Why Europe lacks voice and power in the Ukraine crisis

SAINT-SYMPHORIEN, Belgium (AP) — Marked by the loss of tens of millions of lives on their soil during two world wars, many European Union countries have since been wary of military spending.

Now, as Russian pressure intensifies on the Ukrainian border, they face a painful reality: Europe remains heavily dependent on American power to deter another potentially significant conflict on its territory.

Due to a timid attitude towards defense and security for decades, “the EU has almost nothing to contribute”, says Piotr Buras, senior policy researcher at the European Council think tank foreign relations. “So Russia can just ignore it.”

With US President Joe Biden being the most authoritative voice challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin on the European continent, some senior EU politicians know what they are up against.

“We have a choice to make. Either we invest seriously in our collective capacity to act, or we accept to be an object and not a subject of foreign policy,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week.


“War, never again,” reads the guestbook at the Saint-Symphorien military cemetery south of Brussels, where some of the first and last victims of the First World War are buried, German soldiers alongside former enemies. Bodies from the 1914-1918 war are unearthed to this day in Flanders Fields, 100 kilometers away. Memorial sites and monuments to the war dead are scattered across the continent.

After an equally brutal World War II claimed an estimated 36.5 million lives in Europe, it was clear things had to change drastically.

Germany, which had sparked both world wars, and neighboring France were to be united in a close economic embrace that would make war virtually impossible.

The alliance that eventually grew into the EU began with a trading community focused on steel, coal and agriculture – not soldiers and bombs. An attempt at a European Defense Community and an eventual European army was politically stillborn and never got past French ratification in 1954.

After the United States was decisive in the victory of the two world wars, then developed a nuclear arsenal to face the Soviet Union, relying on Washington became a political no-brainer for Europe.


Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, established in 1949, Europeans could shelter comfortably under American military might, which grew dramatically over the decades as the spending of many of its Western allies fell. behind.

The Saint-Symphorien cemetery is near the military headquarters of NATO, called Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe. It has been invariably run by an American, since General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Just outside its headquarters is a restaurant called “Chez L’Oncle Sam” or “At Uncle Sam” – well known for its burgers and Tex-Mex grills – and that’s how NATO feels to this day.

The EU has become a global economic power, but has never developed influence in security and defence.

“Often people would describe the EU as an economic giant, but also as a political dwarf and a military worm. I know it’s a cliché. But, like many clichés, there was a fundamental element of truth,” Borrell said.

This was painfully evident during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos said it was “Europe’s time”, but it took NATO troops led by the United States to make a difference.

To make matters worse, EU decision-making has become more cumbersome as the bloc has grown, with each nation able to threaten vetoes over foreign and defense policy issues. This week, many European capitals grimaced when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban went to visit Putin. He has sought closer ties through larger natural gas imports at a time when the rest of the EU wants to distance itself from Moscow.

Efforts to increase European defense spending or integrate weapons systems have largely failed.

Here is how NATO summarizes the situation on its website: “The combined wealth of non-US Allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. However, the non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defense.

American presidents half a century ago expressed their irritation at Europe’s dependence on the American military.


There are political and historical reasons for this discrepancy.

The United States was intent on owning the 20th century, and massive defense spending went with it. In contrast, post-war Western European democracies built their welfare states. Spending on hospitals and school desks has always trumped tanks, and any hint of military spending to bolster an aggressive posture could spark protests.

Even today, 15 years after pledging to devote 2% of their gross domestic product to defence, 13 European members of NATO are still not up to the task. Last year, the big nations – like Spain with 1.02%, Italy with 1.41% and Germany with 1.53% – were again well below.

EU supporters note that he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for maintaining continental peace. Instead of hard power, it wants to be a soft power giant, with its world-leading development aid, economic cooperation and cultural outreach.

But amid the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, soft power does not provide the necessary deterrence. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, representing Europe’s two nuclear powers, have a direct line to Putin, while the EU again appears largely excluded from diplomatic efforts.

“In the longer term, this situation can only change if the Europeans themselves straighten their backs,” wrote Alexander Mattelaer of the Royal Institute for International Relations in Egmont. “It is only from a position of relative strength that progress can be made at the negotiating table with Moscow.”

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