"There is more to European defence than just two percent" – Report from the MSC Roundtable on European Defence in Brussels
Much of the public debate on European defence is currently dominated by NATO's two percent target for national defence spending. The MSC seeks to broaden that debate by addressing the question of European security more comprehensively. To what degree can both the EU and NATO benefit from linking up their defence planning more closely and what are the prospects for such efforts? What are the most important hurdles on the way towards a significantly improved NATO-Russia relationship? These were some of the key questions of the Munich Security Conference’s (MSC) Roundtable on European Defence in Brussels on July 10.
On the eve of the 2018 NATO Summit, the MSC brought together a selected group of around 50 senior decision-makers for its Roundtable on European Defence. Together, they addressed some of the summit's key topics, focusing prominently on the topics of EU-NATO security cooperation, burden sharing and NATO-Russia relations. Participants included several European defence ministers, senior NATO officials, parliamentarians, as well as high-level industry leaders and experts from the think tank community.
In the beginning the discussion evolved around the question of how to improve EU-NATO cooperation on security and defence policy. While some participants voiced concerns that the impossibility to establish a concrete division of labor between the two organizations could cause unnecessary duplication, most discussants agreed that European defence efforts are not in competition with NATO. In this context, one discussant underlined that "interoperability is key" in order to ensure that the EU and NATO efficiently complement their efforts to strengthen the defence of the continent. A case in point, cited by one participant, are the EU's plans to facilitate military mobility across the continent through a series of large-scale infrastructure investments which are crucial to NATO's plans to establish a rapid reaction force.
Subsequently, the discussion turned to the currently tense relationship between NATO and Russia. In particular, participants argued to which extent the alliance's current balance between deterrence and dialogue was still effective. Some discussants called for a stronger military posture of the transatlantic alliance, as they expressed their concerns that the current Russian government pursued an inherently aggressive foreign policy "with the sole objective to undermine Western institutions." Finding a solution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine was deemed crucial by many participants, who considered this the main obstacle in the NATO-Russia relationship. But, as one discussant lamented, "the most worrying thing is that we do not have a format to talk constructively." The willingness to engage with each other was denoted a crucial precondition in this respect. Means to build confidence between the parties have to be found – such as new forms of reciprocal disarmament, a renewed dialogue on missile defence or increased military-to-military interactions. In fact, given these various proposals, the roundtable participants demonstrated that there are ways to address disagreements and improve the relationship again.
The current rift in the transatlantic alliance over disagreements on national contributions to NATO's collective defence dominated the final part of the roundtable. One participant observed that due to the nature of the alliance "burden sharing will always be there, and it will always be a burden," because it breeds conflict. While a specific measure such as NATO's two percent target of defence spending can be framed as a constructive political message to take more responsibility for collective defence, it equally can serve a destructive purpose of "naming and shaming". In the same vein, one participant coined this as the "healthy and unhealthy nature" of the two percent debate. Indeed, given the current quarrels between the US and several European governments, some participants at the MSC roundtable wondered "whether [the allies] are still on the same strategic page." Nevertheless, some discussants expressed a sense of optimism that the vocal criticism of the Trump administration towards its European allies could serve as a "galvanizing force to foster more European cooperation of defence."