Sam Seitz

I’m in the process of reading Guy Verhofstadt’s Europe’s Last Chance for a transatlantic relations class here at Georgetown. The nature of the class means that I am reading the book somewhat out of order, and I will therefore save my comprehensive review for a later date. After reading the chapter on E.U. defense, though, I must confess that I am fairly unimpressed. Many of you know by now that I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about ways to improve Europe’s military capabilities. Therefore, I’m very sympathetic to Verhofstadt’s concerns, and I think he does an excellent job isolating the problems plaguing European forces. However, his solution is less than inspired, as it is little more than the predictable trotting out of the E.U. Army proposal. Given that he is a Eurocrat, I guess I should have known that his ideas would be predictably predictable.

The E.U. Army is an idea that refuses to die. Indeed, as Luis Simon noted in War on the Rocks immediately following the election of Trump, “Those invested in the notion that the European Union can become strategically autonomous interpret pretty much whatever happens out there as a catalyst for greater European defense cooperation.”[1] This hydra-like narrative is particularly frustrating because it drowns out reasonable proposals for European defense reform that could substantively improve European, and by extension NATO, capabilities. Specifically, Europe must coordinate defense R&D and procurement more effectively to improve interoperability and reduce wasteful, redundant capability acquisition. It should absolutely not pursue an E.U. Army like that outlined in Europe’s Last Chance, however. This would put the cart before the horse by ignoring important capability deficiencies and would only further stymie Europe’s ability to project force by granting every member state veto power over military deployments.

Verhofstadt is correct about the problem: European countries possess highly inefficient militaries. As noted by then-German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, the EU spends 50% less than the U.S. on defense and is only 15% as efficient.[2] Whereas the United States operates 27 major weapons systems, EU member states operate 154, suggesting that there is significant redundancy and waste in European defense procurement.[3] The European Commission’s 2016 European Defence Action Plan notes, accordingly, that “[a]round 80% of defence procurement is run on a purely national basis, leading to a costly duplication of military capabilities. The lack of cooperation between Member States in the field of defence and security is estimated to cost annually between EUR 25 billion and EUR 100 billion.”[4]

The inefficiency resulting from this lack of coordinated military spending among E.U. member states is the root problem, not low levels of European defense spending. So while the oft-reported defense spending statistics (read, 2% of GDP) are accurate, they are simply too unrefined to tell much of a story.[5] For example, Belgian and British defense spending is undercounted because the statistics do not include the money these countries spend on soldiers’ healthcare. Because government-provided healthcare is available to all citizens, including soldiers, in these countries, healthcare expenditures for military personnel are not classified as defense spending. But in the U.S., where universal healthcare does not exist, soldiers’ health benefits are included in defense spending. Thus, a comparison of the two cases is one of apples and oranges. Looking at defense spending as a percentage of GDP also reveals very little about capabilities: Estonia spends a greater percentage of its GDP on defense than does France, but its military is vastly inferior.[6] Simply put, it is not the amount of money a NATO country spends on defense that matters most. Rather, it is how effectively it spends that money. Denmark is a case in point. It contributes less than the NATO-mandated 2% of GDP to defense, but it has tailored its force to provide valuable niche capabilities to U.S.-led coalitions. As a result, Denmark has consistently been lauded by the U.S. despite its “insufficient” defense spending.[7]

An E.U. Army will not resolve these underlying issues because Europe’s defense woes are not a problem of military organization; they are a problem of resourcing. Indeed, there have already been limited attempts to create an E.U. Army, such as the establishment of the E.U. Battlegroup and the incorporation of Dutch formations into the German military.[8] These attempts have proven fruitless, though, and the combined units they formed have yet to be deployed. Instead, countries continue to use national forces or work within coalitions, suggesting that there is limited utility or interest in the kind of multinational army proposed by Verhofstadt. The fundamental problem is that it is nearly impossible to create a workable command structure because no government is willing to cede the right to control its armed forces.

Verhofstadt suggests a kind of qualified majority voting as a solution, and this would work in theory.[9] The problem is that no leader would ever consent to foreign politicians sending her troops into combat against her government’s will, and the odds of E.U.-wide agreement are exceedingly low. Verhofstadt reveals as much when he details the E.U.’s inability to form a workable European General Staff.[10] Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya also demonstrates the difficulty of reaching a consensus regarding military deployment quite clearly: France did not want NATO involved, but Italy and Norway did;[11] the U.S. and U.K. disagreed about whether to assassinate Qaddafi;[12] and Germany was so opposed that it pulled all of its forces out of the Mediterranean.[13] But even if some acceptable command hierarchy were established, Europe would still lack the necessary capabilities to develop an autonomous force. As James Kirchick notes, “Set against the rest of the world, Europe is a declining continent in every respect (populationGDPmilitary spending).”[14] It is completely implausible, therefore, that the E.U. has the capacity to generate an independent, unified military, especially post-Brexit.

Instead, the E.U. should focus on rationalizing defense procurement while maintaining national autonomy. This would reduce waste and redundancy while still allowing coalitions of the willing to form without E.U.-wide consensus. Brussels must work to incentivize common platform acquisition in order to enhance interoperability and generate economies of scale. It should also commit more funding to collective defense R&D, which can be exploited by all E.U. member states. The European Defense Fund, through PESCO, is already working toward this goal, but its contribution of several billion dollars is still too little to significantly impact the E.U. defense market. Finally, the European Defense Agency and NATO should closely coordinate to identify and rectify capability gaps in European forces. This would allow the E.U. to leverage preexisting NATO institutions and reduce the chance of significant policy divergence. Of course, these reforms will not be easy, and countries will likely resist continent-wide consolidation that threatens local defense industries. However, these issues pale in comparison to those that would emerge during the creation of an E.U. Army and could likely be overcome through clever incentive mechanisms and E.U. largess. In short, an E.U. Army is neither necessary nor sufficient for resolving European defense woes, and it only distracts from real solutions that could meaningfully enhance the capabilities of European countries.




[1] Luis Simon, “Don’t Believe the Hype About European Reform,” War on the Rocks, June 27, 2017.

[2] “Can PESCO Provide a New European Identity?” Deutsche Welle, 11-13-17.

[3] Elisabeth Braw, “NATO’s Enormous Arms Clutter,” Foreign Affairs, March 1, 2017.

[4] “European Defence Action Plan: Towards a European Defence Fund,” European Commission, November 30, 2016.

[5] Robert Lieber, Retreat and its Consequences (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 28.

[6] Data is from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Military Expenditure Database” (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2017).

[7] Gary Schaub Junior and Andre Ken Jacobson, “Denmark in NATO: Paying for Protection, Bleeding for Prestige,” War on the Rocks, July 17, 2018.

[8] Lars Hoffman, “German Armed Forces To Integrate Sea Battalion Into Dutch Navy,” Defense News, February 4, 2016.

[9] Guy Verhofstadt, Europe’s Last Chance (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2017), 255.

[10] Ibid., 250-251.

[11] Jeremiah Gertler, “Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2011, 16.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Who’s in Charge? Germans Pull Forces out as Coalitions Fall Apart,” Daily Mail, March 22, 2011,

[14] James Kirchick, “European want to break up with America. They’d do so at their peril,” Brookings Institution, May 25, 2018.