More than a year into the Trump administration, disagreements between U.S. officials and European leaders on issues such as Iran, climate, and now trade are to be expected. Less anticipated was that the European Union’s defense cooperation might also become a subject of debate. This issue risks fueling an unnecessary transatlantic row.

Erik Brattberg
Erik Brattberg was director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is an expert on European politics and security and transatlantic relations.
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The backdrop is the EU’s growing ambitions in defense. After having made little progress over the past decade toward an expanded security role for the union, defense is becoming a higher priority area for the EU, especially its leading continental powers, France and Germany.

A combination of several factors accounts for this development. Brexit will deprive the EU of its second-largest defense spender and most ardent EU-defense skeptic. Meanwhile, Russia’s continued aggressiveness combined with security threats on Europe’s southern flank and the election of an American president who has openly questioned the utility of NATO have spurred EU action.

As a result, the Europeans have, on paper, been able to make significant strides on defense cooperation over the past year. The recent creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) will allow for smaller constellations of EU member states to team up around joint defense projects. So far, projects announced range from an increase in cyber capabilities to the development of new infantry-carrying vehicles. Moreover, the establishment of a European Defense Fund (EDF) will allow European Commission money — expected to amount to over $6 billion a year after 2020 — to incentivize defense cooperation and industrial consolidation across the Continent..

In principle, these moves should be welcomed by a U.S. administration that has made defense spending and burden-sharing a centerpiece of its relations with NATO allies. European leaders at least expected this to be the case. Instead, U.S. officials have recently made comments perceived as critical of European defense. Among the reported concerns are that the EU’s efforts could shift attention or divert precious resources away from NATO and exclude non-EU countries. These are the traditional bureaucratic concerns expressed by past U.S. administrations at a time when European defense proposals centered around duplicative command structures and few additional capabilities. Last but not least, especially with the Trump administration, there are concerns that closer European integration on defense might lead to more protectionism of defense industries in Europe.

Jamie Fly
Jamie Fly is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and previously served as Senator Marco Rubio's foreign policy advisor.

Yet PESCO, the European Defense Fund, and other related initiatives are not the European defense proposals of the past. They start from the premise that European militaries need to be able to do more — the same goal espoused by the Trump administration.

There is no reason to think Europeans are trying to undermine or replace NATO. No one in Europe seriously believes Europe can defend itself against Russia without NATO’s support. Stronger EU defense cooperation could actually complement NATO, generating more military efficiencies to the benefit of both organizations.

Grounding the defense-spending debate within the broader European context may be the only way to build support from some allies. Take Germany. The German defense ministry has just concluded a bleak assessment on the state of the country’s military forces. As recently as October 2017, all of Germany’s submarine fleet was in repair. Yet the German political debate about defense spending has stalled, in part because of a backlash against American pressure. Trump’s record-low standing in Germany is not helping here either. In contrast, the new coalition is likely to prioritize deepening European integration.

Similarly, the EU label may also be more palatable in other European countries that still fall short of NATO’s 2 percent spending goal.

What’s more, the European Union can do what NATO can’t in some areas, such as solving legislative hurdles for military mobility of forces across the European Continent. In fact, one of PESCO’s announced projects aims specifically to “simplify and standardize cross-border military transport procedures.” Similarly, the EU’s broad mandate and its links to national civil society groups make it best positioned to deal with certain amorphous threats that require a whole-of-society response, such as terrorism and disinformation. The fact that PESCO is legally binding could also help force cooperation even where it is difficult, thus potentially overcoming some of the problems encountered in past similar attempts such as NATO’s “smart defense” initiative.

As long as EU defense efforts take into account NATO activities and priorities and seek to maintain interoperability with the alliance, they might actually represent one of the best chances of finally bringing about increased European defense spending and more capabilities — including joint procurement of existing capabilities and investments in emerging technologies and systems — to the benefit of both European and transatlantic security. Moreover, for PESCO to be successful, EU-funded defense projects must be open to non-EU defense companies from countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

The Trump administration, rather than voicing skepticism about Europe’s defense efforts, should instead adopt a more constructive stance. Simply calling for more defense spending is not a strategy. Washington needs to engage and shape European policies rather than just respond to what comes out of Brussels. Too much is at stake to pick a fight over an issue that that basically furthers American interests and President Trump’s agenda.

Meanwhile, Europeans should be mindful about not creating misperceptions or misunderstandings about their intentions. The unrealistic term commonly used by some European leaders to describe the EU’s defense efforts — “strategic autonomy” — risks sending the wrong impression. It would be better instead to emphasize how these efforts will help fulfill Europe’s commitments to NATO and help share the burden that has for too long rested disproportionately on the shoulders of American taxpayers.

Of course, the latest round of European defense proposals may end up going nowhere, just as their predecessors failed to deliver. Yet if they do succeed, the result will be greater European responsibility for the Continent’s security and a stronger European pillar within NATO. This is exactly what President Trump has asked of allies.

U.S. officials should get out of the way and let this latest version of the European experiment succeed or fail on its own merits.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.