If Not Now - When? Debating Ways to Strengthen European Defense

The several crises Europe is confronted with - from the conflict in and over Ukraine, the Greece/Euro crisis, to the dramatic development of the refugee crisis and the war in Syria - provided an urgent backdrop to the panel discussions at the Munich Security Conference’s European Defence Summit in Brussels (September 15-16, 2015).

The EDS was hosted by the Representation of the Free State of Bavaria to the EU in Brussels (Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann).

As one panelist remarked, "risks have been up, and our collective capacity to deal with them is down." There was a general feeling among participants that Europe was falling short of its ambitions in its foreign and security policy - and that a more proactive approach was needed.


"If not now – when?" was a question posed by many speakers with respect to a more concerted European approach to security and defense. In his opening remarks, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, underlined that "the refugee crisis is not only a humanitarian challenge, it tears at the fabric of the Union." He called for a new initiative to tackle its root causes. Given the plight of the millions of refugees fleeing from both Assad’s forces and ISIS, he urged the audience to consider all options and not rule them out upfront: "Maybe no-fly zones or protection zones or air attacks against ISIS are not good options, but declaring military options a taboo is - in my view - not a responsible strategic approach."


With the exception of Ischinger’s introduction (PDF here) and the keynote address by General Paloméros, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, the conference discussions were private. We do, however, share photo impressions from the event in our media library. For the debates, close to 200 leaders from politics, industry, academia, think tanks and the military came together in the Representation of the Free State of Bavaria in Brussels.


Summit debates focused on three topics, in particular: NATO’s current and future orientation, impulses for political, military, and economic integration in the defense sector, and the strategic priorities of Europe in the new European Security Strategy.


According to many participants, the West's reaction to the Ukraine crisis was adequate. Some speakers emphasized that they considered the sanctions regime of the European Union to be a remarkable success that few could have imagined only a few years earlier. In one of several snap polls, a majority of the participants (51 per cent) expressed their support for the statement that NATO had found an appropriate response to the changing security environment. 34 per cent said that NATO had not done enough, while only 15 per cent agreed with the statement that NATO had gone too far.


Judging from the debates, the Warsaw Summit next year will be an important milestone for assessing and potentially again adapting NATO’s changed strategic posture - with different factions within the Alliance opting for different approaches. "I can already say that we have identified key strands of effort to improve NATO's proactivity, NATO's agility and NATO's resilience," General Paloméros stressed in his keynote address in view of the summit in July 2016.


Concerning European capabilities, several speakers argued exactly the same point: More defense cooperation in Europe was not one option, they claimed, it was the only option. Politicians, military and business leaders alike voiced this understanding. It was also noted that many political declarations had found the right words but that the implementation of these aspirations was insufficient.


There was substantial disagreement, however, about how far integration should go. Both supporters and skeptics of stronger integration agreed that possible new steps such as the establishment of an EU military headquarters had to be based on practical considerations, not ideology. However, ideological differences did seem to translate into the respective evaluation of whether a certain policy was a pragmatic solution or not.


Industry representatives identified crucial criteria for successful multinational procurement. One speaker underlined that, first, states needed to reduce complexity of their orders, allowing defense companies to avoid the overspecification of product lines; second, countries had to accept a certain amount of multinational specialization because not everyone could do the same. Others emphasized the importance of job creation in multinational projects by involving big as well as medium-sized companies in different member states.


The future of European defense has traditionally been one of the major topics of the Munich Security Conference. The European Defence Summit (EDS), a 24h discussion format, is a centerpiece of the MSC’s defense activities. For more information, click here.

16 September 2015, by MSC