CSDS POLICY BRIEF • 29/2023
By Gesine Weber
- While the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is, at least in the medium-term, the central organisation to ensure deterrence in Europe, the European Union (EU) can play a role in contributing to this aim.
- To capitalise on the EU’s full potential as a contributor to European deterrence, its capacities and instruments as a global economic actor, as well as its role in building resilience, have to be included more effectively.
- Over the medium and long-term, Europeans will have to reflect on gradually replacing the United States’ (US) defence capacities, particularly for conventional deterrence and capabilities deployed to EU member states.
It has become almost common sense to describe Russia’s war against Ukraine as a clarifying moment for European security, especially with regard to the division of labour between NATO and the EU. The war has confirmed NATO’s critical role for territorial defence and deterrence, whereas the EU has leveraged its weight, most importantly thanks to its budgetary tools, to provide support to Ukraine and exert economic coercion through sanctions. This “moment of clarification” has therefore, at least temporarily, put a halt to the debates on the respective contributions from NATO and the EU to European security — debates that had previously, in unnecessary sharpness, opposed those arguing for the prioritisation of cooperation with the US and NATO against those arguing in favour of a stronger European approach.
Nevertheless, the conclusion that NATO is for “hard security”, and that the EU should focus exclusively on crisis management, is, albeit widely accepted, too simplistic, and intellectually and politically lazy. There are good reasons to question the concept of deterrence this assumption relies on — namely a concept of deterrence that is exclusively limited to the military realm, and hence does not sufficiently reflect the complexity of geopolitics today. Furthermore, excluding a potential role for the EU in the collective defence of Europe implies the curtailment of political debates in a “transatlantic comfort zone”, a ceteris paribus based on the idea that the US will be willing and available to deploy and station deterrence capabilities in Europe indefinitely. As this Policy Brief argues, however, the 2024 US presidential elections and the structural, long-term shifts in US domestic and foreign policy, provide enough reason to break from this logic.
Supporting NATO on conventional deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic region
Europe’s most pressing security challenge regarding deterrence is undoubtedly Russia, and regardless of the military outcome of the war, Europe must brace for Russia to continue its aggressive behaviour over the coming years and potentially decades. At the moment, only NATO’s nuclear forces, as well as its conventional capabilities, can ensure deterrence against Russia, mostly thanks to the US’ contribution to it. In the short-term, it seems illusional for the EU to replace these capabilities: neither do Europeans have the required capabilities themselves, nor could European defence industries step-up in a manner where these could be produced and acquired in due time. Accordingly, the priority for Europeans in terms of deterrence, as well as the EU, must be to demonstrate to the US that they remain engaged in NATO and committed to deterrence in Europe, even more so in case of a Republican administration in the White House.
The first and crucial step in this direction is to abandon the “free-rider” mentality, in other words: for Europeans to do their homework in terms of capability targets and contributions to conventional defence. The EU itself is a valuable forum to ensure coherence through its initiatives: the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) can identify capability gaps and needs, and better help member states to also achieve the NATO Defence Planning Process capability targets. More importantly, member states should leverage existing financial instruments like Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or the European Defence Fund (EDF) more systematically to catalyse capability development.
Building resilience as deterrence against hybrid threats
Beyond a contribution to NATO’s deterrence towards Russia, the EU can play a meaningful role in the deterrence of hybrid threats such as terrorism, cyber threats, foreign interference or disinformation. Even though NATO has adopted the 360° approach and committed to a holistic understanding of security in the Strategic Concept, the EU appears to be better-equipped to play a leading role in deterring hybrid threats.
Firstly, the institutional nature of the EU makes it an almost natural player for ensuring deterrence, and, if necessary, defence against hybrid threats. Many hybrid threats fall into the nexus of internal and external security, or, in EU terms, both into the areas of Justice and Home Affairs and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In fact, deterring these threats will be effectively done through building resilience and hence rising the cost for potential attacks; with the implementation of the Strategic Compass, which dedicates an entire chapter to this, the EU can hence lead the way. Furthermore, the different compositions of the Council allow the EU to facilitate coordination among EU member states on the nexus of internal and external security, and to mobilise resources at the EU and national levels in the most effective way.
Furthermore, the EU’s budgetary means as a potential contribution to deterrence should not be underestimated. Even though the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that the Union’s budget should not be used for defence (see Article 41.2), many policies that, by design, could contribute to deterrence, would potentially not necessary fall under defence, but other policy areas. An example is resilience against cyber threats: investments in the security of critical infrastructure could be financed from the EU budget and be coordinated across member states to reduce vulnerabilities.
In both cases, deterrence against hybrid threats would rely on what could be characterised as “deterrence by proxy”. Instead of following a logic of deterrence by denial, where aggression would risk an immensely harmful response against the aggressor, drawing on the EU’s resources could allow it to raise the cost of attacks to an extent where they become unattractive. In other words, deterrence via resilience would make potential attackers think twice about whether an attack would be “worth it”, both with regard to the necessary level of sophistication for an attack to succeed, and the legal consequences for attempts or successful attacks. While building resilience is a passive contribution to deterrence, at least in so far that it excludes any “boots on the ground” or standing and nuclear forces, EU member states will also have to reflect on a dimension of deterrence by punishment against hybrid threats, at least in the medium-term.
Concretely, these reflections should also touch upon the mandate of the Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC), a newly established framework for the swift deployment of up to 5,000 troops to respond to immediate threats. In the last year, and most recently in the Civilian CSDP Compact, the EU has significantly stepped up the ambitions and mandate for the CSDP missions to tackle hybrid threats, most importantly to counter foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) and strengthen cyber defence capacities. The EUPM (EU Partnership Mission) in Moldova constitutes a blueprint for support to partner countries in tackling hybrid threats. However, the CSDP missions rather seem to be fit for addressing medium to long-term challenges rather than a response to attacks or immediate threats, given that for example capacity-building or targeted strategies to address FIMI require time. Furthermore, their current scope remains relatively limited, as the Civilian CSDP Compact sets the benchmark of 30 days for deploying up to 200 experts. At the moment, the operational scenarios for the RDC include the initial phase of stabilisation, and rescue and evacuation. To support neighbouring countries in case of significant hybrid attacks, it could hence be worthwhile to consider including a cyber dimension to the scenario on stabilisation. Furthermore, in the medium-term, EU member states should also reflect on scenarios where the RDC could be used for deterrence by punishment in the hybrid realm, for example in case of a cyber attack against an EU member states. Yet, these reflections need to be accompanied by institutional changes, including a reflection on existing Command and Control structures.
An EU role in “hard deterrence” in the medium-term
According to the division of labour between the EU and NATO that has evolved over the last one and a half years, almost all aspects of “hard deterrence” – conventional and nuclear deterrence – fall to NATO. As long as there is a Europhile administration in the White House, Europeans clearly benefit from this. The US’ nuclear umbrella over Europe and the significant conventional capabilities that are already (or could be) deployed to Europe, in combination with an administration that credibly reaffirms its commitment to the alliance and European security, are a powerful security guarantee. However, it is questionable whether this should be taken for granted during a second Trump presidency: he had publicly declared that there was no automatism for protecting European allies in case of an attack. But even without this worst-case scenario for European defence, the reflections on stepping up the European contribution to deterrence are salient in light of the shifts in US foreign policy. The US’ re-engagement in European security was not a deliberate, long-term strategic choice but the reaction to Russia’s aggression. Given the US’ strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific, and a lower prioritisation of European security particularly among leader figures in the Republican figure, Europeans should consider the Biden administration rather an exception than a rule – and adapt to the trajectory of potential gradual US withdrawal from Europe.
Preparing for a European response to shifting US security priorities also implies that a stronger role for the EU in defence, including in deterrence, is not a choice, but a necessity. This is particularly true with regard to the aspirations of EU enlargement and changing EU borders. EU membership for Ukraine would imply the EU sharing an additional almost 2,000 km land border with Russia, which would require adaptations in its deterrence and defence posture. Yet, these reflections are even relevant before the start of EU enlargement, given that the eastern member states already share a border with Russia. In the short-term, EU member states should hence, both on a bilateral basis as well as on the European level, develop plans on how they can contribute to conventional deterrence within the EU’s borders. Examples could include permanent deployments of soldiers to other EU member states, such as the recently announced deployment of the German brigade to Lithuania. Developing plans, in cooperation with the US, for a partial and gradual replacement of the US soldiers positioned in Poland should also be part of these reflections. The EU can serve as a coordination platform for these endeavours, but as long as the EU itself does not have an operational headquarters and the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) does not further develop into a true European military command, an EU force for deterrence is out of sight.
While a stronger role for Europeans in conventional deterrence appears to be a logical consequence of repeated vows to shift more responsibility in European security to Europeans, the elephant in the room remains nuclear deterrence. In early 2020, French president Macron called for a ‘strategic dialogue’ on ‘the role of France’s nuclear deterrence’ in European collective security, but the practical implementation would face significant challenges. Politically, a form of European nuclear sharing of, or even control over, the French nuclear forces is unacceptable for Paris. Options regarding a French contribution to nuclear deterrence for EU member states are hence limited to strengthening its standing as a security provider for Europe through providing credible reassurance to other EU member states – which, particularly in eastern EU member states, would also require actively rebuilding trust in France.
Lastly, signalling and clear messaging are also a crucial element of an enhanced role of the EU in deterrence. At the moment, the interpretations of Article 42.7 of the Treaty on EU, often referred to as the EU’s mutual assistance clause, diverge: some see it as a pure lip service to collective defence, whereas it has also been argued that the formulation is even stronger than NATO’s article 5 commitment. Agreeing on a common line, and coherent messaging from national capitals and Brussels, will play an important role to underpin capabilities with credibility.
Deterrence beyond the Euro-Atlantic region: linking security theatres
The Euro-Atlantic region will certainly constitute the focus of an EU contribution to deterrence, but the last years have demonstrated the interlinkages of the European and the Indo-Pacific theatres. Accordingly, strengthening the EU’s contribution to deterrence in Europe will also have at least indirect implications for its capacity to act, and deter, in the Indo-Pacific. This impact is more than just a positive side effect as the EU and its member states have high stakes in the region. While France is the only EU state with overseas territory in the region, trade routes in the Indo-Pacific are a backbone of the EU’s economic security, given that 60% of the world’s maritime trade passes through the region. Ensuring freedom of navigation is hence a critical European interest, and so is respect for the international rules-based order, which forms the legal backbone of the EU’s engagement with the world. Investing in its capacity to act through building a defence industrial base and strengthening its ability to counter hybrid threats can help protecting these interests, particularly in a scenario where US and EU priorities in the region diverge. Furthermore, the tools originally developed to contribute to deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area can reassure regional partners, for example through enabling enhanced EU port calls and patrols, as outlined in the Revised EU Maritime Security Strategy and the Strategic Compass.
At the same time, deterrence in the Indo-Pacific requires a shift from an understanding of deterrence in conventional terms to include a more geoeconomic dimension. EU member states must brace for increasing pressure from Washington to support the US’ efforts in competing with, and deterring, China. EU member states still diverge in their approaches to China, but what all these approaches have in common is that they do not follow the US strategy and focus more on the geoeconomic dimension of tensions on the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, its geoeconomic weight is perhaps the most important asset for the EU’s role in the region. One of the central lessons of Russia’s war against Ukraine is that the EU can truly play the role of a geopolitical actor when it mobilises all its tools, most importantly economic tools like sanctions or budgetary support. Solidifying these strategic assets through enhancing economic relationships with partners in the region, for instance through the Global Gateway, are a first starting point. Furthermore, EU member states must also start thinking about the economic trade-offs they are wiling to accept to exert pressure and deter infringements on the rules-based international order. Yet, as China remains the central power in the region, all these efforts ring hollow as long as the EU does not have a China strategy, in which it fleshes outs its geostrategic role and ambitions in the region.