When Jens Stoltenberg (NATO) sees the European Union as unable to defend itself. Is he right?

(B2) After Brexit, the European Union will no longer be able to defend Europe. 80% of NATO’s expenses will be covered by non-EU countries, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said to the press before the Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Is it true?

Jens Stoltenberg during his press conference on Tuesday (credit : NATO)

Where does this number come from?

We searched carefully. This percentage (80%) actually takes into account the total defence budgets of the Atlantic allies — USA, Canada and Turkey included. However, in principle, a defence policy serves first of all to protect a country, its economy, its interests. And these are not shared 100% by its allies, especially for countries outside Europe (United States and Turkey). The size of the budget contributes to the ‘bodybuilding’ effect of the Alliance. This does not mean that it is intended entirely for Europe. In doing so, Jens Stoltenberg is riding a fairly common misconception in transatlantic circles: confusing the NATO budget (read: The budget of the organisation ‘Atlantic Alliance’) with the addition of the defence budgets of NATO member countries (what is called the indirect budget, read: The defence budget of the Allies exceeds 1000 billion).

Does Brexit have a major impact?

Of this percentage, most of it is provided by the USA (around 73% of NATO budgets), a little by Turkey (1.5%) or Canada (2%). The contribution of the United Kingdom is significant (6%), but not sufficient in itself to accentuate the balance decisively. To imply that after Brexit, the defence of Europe is no longer assured is a mathematical false pretence. It is also a political heresy. This statement is in total contradiction with the Alliance’s doxa (repeated regularly by the same secretary general): Brexit does not change at all the policy of the Alliance of territorial defence. Read also: Le Royaume-Uni, premier budget de défense en Europe ? Vrai ou Faux (blog)

Are non-EU countries’s interests serving Europe?

The shift towards Asia-Pacific operated by the USA for several years, as well as its status as a world power, explain more the size of the American defence budget than the concern to defend European territory (1). And this budget includes very national expenses.

For example: the cost of reconstruction and security efforts after hurricanes Florence and Michael is estimated to $ 9.2 billion (2). Or the equivalent of the budget of Belgium and Denmark combined! It is not ‘fair’ to count this budget line in the defence of Europe.

As for Turkey, it is rather unwelcome today to add its defence budget to the defence of NATO automatically. Does the purchase of S400 missiles, its offensive in Syria or its actions against PKK contribute to the defence of Europe?

How much then do we assess the US contribution to the defence of Europe?

It is a very delicate question. If we pay attention to the US budget for 2019, only $ 6.5 billion is spent on the European defence initiative. It’s the bottom of the range. If we broaden the spectrum and take into account all external operations, we arrive at $ 69 billion: $ 46.9 billion for Sentinel (the anti-terrorist operation from Afghanistan to the Strait of Hormuz), 15.3 billion for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and 0.9 billion for cooperation (all countries combined). We can add to it the nuclear expenses that directly contribute to the defence of the Alliance ($ 20 billion on average per year). We thus arrive at a total of approximately $ 89 billion on a budget of approximately $ 700 billion, or approximately 9% of total Alliance budgets.

To be fair, we should add a share of staff costs, R&D, etc. which can be estimated according to the ‘operations + nuclear’ ratio over the entire budget. We would then arrive at a quick estimate (to be refined) of an American contribution of around $ 160-170 billion. This is the top of the range in our opinion. It would not be a figure higher than what Europeans spend. But rather in a ratio closer to 55-45 than 80-20. Around $ 220 billion for the EU27 block in 2019 (according to NATO assessments in November) against more or less $ 260 billion for the non-EU NATO block (USA, Canada , Turkey, + Europe Non EU).

Is the European Union unable to ‘defend Europe’ after Brexit?

The European Union has never made military territorial defence one of its policies and does not intend to do so. This is the role of NATO. And even the most daring on a European Defence cannot imagine it otherwise. On the other hand — as one of the axes initiated by the Juncker Commission (continued under the Von der Leyen Commission) —, the European Union redirected part of its budget towards defence and security. This is in addition to NATO expenses. After Brexit, the European Union will in fact be more involved than ever in European defence, if we look at the provisional budget for future years 2021-2027 (3).

Thus, the border and coast guard corps (around € 300 million per year) will be in civilian terms what NATO’s territorial defense is in military terms. The budget devoted to the European Defense Fund (just under € 2 billion per year) should boost the European defense industry, in its research and development part. The European Peace Facility (€ 1.5 billion per year) will rationalize the peacekeeping and military cooperation effort towards third countries. As for the military mobility project, it will finance, at the rate of € 850 million per year, one of NATO’s objectives (to facilitate the circulation of military means in Europe). Read also: Les USA tancent l’Europe. Quand le cow-boy tire son flingue, faut-il avoir peur ?

Conclusion : a white lie on a real problem

By claiming to respond to a formula from Emmanuel Macron (the brain death of NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, certainly, pleased some irritated allies (4). But his answer is awkward to say the least. To bash the European Union in order to elevate the Alliance to the rank of supreme saviour is a sham. Real questions are currently being asked: In the era of Erdoğan and Trump, are the Turkish and American commitments reliable? Are their national strategies in line with the interests of the Allies? Shouldn’t Europeans take over? etc. Hiding these questions under the rug is not good policy. Mixing true information with false assertions is looks like misinformation. It discredits rather than serves the Alliance.

But the Norwegian is right on one point: warning about a necessary rebalancing within the Alliance. Europeans still rely too much on the Americans to defend themselves. Donald Trump is not wrong: Europe, a rich continent, should provide more for its defence. Even put into perspective, we cannot ask the Americans to pay just as much as the Europeans for the defence of their continent. But the Americans must also be more consistent. They cannot cry wolf as soon as Europe wants to acquire a few instruments (such as the permanent structured cooperation or the European defence fund) and engage in intense lobbying to reduce the scope and power of these as soon as the Europeans display the smallest will to organise themselves more consistently.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1.  Without NATO, the US defence budget should have to be much higher because it would have to deal more with its Eastern flank. Turning the question around and trying to know what would be the cost of Non-Alliance for the US is just as interesting as asking this question for the Europeans.
  2. Extract of the briefing on the US defence budget draft for 2020
  3. As proposed by the Commission. It has not been approved yet by the Member States.
  4. It can be noted that the American president Donald Trump, however quick to take off on twitter, did not react to Emmanuel Macron’s words.

Read also: Où en est l’objectif de 2% de l’OTAN ? Trump dit-il vrai ?

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).