After the devastation of World War II, Europe lay in ruins whilst its population struggled to feed itself. The only allied power intact was the United States which from 1945 to 1947 was offering financial assistance to Europe; military assistance to Greece and Turkey and the newly formed United Nations was providing further humanitarian assistance. US assistance culminated in the Marshall plan or what was officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP). Its primary function was to rebuild the economies of Western Europe which turned out to be a fantastic success. Steel and Coal industries led the economic prosperity and helped to formulate what we now know as the European Union.
Since then the United States has led the West to a Cold War victory and continues to share an economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural allegiance with Europe. However, the US is beginning to reprioritise its strategic interests as it ‘pivots’ towards Asia and a rising China. Leading to speculation by European officials about what is going to happen to NATO as US troops leave Europe for the Pacific theatre. Although the US would still have just under 40,000 troops left in Europe this is a real opportunity for Europe to increase its hard power and fill any power vacuum.
If Europe were to improve upon its current Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and build up its military capabilities this would prevent Europe from becoming geopolitically irrelevant in an era of giants such as the US, China, Russia and India. Furthermore, Europe could start looking after its own neighbourhood – particularly the Middle East, North Africa, and even deter a resurgent Russia. Moreover we would be returning the favour to the United States, shouldering global responsibilities together.
Fair enough, Europe’s economy is hardly vibrant. The Euro Area has no growth with unemployment at 11.9%. Suffering from the worst financial collapse since Wall Street in 1929 and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis the EU has lost its swagger.
The result of economic misery is stagnant or reduced defence budgets. Austerity measures across Western and Central Europe have meant that eighteen European countries have seen real-term falls of more than 10% in military spending since 2008. This is unlikely to change in the near future, not until the Eurozone crisis is finally resolved, economies restructured, and growth levels begin to rise.
So how can the EU help the US with a sick economy and ailing defence budgets? The obvious answer is pooling resources so as to offset some of the impact on defence budgets. This to a degree is already happening. The UK and France are currently training together to develop a new joint expeditionary force. Belgium and the Netherlands co-operate in helicopter maintenance and Bulgaria and Romania have made it easier to police each other’s airspace. A catalogue of national niche military capabilities could go some way to remedying any military shortfalls. For example Britain supported France by providing logistical support it didn’t have for its intervention in Mali.
Europe could significantly improve its military strength were its economic engine, Germany, willing to bolster its own armed forces. Currently the German military lags behind the UK and France much to the displeasure of hard headed Europeans who wish to see a more involved EU. Speaking in Berlin last year, Philip Hammond the UK defence secretary said that Germany’s ‘historic reluctance’ to launch military action outside its borders is now limiting its international importance. If the EU-3 were to combine equal military strength with the rest of Europe then abilities to conduct a mission such as Libya remain feasible.
By utilising all of Europe’s resources and maintaining the hope that Germany will eventually match its economic might militarily, Europe can do three things. First it can aid the US ‘pivot’, in which the EU has an interest, by taking over some US responsibilities in European trouble spots like the Balkans and more importantly NATO. This will free up troops for the US whilst securing the Trans-Atlantic alliance’s strength and importance.
Second, the EU can become more self-reliant in defence and not rely solely on the US. Interventions in Libya and Mali exemplify Europe’s ability to do this although these conflicts were relatively small-scale and short. However, whether through EU institutions or bilaterally, Europeans have a real opportunity to fill a potential power vacuum with their own strength.
Thirdly, in a world increasingly dominated by powers of continental dimensions, the EU can avoid becoming a geostrategic irrelevance by strengthening its voice. This does not have to conflict with the EU’s normative power. If anything, Europe could do with hard power behind its soft not only to defend what the EU has achieved but also to support spreading its message to the periphery of Europe.
The United States has done plenty of good for Europe but is now coming under criticism from EU officials for changing strategic direction. Understandably EU members wish to make sure that NATO is still important to America as well as the continent itself. However, the response to the US ‘pivot’ should not be fear. It is an opportunity; to help the US when it too is going through fiscal and economic difficulties, whilst increasingly under strain after ‘a decade of war’. At the same time the EU will have a more muscular voice, greater European cooperation and security in its own borders, all the while repaying a favour from over sixty years ago.