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European security after NATO’s Madrid summit

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At the end of June, 25 years after Madrid last hosted a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, the Spanish capital will again be the scene of a new chapter in European security. And Europe, for the most part, will have to be the protagonist. Ultimately, the alliance’s coming gathering must help us Europeans step up and assume our responsibilities with regard to our continent’s security. That is the best and most necessary contribution that Europe can make to NATO’s future.

Today’s geopolitical context is very different from that of a quarter-century ago. At its 1997 Madrid summit, NATO invited three former Warsaw Pact countries — the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland — to join. In addition, following the signing that year of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the subsequent establishment of the NATO-Russia Council, Europe was looking at a future of unprecedented rapprochement with the Kremlin. Now, of course, little of that optimism remains.

NATO has shown itself to be indispensable for Europe’s security and the best guarantee of their national security for a growing number of countries. One of the most important consequences of the war in Ukraine has been Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO — two countries with all the credentials to contribute positively to the alliance. Following Danish citizens’ recent decision to join the European Union’s defense policy, the institutions that form the basis of European security are becoming increasingly aligned.

For decades, a false dichotomy between Europeanists and Atlanticists has fueled a sterile and unproductive security debate in Europe. Today, few doubt that Europeans must contribute more to the alliance and European security, and that they should develop the capacity to lead in future security crises. The question, therefore, is how Europe can best contribute to NATO’s mission.

A strong Europe is indispensable for revitalizing the trans-Atlantic security bond. In one of my first meetings as EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, a former British chief of the defense staff pertinently described the direction this relationship should take. “A Europe that remains allied with the United States simply because of its own weakness,” he said, “is of limited value.”

Strengthening the trans-Atlantic relationship implies recognizing that its European component has changed. The events of recent months have shown that the EU can respond to security threats in a coordinated and robust manner. Extensive sanctions against Russia, joint financing of arms supplies to Ukraine, and the mere idea of drastically reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after the measures the continent adopted to mitigate the economic consequences of COVID-19, has confirmed that Europe becomes stronger in times of adversity. True, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has made it easier for Europe to unite. But its leaders’ ambition is noteworthy, given some of the measures’ economic costs to Europe.

The basis for advancing European defense integration already exists. Progress in the past 20 years in common security and defense policy, the experience of both civil and military EU missions, the work of the European Defense Agency, and the adoption of the Strategic Compass put Europe in a favorable position to confront the challenge.

The willingness of national publics and EU institutions to finance joint projects to strengthen the European defense sector is an essential first step. The German government’s recent policy shift — nearly doubling defense expenditure in 2022, to 100 billion euros ($107 billion) — represents a historic opportunity to finance projects with other European partners.

And Germany is not alone. The war in Ukraine has prompted EU member states to announce unprecedented increases in defense spending totaling 200 billion euros over the next four years. These commitments contrast with Europe’s previous sluggishness in this domain. Over the past 20 years, the percentage increase in EU member states’ combined defense spending was three times less than that of the US, 15 times less than that of Russia, and 30 times less than that of China.

Fortunately, the amount of military expenditure is less important than how it is spent. We must spend better, together, and as Europeans. Joint defense spending is more efficient than national efforts and helps to reinforce Europe’s industrial and technological base. The European Commission’s recent commitment to allocate 500 million euros for joint defense procurement suggests that Europe is headed in the right direction.

Europe currently relies on spending outside its borders for 60% of its military capabilities. More and better defense expenditure must avoid increasing Europe’s dependence on other countries’ arms industries, as this would undermine efforts to achieve greater European strategic autonomy. But while we should encourage investment in an entirely European defense industry, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s proposed European Defense Union must not create new internal dependencies that benefit a few national industries within Europe.

The development of the EU’s common defense policy neither entails dividing responsibilities with regard to European security, nor pretends to substitute the vital function that NATO fulfills. The responsibilities of the organizations that form the basis of the trans-Atlantic security bond will remain the same. What matters is to assume those responsibilities with all our existing capacities.

The American commentator Walter Lippmann said that alliances are like chains: They can’t be strong with weak links. On the eve of NATO’s 2022 Madrid summit, this is the best way to describe the political challenge facing the trans-Atlantic relationship. Only the political will of Europeans and their leaders will be able to strengthen our continent’s security.

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