Germany should lead the way towards NATO’s New European Pillar

The Alliance should use the reflection process to develop a new European pillar in NATO, in order to re-calibrate the relative weight of European and American commitments to the Alliance, both in terms of resources and decision making.

By Anna Wieslander

The new NATO European Defense Pillar

On March 31, in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, NATO appointed an expert group to support Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the “reflection process” which was decided upon at the London summit in December. The initiative, aimed at strengthening NATO’s political role, came after French president Emmanuel Macron’s November 2019 declaration that the Alliance was “brain dead” due to a lack of consultations ahead of the American troop withdrawal from Syria. 

Although the “reflection process” is a limited response to the overall transatlantic drift of the past years, it could nevertheless be used to push for greater Alliance unity and better burden sharing, and improved power sharing. Specifically, the Alliance should use the reflection process to develop a European pillar in NATO, in order to re-calibrate the relative weight of European and American commitments to the Alliance, both in terms of resources and decision making. 

Coined by the Kennedy administration in 1961, a “European pillar in NATO” is an old idea whose time finally has come. Rather than pursuing impossibly complex and divisive debates on “strategic autonomy”, a “European Army”, and a “European Defense Union”, concepts that makes little sense to many, the twenty-one EU and NATO states should focus on defining and developing such a pillar. 

Matching Ambition to Resources

Since Brexit was announced in June 2016, France and Germany have prioritized deeper European defense cooperation as an essential European integration project. A deteriorating transatlantic relationship during the Trump presidency has further spurred a European belief that Europe needs to “take its destiny in its own hands”, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it. A third driving force is the growing global great power competition and the need for the EU to play a role in a world of growing geo-political threats in which at present it lacks both the means and the influence.

In the face of the European demarche the Americans have adopted a traditional and yet somewhat schizophrenic stance, calling on one hand for increased burden-sharing and European defense spending, while on the other questioning European intentions. “Show me the money!” a Pentagon official commented after French President Emmanuel Macron´s speech on the need for more “European independence” at February’s Munich Security Conference. 

Given the latest news that the EU´s long term budget for security and defense will face a drastic reduction compared with the initial suggestions, the Americans have a valid point. The flagship project of military mobility, is illustrative in this regard. As vital as it is for the reinforcement of the Eastern flank, the budget has disintegrated from €6.5 bn in the initial Commission proposal, to €0 in the current EU technical proposal.

With brutal reality replacing dreamy rhetoric on EU defense ambitions, focus needs to shift from enhancing EU autonomy and independence, toward a European pillar of real strategic substance in NATO. Such realism would provide a practical and much-needed way forward and leverage efficiently the political will to strengthen Europe´s security contributions within a preserved and adapted transatlantic community.

Power, History and Germany

Throughout NATO’s history, there have been times when Europeans have come together to carve out a distinct identity within the Alliance and better combine and co-ordinate their defense effortd. Some landmarks have been achieved in the NATO-EU relationship, such as the Harmel Report of 1967, the birth of a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP); the so called Berlin plus arrangements between NATO and the EU, that enables the EU to request NATO to make available assets and capabilities for EU-led crisis management operations.  Of late, the NATO-EU Strategic Partnership has developed practical co-operation in strengthening resiliency and countering hybrid threats. 

Recently, both German´s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French President Emmanuel Macron have referred to a “European pillar in NATO”, without making specific proposals.  Therefore, it is high time for clarity. Specifically, a formal process should be initiated and led by a major European state.  With Brexit, UK has lost the necessary link to ESDP to take on such a role. France is by tradition the reluctant NATO ally, with its long-established quest for greater European independence from the Alliance, and as such is unlikely to foster the necessary consensus. 

Leadership and Partnership

The responsibility must fall to Germany.  As the traditional unifier in the EU and with its defense deeply integrated within NATO, Berlin is the natural leader, even if it has hitherto lacked the requisite political energy and tradition to lead on defense issues. Consequently, Germany will need some help from its friends. Several European states, including the Nordics, the Baltics and the Central and Eastern states, are ready to support Germany in articulating a clear vision and way forward for the new European pillar of NATO. 

The shift of emphasis, from autonomy in the EU context, to strengthened European capabilities in the NATO context, would critically fit with what a majority of European states view as realistic and desirable security arrangements. Finally, the new NATO European pillar would also afford the Alliance a far more constructive platform for Europe to work with the U.S., and better enable NATO to meet the challenges of the Twenty-First Century. 

Anna Wieslander is Director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council and Secretary General of the Swedish Defense Association.