Opinion / Strategy

Sturm und Drang: Can Ursula von der Leyen Reconcile Collective European Defense Strategy?

After a bit of drama and a few plot twists, Germany’s former Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen became the President of the European Commission. As the leader of the executive branch of the European Union, von der Leyen will be a powerful representative for the EU in the international system. Amidst the long list of challenges awaiting her, von der Leyen must find a way to mitigate political disputes within the EU and between the United States and NATO to consolidate conflicting visions of European defense.

Though the debate is not loud yet, events such as the recent announcement of a possible European naval force formation to protect European ships from Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf only bring this debate closer to the forefront of defense policy.[1] But diverging views among the United States, the EU, and NATO are dividing stakeholders in transatlantic defense at a time when such disputes play right into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to divide and weaken Western, liberal institutions. If von der Leyen is to diffuse European and transatlantic tensions and unite European defense interests, she will have to have to work quickly to identify what collective European defense will look like and how it will not undermine NATO. Absent such steps, existing divisions may further cripple the EU’s defense agenda and provide further opportunity for Russia to take advantage of rifts.

Ursula von der Leyen’s Defense Record

Though von der Leyen had never served in the EU until her presidency, her five years as Germany’s Defense Minister has sufficiently exposed her to the current defense challenges facing Europe. She has worked to expand the presence of the Bundeswehr to Mali and to Lithuania in NATO and has increased military spending for five straight years. However, the German public has not seen her record as defense minister as successful. Despite her efforts to step up Germany’s defense contributions, von der Leyen failed to improve the poor state of the Bundeswehr. Aside from continuing to fall short of the 2 percent spending target (a difficult goal when Germany had downsized its defense budget for decades), a report from the Bundestag in January 2019 highlighted serious shortages in personnel and materiel.[2] These reports of German defense capabilities have caused grumbling across Germany, the EU, and NATO. Though the state of the Bundeswehr is not a sign of a successful record, some critics argue that being defense minister in a deeply pacifist country after decades of downgrading and downsizing the military is a difficult and thankless task. Others, however, believe she not only failed to improve the Bundeswehr but made it worse.

Regarding her leadership and management record, von der Leyen has a complicated record – unpopular in Germany but widely respected in greater European circles. She received criticism at home for her inability to resolve several issues, including: the overbudget renovation of the Bundeswehr’s training ship; the continued tension over far-right extremism, sexism, and hazing in the Bundeswehr; and the deepened ties between the German Defense Ministry and private consulting firms. Even what was supposed to be an advantage for von der Leyen, her longtime friendship with Chancellor Angela Merkel, presents drawbacks. After poor turnout from CDU voters in the European Parliament and a rebellion in the European People’s Party (EPP) that rejected Merkel’s original choice for President of the European Commission, the support of Merkel is not what it once was in Germany and in the EU. Despite this unpopularity in Germany, many close to von der Leyen have attributed her commission president win to her solid and expansive diplomatic networks in Europe and the international system, cemented by her strong communications skills. Being Merkel’s longest-serving minister, von der Leyen had the doors of elite international government, policy, and business circles opened for her. Once inside these elite circles, von der Leyen made important political contacts catalyzed by her ability to engage in English, French, and German, thus building herself a reputation for diplomatic élan. Consequently, the European leaders who voted for her believe she has the requisite skill to bring opposing political leaders to the table and drive negotiations. One of the disputes she will have to arbitrate and resolve is the question of collective European defense.

European Defense and Implications for the EU, U.S., and NATO relations

As von der Leyen wades into this debate, she must know the questions her commission will need to resolve. First, there is a range of views over whether or not a European defense force would be European or EU. With UK-French-EU collective action in the Gulf and Brexit looming, European leaders will need to answer this question quickly. The other pressing issue is how a collective European force would complement NATO and not diminish it. As European and transatlantic political divisions advance Putin’s foreign political agenda, von der Leyen must diffuse these political tensions soon.

As far as her views on collective defense, von der Leyen supports future formation plans, echoing Chancellor Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to develop European collective defense, or a “real European army,” separate from NATO. In November 2018, when Merkel joined Macron’s call for European defense with then-Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in audience at the Bundestag, Germany made clear that it would be an EU army. Meanwhile, Macron’s vision for France has caused some German officials to worry that such an force would be “deliberately organized and set up outside the European Union’s structures.” As France’s military continues to expand its strategic landscape and priorities around the world, Germany is wary of joining a coalition that could pull its forces into a conflict unpopular with the German people. However, as European leaders frame such visions of collective defense rhetorically in the distant future, these concerns over what identity this defense force will take are currently on the policy debate backburner.

As debates are put on hold, Europe has continued to experiment and expand smaller cooperative efforts between European forces. In 2017, European Union and third countries expanded their defense and security landscape with strategies looking to Eastern Europe and the Sahel. In 2017, the EU launched the European Defense Fund to boost defense spending and to improve European combat capacity and integration. In building up their own defense markets, increasing military spending is much more attractive to European policymakers. The European Intervention Initiative (EI2) unites ten European countries in an informal commitment to military-to-military exchanges and joint operational planning. In Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, European countries including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Spain, and now Denmark are gaining valuable experience in combat as well as experience in operational and logistical coordination. Without these being an outright EU or European initiative, these early-stage activities and declarations are promising examples of expanding and solidifying collective European defense approaches and options.

However, Europe cannot avoid the European or EU army debate much longer. With Brexit looming, will the UK be excluded from a EU defense force? It would be less than ideal for the EU to incorporate UK forces and UK defense acquisitions as a third country. The Iranian seizure of a UK oil tanker in the Persian Gulf has further added pressure to this debate. Former UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has called on the EU to form a European naval force to ensure safe passage through the Gulf, to which EU leaders have reacted positively. Brexit could greatly complicate a fledgling collective navy that is still working out strategic and operational intregration.

An even bigger question looming though, is how a European or EU army will complement, not weaken NATO. Though von der Leyen has echoed Merkel’s call for better European defense cooperation, von der Leyen has asserted European defense would not compete with NATO, with the remark, “We want to remain transatlantic, but we also want to become more European.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also welcomed the idea, stating that improving European integration and strengthening European defense forces would only improve NATO.

Concerns over the Future of Acquisitions and Integration

The United States has voiced concern about such plans. President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison has expressed opposition to plans like the European Defense Fund and visions of a collective force, calling them a “protectionist vehicle” for European defense industries that would cause inefficient spending and duplication. The EU has assured the United States it would not pursue an exclusionary acquisition policy against the United States and would instead operate under a model of reciprocity of U.S. defense market policies for third countries. For, like the United States, Europe sees the economic advantages of investing into its own national defense industries. However, under current U.S. trade policies, the United States could retaliate against Europe’s policies by closing off its defense markets to European contractors like Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Rheinmetall, Rolls-Royce, Saab, Safran, and Thales.

By splitting up supply chains and creating new, independent pipelines of European military technologies, United States-EU-NATO military systems integration will be greatly set back. NATO’s collective capabilities would likely be further complicated by greater variety in defense systems. Yet if Europe cannot invest in its own defense industries and thereby see increases in its respective GDPs, the EU has little incentive to boost military spending. Therefore, the United States and NATO have little reason to expect EU countries to seriously increase their military spending, let alone meet the 2 percent spending goal. Von der Leyen will have to work to reconcile these concerns between the United States and Europe if collective European defense is to be advanced.

Transatlantic Policy Rifts

Aside from the serious concerns over acquisition policy, there is the growing divide in U.S.-EU defense and security policies that a European defense force would further complicate. The Trump administration’s discord with allies over their NATO spending, the United States withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (without the consent and approval of the EU), and rising tensions with Iran, present a growing list of foreign policy tensions between the United States and the EU. The most emblematic divide though is the dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which prompted a deep debate in U.S.-European defense ties and planning. Now that the INF Treaty is dissolved, NATO experts and stakeholders have indicated if Russia enters into a conflict with NATO, it likely will take the form of a quick land grab by disguised forces, reinforced by intermediate range missiles. As NATO currently has conventional disadvantages along its border with Russia, NATO forces cannot quickly or easily defend territory in this region in such a scenario. Now with intermediate range missiles freed from the INF Treaty, Russia has a strategic advantage when the actions of disguised forces are protected by “nuclear blackmail.” Considering how Russia had already been violating the INF Treaty—and conversations with NATO stakeholders indicate Russia does not have the incentive to renegotiate a new intermediate range missile treaty—von der Leyen must now must grapple with the EU and NATO’s strategic disadvantages that have deepened following the treaty’s dissolution.

With growing distance between U.S. and European defense priorities, a military alliance sans-the United States may be an increasingly attractive option. However, a newfound European autonomy could very well come at the cost of NATO’s authoritative cohesion, or at worst undermine historic leadership of NATO.

With so many defense and security policy landmines surrounding the debate over collective European defense, it is no wonder European leaders have demurred from debating the topic up more than they need to and hammering down specifics. Furthermore, it would seem reasonable for von der Leyen to avoid taking on such a complex defense and security debate, when she is so new to the European Union and has a mixed record in defense policy. However, she and other European leaders must avoid the temptation to ignore this debate. If this strategy is left unaddressed, is has the potential to deepen the transatlantic divides Putin would seek to exploit.

The Stakes for Europe is Security

Over the past ten years, Russia has expanded and deepened its influence over the European continent and the United States through gray zone approaches like information operations and disinformation, political and economic coercion that often take the form of meddling in elections, cyber operations, space operations, and provocation by state-controlled forces as seen in Crimea and Ukraine.[3] Putin has used a combination of these tools to serve his foreign policy of limiting the influence of the United States, the EU, NATO, and other liberal, democratic institutions on the European continent and around the world. In this power vacuum, Putin and his government have hoped to increase the legitimacy and authority of the Russian Federation in the international system.

In practice, Moscow’s deepened ties with Serbia, Serbian-majority Bosnia, and a failed covert operation to block the Prespa Agreement are indicative of Russia’s policy to block NATO and EU expansion in the Balkans. Information operations and political meddling in Brexit and the EU Parliamentary elections further sought to sow discord over the strength and legitimacy of the EU and liberal democracy itself. As political debates within the EU and NATO continues to undermine constructive debates over the future of European defense strategy, the Kremlin has no doubt taken notice and could use the escalation of these debates to drive deeper wedges in transatlantic relations between the United States, the EU, and NATO.

Looking Ahead

With Russia waiting to capitalize upon divides among EU and NATO countries, von der Leyen must put her famed diplomatic skills to good use by working with European and defense leaders around a common agenda.

As a member of the EPP with a currently positive standing with the Law and Justice Party (PiS), von der Leyen will have the opportunity to make inroads with Poland, an important key to ending the strategic decoupling of defensive strategies for the EU, the NATO, and the United States. After her first visit as commission president in France, von der Leyen visited Poland. If von der Leyen’s leadership can bring Poland back into the EU fold, if only for defensive strategy, she could count that as a significant victory in founding a stronger, cohesive defense strategy for Europe. Though Poland has little chance of aligning with Russia, allowing Polish, EU, and NATO defense visions to continue to diverge would only serve to disrupt European diplomacy, security dialogues, and therefore be a boon to Putin’s ambitions for a divided continent.

Von der Leyen must also quickly get France, Germany, and the greater EU on the same page about what the future of collective European defense will look like and how it would not compete with NATO. The sooner European countries are on the same page, the sooner von der Leyen can engage with the United States and NATO on a common agenda. The continuing acceleration and expansion of European defensive strategies and coordination only serve to make accusations of unraveling transatlantic unity more painful and personal. Again, such debates only serve to fuel Putin’s strategy to undermine institutions such as the EU and NATO.

It is encouraging that in a July 18 interview, von der Leyen indicated she wanted the European Commission to play a larger role in geopolitics, saying: “The EU has to assert its leadership ambitions, to play a global role and act in a strong and unified manner. The world demands more Europe.” With ongoing debates over European defense and with U.S. and European interests at stake, so too must von der Leyen assert her leadership skills if a strong and unified transatlantic defense policy is to endure.  


[1] “Welcome steps towards the formation of an European Naval Force, at the request of the UK, to counter Iranian piracy. Brexit might mean Brexit, but it’s clear Europeans are stronger working together!” Verhofstadt, Guy. https://twitter.com/guyverhofstadt/status/1153561476390690816

[2] Notable marks against the Bundeswehr include: hard-to-deploy Leopard 2 battle tanks, expensive retrofitting programs for the new armored infantry Puma’s, the Navy’s lack of a tanker in the second half of 2018, a large part of its submarine fleet (the German Navy has six) being defective, and less than half of their Eurofighter fighters and Tornado fighter aircraft being capable of flight with a reduced ammunition stocks. // “Wehrbeauftragter beklagt „Überorganisation“ in der Bundeswehr.” Deutscher Bundestag. 29 Jan 2019. https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2019/kw05-wehrbericht-589712

[3] Hicks, Kathleen and Alice Friend. “By Other Means, Part I: Campaigning in the Gray Zone.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jul 2019. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/Hicks_GrayZone_interior_v4_FULL_WEB.pdf, p. v, 9-10

(Photo by European Parliament)

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