MUNICH — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican voice on security matters, said he has come to embrace the idea of a European Union-led defense initiative, as some U.S. officials are still raising questions about the plan.
Graham said he previously was against an EU defense force for fear that it would compete with NATO, a view shared by opponents to the project on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I don’t believe that anymore,” he said at the Munich Security Conference here.
For him, the prospect of Europeans putting renewed energy into their own defense, financially and ideologically, trumps the potential drawback of diluting Western military capabilities.
“Anything that can help bring European capabilities forward, I’m for,” he said, adding that the new defense initiative could be an antidote to “this nationalist fever” that threatens Western unity on security issues.
As for funding, he argued European money for NATO and EU defense would come from the same “wallet” anyway, meaning any capabilities produced would end up benefiting both.
Still, there are risks, as Graham and other leaders at the conference acknowledged.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “welcomes” the EU’s newfound voice on defense, but he cautioned against duplication of effort and the possibility that European countries outside the EU would be excluded.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a similar point in a bilateral meeting with his French counterpart Florence Parly, according to a readout provided by the Pentagon. A strong Europe is a “better security partner” for the United States, but European initiatives should “complement, not compete with NATO.”
Stoltenberg cautioned during his speech that Europe currently cannot defend itself, with 80 percent of NATO contributions coming from outside the union, now that the United Kingdom chose to leave it.
At the same time, he argued, leaders on the continent should be given the space to move their idea forward.
“NATO has criticized EU for years for not providing enough capabilities, so we cannot criticize them now for doing just that,” Stoltenberg said.
For Graham, the British exit from the EU could turn into the “canary in the gold mine” about the viability of the concept. It would be problematic, he said, if London finds that continued cooperation with the rest of Europe on defense would be useless.
While Brexit negotiations continue, there have been some proclamations that both sides seek to uphold their defense ties despite cutting economic ties.
Graham reminded European officials of the Trump administration’s expectation that all NATO members work toward spending two percent of their GDP on defense by 2025. But his argument in Munich was more jovial than the blunt threats previously issued by the U.S. president himself.
“I want you to get to two percent so Trump is quiet,” Graham said.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.