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Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and a part-time professor at the European University Institute. Her latest book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is out with Polity.
When European foreign and defense ministers met in Toledo a few weeks ago, they had cause for both celebration and despair.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European foreign and security policy has been turbocharged: Eleven packages of unprecedented sanctions, the weaning off Russian gas, the revival of enlargement, a €75 billion annual rise in military spending, military assistance to a third state fighting for survival, and the joint procurement of ammunition. For the European Union, it’s a feat — totally unthinkable until now.
But beyond a pat on the back and the bitter realization that it took a devastating war to do what has been needed for years, where exactly does Europe stand? Because while these actions are commendable, they also highlight old maladies that need to be addressed.
First, there is the endemic confusion — especially in the Brussels bubble — between instruments and action.
Often when ministers, pundits and scholars talk about European foreign and security policy, the discussion quickly reverts to the comfort zone of euro-acronyms. A few years ago, all the talk was about the MPCC (Military Planning and Conduct Capability), the CARD (Coordinated Annual Review on Defence), PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and the EDF (European Defence Fund). Today, the buzz is around the EPF (European Peace Facility), the ASAP (Act in Support of Ammunition Production), the EDIRPA (European Defence Industry Reinforcement through Common Procurement Act) and the EDIP (European Defence Investment Programme).
In fairness, some of these instruments are truly significant. Without them, the EU wouldn’t have been able to provide billions in military support for Ukraine or boost ammunition production — both crucial for Kyiv’s counteroffensive. Yet, instrument-focused debate tends to confuse the forest for the trees, overemphasizing success and preventing Europe from figuring out what actually works and what doesn’t.
So, while it is true, for instance, that funds and regulations aimed at raising defense spending and accelerating joint defense research and procurement are now in place, this shouldn’t disguise the fact that European defense spending has only climbed back to pre-eurozone crisis levels. Furthermore, the shares spent on joint defense research and procurement have actually fallen — in 2016, these were 13 percent and 21 percent respectively; by 2020, they had fallen to 11 percent and 6 percent. And this trend may well get worse before it gets better, as member countries are devoting their increased spending on restocking rather than investing in the European defense capacities of tomorrow. The EDF is not rising yet national defense budgets are, risking to drive member states further apart.
Then there’s the habit of creating instruments, getting excited about them for a few years and then allowing them to fizzle out — especially as a new batch of political leaders arrive at EU institutions and invariably want to make a mark by concocting a new set of acronyms themselves.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of PESCO. A provision that was included but never used in the EU Treaty, the permanent structured cooperation was meant to be a game changer when approved in 2017. The total number of PESCO projects now stands at a whopping 68, however, it’s doubtful anyone other than a handful of European defense wonks could name more than a couple.
On occasion, new acronyms can also boil down to simply replacing old ones that haven’t worked. The mythological Battlegroups, agreed back in 2004, were never deployed and gradually fell off the policy radar, only to now be replaced by the Rapid Deployment Capacity. Yet, there have been few signals to suggest this will fare any better.
Finally, there is the EU’s enduring inability to act beyond existential reaction. The bloc did respond to Russia’s invasion, though it could have done, and still could do, better — above all to ensure that its security and defense effort is sustained over the long-term. Still, no one can dispute that real action has taken place. But what about cases that are still important yet not quite as existential to European security?
With NATO’s original DNA of ensuring Europe’s defense now revived by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the expectation was that the EU would take on greater responsibility to its south. Led by France, the Sahel has been a core area for the Common Security and Defence Policy, yet Sub-Saharan Africa has seen no fewer than eight military coups over the last few years — with Niger and Gabon being the latest — and Russia’s presence in the region has spread like wildfire amid deepening socioeconomic turmoil, insecurity and rigged elections.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell was right when he said that if the bloc was serious about the slogan “African solutions to African problems,” it should endorse the lead of the Economic Community of West African States and respond to any invitation that may come for EU action — be it for sanctions, diplomacy or military support.
But this also conceals the fact that the EU doesn’t have a clear and cohesive view of what it wants in this increasingly unstable region. To what extent does the Sahel still represent a priority now that France has been pushed out? What is the European strategy to contain and eventually row back Russian influence? And how does the bloc continue to stand up for democracy and rights in a world where other global players have entered the scene, and “old” EU policies of conditionality are no longer as effective as they once were?
It is of little use having a strategic compass if Europe doesn’t know where it wants to go.