Transatlantic Asymmetry and European Weakness

  • Petr Boháček
  • 7.12.2018 07:06

There is no need to rehash the long list of developments that have undermined European security in the last few years and led to the expansion of European integration into this sensitive area. What is, however, needed is a constant reevaluation of the direction the European foreign and security policy takes. This text does not aim to offer an exhausting dive into the many complex issues it touches on, but rather it hopes to connect them in a narrative pointing to the main obstacles in strengthening Transatlantic security – its asymmetrical nature, European weakness and fragmentation. This first of the three parts of the series will focus on the overall dynamic of Transatlantic relationships, including European East-West division in industrial and defense policy terms and the EU-NATO synergy (or rather lack of it) in planning and division of tasks.

The European security infrastructure based on NATO is weakened. The technological, strategic and political superiority of the Alliance is deteriorating [1], a worrying trend that could be blamed on its inequitable relationship, a militarily weak and divided Europe and the absence of synchronization between NATO and the EU in defense terms.


"The old continent must find a way to make its case for Transatlanticism more appealing to Washington."


Politically, low European defense spending, inequitable contributions and overall complacency as an unaddressed issue were easily hijacked by Donald Trump’s disrupt-and-see foreign policy to politically weaken the Transatlantic bond. The first two years of his presidency under the stable guidance of the Atlanticist trio of generals John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis morphed into a more radical unilateral foreign policy with the entrance of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton into the White House. This development has solidified Europe’s unease over its reliance on the United States, which has granted a justification for the interpretation of the EU’s Global Strategy goal of Strategic Autonomy as independence from Washington. Politically, these efforts were conflated with the growing popular demand for security exerted by the Russian-Ukrainian war, the migration crisis, instability in the Middle East and North Africa and terror attacks in Western Europe. However, the dominant narrative of autonomy that now serves to build European capacities can also be very dangerous and harmful to the future of Transatlanticism. The Transatlantic bond remains the strongest political, economic and security partnership in the world. If Europe wants to preserve it, it ought to pick up the slack and improve the relationship instead of escaping to utopian visions of its full autonomy in times when the US dares to question its utility. The Transatlantic partnership is not a given to the geographically protected United States that has historically been rather isolationist. The old continent must find a way to make its case for Transatlanticism more appealing to Washington.


An unidentified General of European corps gestures at the start of European council of defense Ministers in Brussels, Belgium, 15 November 2016. Copyright

We should be able to recognize that while Trump’s assault on multilateralism does constitute a threat to the Europe Union, an entity based internally and externally on this principle, it is also partially a symptom of the troubled NATO relationship. Europe is the weak link in a partnership that needs a renaissance. Technologically, European weakness is lowering the credibility of NATO’s deterrence policy, especially in the face of Russian Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)[2] capacities and the overall local battlefield advantage in the Baltics. Further, the inability to quickly transport Alliance follow up forces to the Eastern flank is undermining the deterrence even more.[3] The way towards lowering Transatlantic asymmetry lies in overcoming European fragmentation without the illusion of autonomy and finding a working EU-NATO framework.


East-West Division

The ongoing task of strengthening the European pillar is unlikely to be achieved without joint and united efforts. However, the oft-repeated East-West division in the EU in regards of political capital, wages, economic convergence or food quality has also seemingly spread into the defense area from a policy and industrial perspective, further constraining the European defense capacities build up.

Only two of the initial 17 Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects were led by a newer EU member state (MS).[4] The second wave of PESCO projects, which is due in November 2018 and is being discussed between MS and the European Defence Agency, shows a similar trend. As a majority of Eastern European countries tend to look for an explicit and credible focus on the Eastern flank in the EU defense policy, their failure to gain support for their projects could cause them to deem EU defense initiatives futile. Without EU projects reflecting their strategic interests (i.e. to deter Russia) their influence on EU defense, industrial and planning efforts would be thus lowered.


"Eastern Europe seems to struggle with being proactive and providing sufficient political assistance to garner support across Europe, whether for PESCO or EDF."


The EU defense initiatives, especially the €13 billion European Defense Fund (EDF), offer an immense opportunity to support the industrial defense sector. However, while PESCO is decided on by unanimity [5], the EDF projects will be awarded by the Commission.[6] The EDF money is open to competition and not allocated according to national specifics like cohesion funds. Eastern small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as remnants of formerly vast Warsaw Pact industries thus need to go out and compete for this big pool of money with more successful Western counterparts. This carries the risk that most of the funding will flow to bigger Western defense conglomerates at the expense of Eastern European SMEs that do not possess sufficiently big lobbying and political power.

In general, national governments in Eastern Europe seem to struggle with being proactive and providing sufficient political assistance to garner support across Europe, whether for PESCO or EDF. It is not only of their own making. The French pro-European defense integration is sometime accused of being used as a great tool to push forward Paris’ industrial interests through the EDF, European Defence Agency or PESCO. This Western dominance has the potential to result in stronger anti-Brussels rhetoric stemming from frustration over the weakness of the Eastern European voice in the EU in comparison to their experienced Western states. Meanwhile, the alternative to simply rely on the US to provide security and assuring it via the bilateral Buy American approach (mastered especially by Poland) is weakening attempts to focus defense spending into the single European defense market to build up a consolidated European industrial base and develop indigenous defense capacities.



To offset this trend, national industrial capacities ought to be incorporated into the EU-wide industrial base to survive. National demand on its own won't be sufficient to resurrect former Warsaw Pact capacities. EU acquisition synchronization would arguably reduce costs, ensure interoperability and help to substitute old Soviet equipment, through long-term sustainable investment, into the European single market. On the industrial level, this can mean an integration of small SMEs into EU-wide supply chains and a resurrection of specific dual-use industrial, scientific and research capacities to justify growth in defense and research and development (R&D) spending. This process, however, requires policy planning. Beyond terrorist attacks and migration (the main security concerns of European citizens in the last few years), EU defense ambitions continue to be formed mainly by France and thus limited to crisis management (meaning North Africa). Eastern Europe should be able to use EU defense initiatives to contribute to NATO’s deterrence policy on the Eastern Flank. An effective division of such strategic tasks requires bringing NATO and the EU together.

EU-NATO Planning Issues

NATO remains the main guarantor of European security, ensuring collective defense of member states in the case of a “big war”. The ambitions of EU defense cooperation are fundamentally different from those of the Alliance. Even the last EU initiatives stress crisis management, conflict resolution, peacekeeping missions and overall security outside of Europe. Division of labor and effective synchronization between the EU and NATO are thus problematic.


"Different systemic approaches to defense planning engrained in each organization remain an issue."


A key question remains as to what type of capabilities their defense planning processes will produce. Considering their different political-military goals, any synchronization and coordination of the timing and outcomes of the two respective planning processes would be problematic. Questions also hang over the ambition of PESCO to develop capacities for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) while ensuring dual deployability for both the EU and NATO. For small and medium-sized countries, such synchronization can be highly complicated in a situation where the two organizations require different capabilities (crisis management in the EU vs. collective defense of NATO). The overlap between what military functions the EU and NATO aim to develop is only partial. Coordination and planning requirements for PESCO together with the big demands of the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) could force understaffed and underfinanced defense ministries to choose which to honor.

Another issue is different systemic approaches to defense planning engrained in the characteristics of each organization. The US-dominant NDPP is a cyclical four-year and top-down process with a politically-decided catalog of required capabilities while the EU’s Capability Development Plan (CDP) is sequential, and consensus-based.[7] The CDP is evolving into the main tool for arbitrating shot-term and long-term needs and setting up capability requirements for PESCO, EDF and CARD.[8] Such a process is more time consuming, based as it is on a clear consensus and the motivation of each country. While the EU reached an agreement to allow participation of third countries in PESCO,[9] the question remains whether a PESCO-built capability involving non-NATO members can be deployed or used for NATO purposes. A reversed Berlin Plus deal of 2002, which allowed the EU to use some military structures and capacities of NATO, seems needed here.

One of the main challenges of the CDP as the lead agenda-setting tool for EU defense plans will be to balance short-term military capability requirements (with the risk being quick purchases of non-European off-the-shelf products to satisfy the needs) and long-term development of the European defense industry reflecting trends in future warfare.[10] Establishing what these trends and future requirements are, will be critical in striking the balance within the EU as well as between the Union and the Alliance.

The next part of the series will be published next week.

This paper was prepared for the Association for International Affairs within the project „Future of the Czech security and defense policy and the role of NATO and the EU“, which is supported by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The paper does not reflect the views of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. This publication is supported by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. The full version can be found here.



[1] Sylvie Matelly, Christian Mölling and Trevor Taylor. The Future of Transatlantic Strategic Superiority. Washington: German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2018, 4.

[2] Capacities to prevent an adversary from occupying or traversing an area of land, sea or air.

[3] Petr Boháček, Jakub Kufčák. Strong NATO through strong Europe: Space and lasers as possible Czech contribution. Prague: Association for International Affairs (AMO), 2018, 5.

[4] Council Decision (CFSP) 2018/340 of 6 March 2018 establishing the list of projects to be developed under PESCO.

[5] Council Decision (CFSP) 2017/2315 of 11 December 2017 establishing permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) and determining the list of participating Member States.

[6] Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the European Defence Fund, 13.6.2018, Brussels, 2018/0254(COD)

[7] Zdeněk Petráš, “Analysis of NATO and EU Approaches to Capability Planning Process,” Vojenské rozhledy 26, no. 1 (2017): 5.

[8] Daniel Fiott. EU Defence Capability Development Plans, Priorities, Projects. Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies (EU ISS), 2018, 7-8.

[9] Jacopo Barigazzi, “UK and US will be allowed to join some EU military projects,” Politico, October 2, 2018.

[10] Daniel Fiott. EU Defence Capability Development Plans, Priorities, Projects. Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies (EU ISS), 2018, 8.

About author: Petr Boháček


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