATO can.

So why invest in a “European army”?

Brain dead

Emmanuel Macron exaggerated when he declared NATO “brain dead” in 2019, but Trump’s election and his verbal attacks on the alliance shocked Europe. He wasn’t the first American president who complained Europeans underinvested in their armed forces; he was the first to suggest America might not come to Europe’s defense in a war.

European doubts about America’s willingness to fight for Europe aren’t new either. It’s the reason France has an independent nuclear deterrent. But at least during the Cold War, Americans tended to see the freedom of (Western) Europe as an extension of their national interest. A Soviet empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean would pose a threat to the United States.

Russia not longer poses such a threat. It can’t even occupy Ukraine. America’s commercial interests draw it to Asia. Europeans can’t bet Americans will never elect a Trump again. They must look after themselves.