After sharp exchanges with Donald Trump on his first foreign trip, where he failed to give explicit backing to Nato’s mutual European defence commitment, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said Europe can no longer count on the US as a reliable partner, and EU nations must step up their military cooperation in order to defend themselves. She said Europe could no longer “completely depend” on the US following the election of President Trump. Since taking office, Trump has urged Nato allies to boost defence spending as only five of Nato’s 29 member states – the UK, US, Poland, Greece and Estonia – have met Nato’s target to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Our deference to Nato can no longer be used as a convenient alibi to argue against greater European efforts. We have no other choice than to defend our own interests in the Middle East, in climate change, in our trade agreements,” he said at the Prague security and defence conference in June. Juncker told the conference, “the way forward starts with making sure that we spend what is needed on our defence”.
The EU has taken great strides in the past year to bolster its hitherto limited military activities. It has been helped along by the impending exit of the UK, which has long opposed closer defence coordination in the bloc, traditionally resisting any perceived competition for Nato. Recently, EU foreign ministers agreed to set up a military command for training missions but UK objections led them to stop short of creating a full headquarters with powers to direct and arm lethal missions. The UK and France are by far the strongest military powers in the EU, so UK withdrawal weakens Europe’s collective military muscle. Despite longstanding scepticism, EU diplomats are voicing fresh optimism given increased support from France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
In the private sector, the European defence industry also seems to be sensing a shift. “The big difference compared to the past is that now EU money will be spent on defence,” said Burkard Schmitt, defence and security director at the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, which represents many big players. “This could make a difference in particular in the research phase where cooperation starts, but also in the development phase where research results must be taken forward toward real equipment and procurement,” Schmitt said. Still, he warned that it “can only become a success if member states are fully engaged”.