It’s time for a paradigm shift in Euro-Atlantic defence and security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed the European security landscape. Now Europe’s approach to security must change too.
Photo: Alamy

By Steven Keil

Steven Keil is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund specialising in transatlantic security and defence policy issues

01 May 2022

For many in Europe, Russia’s war against Ukraine has removed any lingering optimism for a more stable and predictable relationship with Moscow. In place of these long-held (if misplaced) hopes stands a new level of insecurity not felt across the continent in decades. This has catalysed a palpable shift in perceptions and policies. But the challenge facing the continent is not temporary. There is no status quo to revert to – not for Ukraine, not for Europe. Now, the immediate determination to act must be calibrated for the long term. As part of that long-term plan, Europe must play a larger role in Euro-Atlantic security.

The need for Europe to do more is a familiar topic in the transatlantic debate. Conversations around defence spending are well-worn as are criticisms about capability gaps. But it’s important to note that Europe had been doing more before the war broke out: look at the direction of defence investments since 2014 and European efforts within Nato and the EU. These trends reveal a changed dynamic, including European efforts in Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF).

But key PESCO projects around issues like military mobility have not shown sufficient results, and investments in the EDF have been below expectations. Changes in European security have been a slow – and, at times, fitful – evolution. But Russia’s war must break this paradigm. Evolutionary approaches to European security must give way to revolutionary ones. Now is the time for bold thinking about how to contend with a Russia bent on revisionism that threatens the broader European security order.

Changes in European security have been a slow – and, at times, fitful – evolution. But Russia’s war must break this paradigm. Evolutionary approaches to European security must give way to revolutionary ones

For starters, we need a better transatlantic burden-sharing debate. Input-driven conversations (i.e. focused on defence spending) should be replaced with those centred on key capability targets. Greater effort should also be given to thinking through a collective European ambition in Euro-Atlantic security. This will certainly require adequate investment, but it puts the focus on where it needs to be: outputs. It means Europe will need to take on more capability targets in Nato – including, potentially, collective ones. This will enable it to play a more serious role in crisis management as well as collective defence. Nato-EU cooperation will also continue to play an important role.

To this end, Europe should seek ways to move forward dormant concepts like the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI), which creates a collective European ambition in Nato (a separable but not separate one). Reinvigorating ideas around Nato’s more flexible formats (e.g. the Framework Nations Concept) or arrangements under the Berlin Plus agreement, alongside the adaptable ambitions of PESCO, could provide pathways to rethink the ESDI and assemble a collective European ambition in Nato. For example, this could include changing the ESDI to an ESDI+ model that could include non-EU member states as well. Given lessons learned from efforts like PESCO so far, the importance of incorporating non-EU members in EU-centric security efforts is evident.

Whatever direction these efforts take, ambition is important. Efforts should be inclusive but not at the expense of effectiveness. The contributions of participating states should be clear and aimed at certain capability needs. Regardless, now is the time for a more robust and creative ambition for Europe in Euro-Atlantic defence and security. Europe should answer Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war by asserting a greater space for European responsibility in the Euro-Atlantic security debate. 

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