Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been called a “wake-up call” for Europe to step up on defense. But in the last year, Europe has grown even more dependent on U.S. military capabilities. Yet appearances are deceptive. A stronger European defense is in the making, emerging in fits and starts from the war in Ukraine. European countries still need to invest more in defense, but they are finally starting to spend smarter, in a more coordinated and efficient way.
Last week, EU countries approved a plan to “speed up the delivery and joint procurement of ammunition for Ukraine” over the next twelve months. The EU initiative earmarks a billion euros ($1.1 billion) to send artillery to Ukraine from existing stockpiles and another billion to jointly procure ammunition, primarily 155-millimeter rounds, needed both to replenish their own stocks and supply Ukraine. It also supports the rapid ramping-up of Europe’s defense manufacturing capabilities, with the European Commissioner Thierry Breton touring member states to visit companies which could increase their production.
The ink is barely dry on the deal, yet some pundits are already warning Brussels “might not be up to the task.” They fail to see the potential of this initiative: It is not only about meeting Ukraine’s artillery needs, it is also about laying out a way forward for greater burden-sharing within transatlantic relations.
First, the EU initiative establishes an important precedent addressing supply chain and interoperability issues. As NATO’s efforts to deliver tanks to Ukraine have shown, pooling European military resources results in duplication and other inefficiencies – they collectively have 17 different types of main battle tanks. For years, advocates of European defense reform have called for the EU to have a greater role in addressing this problem. Over the last few years the EU has established the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to enhance joint capability research and development.
What makes this new initiative on joint ammunition procurement so groundbreaking is that it will be the first time the EU will fund joint arms contracts. EU policy is often path dependent, meaning states build on past policy accomplishments. Indeed, the proposal for this initiative referred to the EU’s unprecedented decision to collectively buy Covid-19 vaccines. By continuing to break new ground, the EU may have found a scheme it can reproduce to rationalize and integrate its efforts.
Second, Estonia’s leadership on this initiative reinforces the idea that European countries do not have to choose between the EU or NATO when it comes to defense and security. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was the first to propose the idea of jointly buying ammunition for Ukraine. In the past, Paris has often led the way in trying to bolster European industrial capabilities, but its efforts have often encountered pushback from eastern European countries. The idea that a stronger European defense pillar will come at the expense of American involvement in NATO dies hard.
Estonia’s taking the lead on this initiative demonstrates that addressing a lack of industrial defense capacity is a shared priority across the continent. It also challenges the false dichotomy between pro-EU and pro-NATO countries that has long impeded greater European defense integration. Critically, this initiative hints at an alternative narrative, one in which bolstering European capabilities is meant to ensure that in any future conflict, the decision to support or to act is not limited by industrial weakness but only by strategic interest.
Finally, the initiative lays bare that if the United States is serious about burden sharing, it will need to embrace EU defense cooperation. For too long, the United States has criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on their defense, while insisting American defense companies be able to compete for European contracts. But buying American-made weapons limits the ability of Europe to be the key defense player Washington needs. The good news is that this time, the Biden administration refrained from making a heavy-handed intervention to nip this new initiative in the bud; contracts are only open to European firms. Still, US Representative to NATO Julianne Smith expressed some muted regret that US firms could not participate in the initiative. It would seem American ambivalence about a stronger European pillar within NATO dies hard, too.
But Europe is adapting to a new strategic environment, and Washington ought to embrace it. Europeans are not doing so because they want to act without the United States, but because failing to do so is actually costly to both European and American security.
Kelly A. Grieco is a Senior Fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center.
Marie Jourdain is Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Before that, she worked for the French Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy.