EU officials have moved to dramatically increase European arms spending and beef up the EU’s military capacities. This turn is coming at the expense of action to address the climate crisis or the defense of social programs.

Soldiers of European Union Force at the headquarters of Camp Butmir in Bosnia & Herzegovina, February 7, 2023. (Soeren Stache / dpa picture alliance via Getty Images)

Ever since Russian troops landed on Ukrainian soil in 2022, there has been ceaseless talk of the renaissance of NATO. Less attention has been paid to the reinvention of the European Union (EU) as a wannabe Great Power that increasingly views the world’s future through the lenses of geopolitics and war.

Long-standing neutralities have turned into historical artifacts, defense spending has returned to levels not seen since the Cold War (€270 billion in 2023 by EU member states alone), and the EU has provided billions in funding and weapons directly to a country (Ukraine) for the first time.

The EU recently unveiled its first defense industry strategy to ramp up and better coordinate its military-industrial complex. Signaling their downgraded response to the tick of a “climate time bomb,” member states have also slashed a common fund called the European Sovereignty Fund — a response to Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act — from €10 billion to €1.5 billion, explicitly turning its focus from climate- to defense-related projects.

European cooperation on defense has long faltered due to competing visions of common defense, from the maximalist view of a full defense union complete with a European army (a federalist preference of France’s) to minimalist cooperation on military capabilities (favored by smaller neutrals and Eastern European countries). But the lack of a unified voice cannot disguise the fact that the EU has recently put all its eggs in the basket of war, desperate to impress Washington as the superpower adjusts to a changing world order.

Cannons Over Butter

As it prepares to usher in a new era of austerity, the EU is profuse with declarations of the need for war readiness. “Everyone, including myself, always prefers butter to cannon, but without adequate cannons, we may soon find ourselves without butter as well,” Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy recently said, quoting the ancient motto of war-makers: “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”).

Seeking reelection as European Commission (EC) president on an EU defense platform, Ursula von der Leyen — the first to explicitly call for the dawn of a “geopolitical Commission” — told the European Parliament that an industrial plan is needed to “turbocharge” the bloc’s defense industrial capacity and develop “battle-winning operational capabilities.”

The EU recently unveiled its first defense industry strategy to ramp up and better coordinate its military-industrial complex.

Such bellicose language aligns not only with the EU’s shift into war economy mode — even prior to the release of this strategy, the Financial Times had already declared that “Europe’s defence industry is booming” — but also with its new self-definition as a geopolitical entity and its brutalization of migrants inside, on, and increasingly outside its borders.

These developments come in the context of a deepening of austerity. Punishing new fiscal rules demanded by Germany in particular may force EU member states to collectively cut already-squeezed budgets by more than €100 billion next year.

But is the EU hedging on a continental war, doing Washington’s usual bidding to encircle Russia and decouple from China, or attempting to mimic the military Keynesianism of Bidenomics? To what extent is this creeping militarization being driven by geopolitical or capitalist imperatives, if indeed we can make that distinction? EU officials preach the necessity of strategic autonomy, which means independence from American imperial strategy, but is such an aspiration illusory?

From Maastricht to Lisbon

Just as Ukraine pervades the sensibilities of EU officials today, the chaotic disintegration of Yugoslavia helped focus the minds of their predecessors on security issues after years of disunity. A key part of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 was the new Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP); five years later, the Amsterdam Treaty allowed for the creation of a new foreign policy position, the High Representative for the CFSP, to lead on this new policy.

However, the sheer impotence of the EU in the face of the Balkan Wars — during which the bloc failed, in Perry Anderson’s words, its “first test as an actual keeper of peace in Europe after the Cold War” — forced a rethink, leading in 1999 to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This gave the bloc some semblance of common purpose and, over time, allowed it to deploy civilian and military missions across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

A historic turning point on defense came through the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to provide a loose framework for a common EU security and defense policy.

A historic turning point on defense came through the Lisbon Treaty, which sought to provide a loose framework for a common security and defense policy. During pre-treaty discussions around the future of European security, a group of arms lobbyists and policymakers from the military establishment pushed successfully for the creation of a “European DARPA” to support the development of military capabilities and strengthen the EU military industry. Set up in 2004, the European Defence Agency (EDA) represented an early encroachment of the arms industry, which had entered a period of decline after the Cold War, into European decision-making on defense.

There were two other key legacies of the Lisbon Treaty. What was conceived of as a stepping stone to an EU foreign service, the European Union External Action Service, was launched in 2011. There was also Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a cooperative framework intended to foster coordination on military issues and increase European governments’ military spending.

A rather gradual militarization sped up dramatically when Brussels began to consider the implications of the UK, a nuclear power and a permanent Security Council member, leaving the EU after the Brexit 2016 referendum, with lobbyists flooding Brussels to push for beneficial policies. The year after the Brexit vote, member states finally activated the Lisbon Treaty commitment to PESCO.

European Defense Fund

By 2019, the European Commission had a new department called the Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, concerned chiefly with the “competitiveness and innovation of the European defence industry.” Yet another defense-oriented initiative took flight in 2021. With the fingerprints of the arms industry all over it, the European Defence Fund, possessing a budget of €8 billion for the research and development of military matériel, was founded — in the words of the Commission president at the time, Jean-Claude Juncker — because “a strong, competitive and innovative defense industrial base is what will give us strategic autonomy.”

Quite apart from the revolving door between the arms industry and European institutions, it is clear that EU handouts to arms manufacturers are a substitute for a genuine EU defense policy. Either way, long-wished-for efforts are now underway to re-awaken a dormant arms industry. Ammunition, explosives, propellants, artillery launchers, anti-tank missiles, air-defense radars, tank tracks — the production of all the above and more is now speeding ahead.

The ever-expanding border control agency Frontex was recently allocated a budget of €5.6 billion, the largest of any EU agency.

There has also been an externalization of military aims, with potentially catastrophic effects on unstable regions overseas. The ever-expanding border control agency Frontex — infamously prone to using military measures to block people migrating or seeking asylum — was recently allocated a budget of €5.6 billion, the largest of any EU agency. As well as training and equipping border police in certain African states to halt migration to Europe, the EC in 2022 also began pursuing a policy of allowing Frontex to patrol land and sea borders in Senegal and Mauritania.

Crucial to this militarization of external borders (whether in Ukraine or the Sahel) is the European Peace Facility (EPF), which built on existing mechanisms to improve the EU’s ability to provide training and equipment (including weapons) to non-EU military forces. Just like PESCO — and almost every aspect of EU foreign policy and defense for that matter — the EPF is not covered by the EU budget and evades parliamentary scrutiny.

The sponsorship through the EPF of military operations — often camouflaged as counterterrorist or counter-migratory in nature — are, as one EU official admitted to the Guardian, wholly geopolitical in nature. This will permit the EU to become what it now eagerly desires to be: an effective sidekick to the United States in regional conflicts alongside Russia or China.

The EU in the World Order

None of the above developments have appeared spontaneously out of an ideological vacuum. For the past few years, EU leaders have embraced and enshrined the securitization approach, treating everything from external aid to development and migration as security issues. By doing so, they have profoundly reimagined the role of the EU in the global order.

EU leaders have embraced and enshrined the securitization approach, treating everything from external aid to development and migration as security issues.

Back in 2003, Javier Solana, then EU high representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (as well as being a former NATO secretary-general) spearheaded a first European security strategy. Tame by the hawkish standards set by more recent EU defense proclamations, “A Secure Europe in a Better World” fretted about terrorism, the spread of organized crime across borders, and nuclear proliferation. A relic of the end of history, “Secure Europe” made the case for the EU to develop strategic partnerships with Russia and China.

However, it was the second such policy document, published in 2016 and usually referred to as the “Global Strategy,” which should be understood as the blueprint for today’s militarization. “To the east,” the introductory chapter stated,

the European security order has been violated, while terrorism and violence plague North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe itself. Economic growth is yet to outpace demography in parts of Africa, security tensions in Asia are mounting, while climate change causes further disruption.

While the document committed the EU to a global order based on international law, it clearly departed from previous assessments to assert that “the idea Europe is an exclusively ‘civilian power’ does not do justice to an evolving reality.” “For Europe,” it asserted with a strong sense of foreboding, “soft and hard power go hand in hand.”

Shift in Priorities

The Global Strategy’s follow-ups — 2020’s “EU Security Union Strategy 2020–2025” and the “EU Roadmap on Climate and Defence”’ (which invokes the specter of climate wars) — added to the momentum for a more militarized approach to defense. An aggressive shift in priorities can be seen most vividly in the recurring narrative that security must be guaranteed before development can take place. Such a change in mindset has inevitably led the EU to start redirecting funds for peace-building or development for military ends, whether at home or in third countries.

The most recent policy document, the Strategic Compass, was pitched not as “a silver bullet that will magically enable Europe to develop a common defene policy overnight,” but a stepping stone toward greater coherence. It commits the EU to develop an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of five thousand troops for different types of crises and, for the first time at EU level, the rolling out of regular live exercises. The Compass is the most detailed and most geopolitically charged strategy guide of its kind, identifying adversaries, describing threats, and arguing for entanglements.

The EU’s Strategic Compass is the most detailed and most geopolitically charged strategy guide of its kind, identifying adversaries, describing threats, and arguing for entanglements.

It proudly declares that “the future of Africa is of strategic importance to the EU” and that “stability in the Gulf of Guinea, the Horn of Africa and in the Mozambique Channel remains a major security imperative for the EU, also as they are key trade routes.” In strikingly geopolitical language, it also describes a “new center of global competition” opening up in the Indo-Pacific, where tensions “endanger the rules-based order in the region, and put pressure on global supply chains.”

Although they clearly advertise Brussels’s renewed loyalty to Washington, these types of interventions cannot be cast merely as imperial playacting. Zaki Laïdi, an adviser to Borrell, recently summarized the geopolitical turn in stark terms. In his view, the concept of “Geopolitical Europe” is “a view that breaks with the classically interdependent and liberal vision of the world on which the EU based its policies,” pointing to the example of a rapid reduction of German dependency on Russian energy imports.

But what do European policymakers mean when they say that the EU is no longer a civilian power, and how does this bode for the future of the bloc?

A Geopolitical Power

Europeans have understood the EU as by turns a civilian power, a normative power, and — now — a putative geopolitical power. While the term itself is her and Borrell’s coinage, the basic idea of a “Geopolitical Europe” did not start with von der Leyen. Her predecessor as Commission president, Juncker, was a geopolitically minded advocate for a “common military force” to “complement NATO,” who oversaw the Global Strategy.

Europeans have understood the EU as by turns a civilian power, a normative power, and — now — a putative geopolitical power.

To put it simply, the EU understood a “civilian power” to be one that seeks to “civilize” international relations by promoting multilateralism and international law. The idea of a “normative power,” a cousin of this civilizing mission, suggests that the EU’s projection of its own vaunted values would set an example to the benighted world, transforming international relations into its own image.

In his recent book, Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project, Hans Kundnani gives us some clues as to why the EU has geopoliticized itself from top to bottom. He argues that these schools of thought — civilian, normative — “produced a tendency to idealise EU foreign policy and a lack of self-reflexivity.” What he dubs a civilizational turn in the European project, a Europe defined in ethnic/cultural terms, has seemingly run parallel to the geopolitical turn, both of which (not coincidentally) lend themselves to US geostrategic objectives.

Americanization of EU Foreign Policy

It is questionable if the EU can ever arrive at a common defense policy without becoming a United States of Europe. But one way of looking at EU militarization is that the Atlanticist hawks that are increasingly powerful in the EU are doing so not for one but several reasons: to bolster NATO, to follow Washington’s military Keynesianism formula, and to prepare for Russian provocations down the line.

For economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, the EU is merely “an economic auxiliary to NATO,” whose role is to “help ‘the West’ encircle Russia on its Western flank” by “keeping pro-American governments in power in the former Soviet satellite states.” However, as this drive toward militarism has shown us, the role of economic henchman requires tools of war. Instead of carving out any sliver of autonomy from Washington, this approach ties the EU closer to the United States.

It is questionable if the EU can ever arrive at a common defense policy without becoming a United States of Europe.

If the European Defence Agency was imagined as a continental Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and if the new defense strategy proposes copying the US Foreign Military Sales scheme (which allows Washington to sign contracts with foreign capitals directly to streamline arms sales), then perhaps what we are witnessing is less a Europeanization than an Americanizaton of EU foreign policy.

As Lily Lynch has pointed out, the new industrial strategy may lead to the establishment of a new defense commissioner role that is assumed by a Polish or Baltic state figure, which would result in a hardening of EU Atlanticism “as Europe’s centre of gravity shift[s] East.” Once it complements and does not threaten to defang NATO, EU militarization is thus a marriage of convenience for US and EU elites.

The Near Future

While many point out the limits of this “slightly-less-than-great power,” it is enough that it is attempting to act like a Great Power. Increasingly militarized borders and a sharp about-face from a watered-down European Green New Deal to ever-rising defense spending give us reason to believe the EU is deadly serious about underfunding public services in the pursuit of military objectives.

Time will tell if the EU fashions greater military integration out of a burgeoning arms industry, perhaps through the yet-to-be-deployed EU Battlegroup, which are multinational military units intended for emerging crisis and conflict zones around the world. But the most pressing concern, as the European Network Against the Arms Trade has highlighted, is rapacious arms manufacturers using (as they have done already) this new militarization paradigm to their advantage.

Even though EU countries are already collectively the second-largest arms exporter in the world after the United States, arms manufacturers are seeking a deeper militarization of the EU by demanding “widened access to civilian programs” and “unlimited access to sustainable finance” through the European Investment Bank. In the eyes of these death merchants and the European politicians who hope to prop them up, an opportunity for Great Power glory could be missed if member states fail to divert resources away “from its cherished welfare state.”

But there is a chink of light amid all the dark premonitions of war. Across the continent, antiwar activism has been revived by the genocide in Gaza. The question remains: Where and how can the same pressure be applied to this most undemocratic and unaccountable institution to alter the current trajectory before it is too late?

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