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When Jens Stoltenberg (NATO) sees the European Union incapable of defending itself. Is he right ?

(B2) “After Brexit, the European Union will no longer be able to defend Europe. 80% of NATO's spending will be covered by non-EU countries,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has just declared to the press, as a prelude to the meeting of Foreign Ministers. Is it correct ?

The dry. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg during his press conference on Tuesday (credit: NATO)

Where does this figure come from?

We searched carefully. This percentage (80%) actually takes into account the entire defense budgets of the Atlantic allies – USA, Canada and Turkey included. However, in principle, a defense policy primarily serves 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 'strengthening' effect of the Alliance. This does not mean that it is intended entirely for Europe. In doing so, Jens Stoltenberg straddles a fairly common mistake in transatlantic circles: confusing the NATO budget (the budget of the Atlantic Alliance organization') with the addition of the defense budgets of NATO member countries (what is called the indirect budget, read in particular: The defense budget of the Allies exceeds 1000 billion).

Does Brexit have a major effect?

Of this percentage, the majority is provided by the USA (around 73% of NATO budgets), a little by Turkey (1,5%) or Canada (2%). The United Kingdom's contribution is notable (6%), but not sufficient in itself to decisively accentuate the balance. To imply that after Brexit, the defense of Europe is no longer assured is a false mathematical pretense. It is also a political heresy. This statement is in total contradiction with the Alliance's doxa (regularly repeated by the same Secretary General): Brexit does not change one iota the policy of the Territorial Defense Alliance. Read also: The United Kingdom, first defense budget in Europe? True or False (blog)

Do the interests of non-EU countries serve Europe?

The turn towards Asia Pacific made by the USA for several years, as well as its status as a world power, explain the scale of the American defense budget more than the concern to defend European territory (1). And this budget includes very national spending.

Example: the cost of reconstruction and security efforts after hurricanes Florence and Michael is estimated at $9,2 billion (2). That is the equivalent of the budget of Belgium and Denmark combined! It is not 'honest' to count this budget line in the defense of Europe.

As for Turkey, it is rather inappropriate today to add its defense budget to NATO defense automatically: Is the purchase of S400 missiles, its offensive in Syria like the action against the PKK contribute to the defense of Europe?

How much then should we estimate the US contribution to the defense of Europe?

This is a very delicate question. If we pay attention to the US budget for 2019, only $6,5 billion is dedicated to the European defense initiative. This is the low end of the range. If we enlarge the spectrum and take into account all external operations, we arrive at $69 billion: $46,9 billion for Sentinel (anti-terrorist operation from Afghanistan to the Strait of Hormuz), 15,3 billion for the operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and 0,9 billion for cooperation (all countries combined). We can add the nuclear expenditure which directly contributes to the defense of the Alliance ($20 billion on average per year), we thus arrive at a total of approximately $89 billion out of a budget of approximately $700 billion, i.e. approximately 9% of the Alliance's total budgets.

To be fair, we would have to add a share of personnel 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. We are not looking at a figure higher than what Europeans spend. But rather in a ratio closer to 55-45 than 80-20: approximately 220 billion $ for the EU27 bloc in 2019 (according to November NATO assessments) compared to around $260 billion for the Non-EU NATO bloc (USA, Canada, Turkey, + Non-EU Europe).

The European Union unable to 'defend Europe' from Brexit?

The European Union has never made military territorial defense one of its policies and does not intend to do so. This is NATO's role. And even the most daring on defense Europe cannot imagine it any other way. On the other hand - this is one of the axes undertaken by the Juncker Commission (continued under the Von der Leyen Commission) - it redirected part of its budget towards defense and security. This is in addition to NATO spending. After Brexit, the European Union will in fact be more committed to European defense, if we look at the forecast budget for the future years 2021-2027 (3) than ever.

Thus, the border and coast guard corps (around €300 million per year) will be on a civilian level what NATO territorial defense is on a military level. The budget devoted to the European Defense Fund (a little less than €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 (facilitating the circulation of military resources in Europe).

Read also: The USA scolding Europe. When the cowboy pulls his gun, should we be afraid?

Conclusion: a white lie about a real problem

By claiming to respond to a phrase from Emmanuel Macron (the brain death of NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, certainly, pleases some irritated allies (4). But his response is clumsy to say the least. Hitting the European Union to elevate the Alliance to the rank of supreme savior is a false pretense. Real questions are currently being asked: In the era of Erdoğan and Trump, are Turkish and American commitments reliable? Are their national strategies consistent with the interests of the Allies? Shouldn't the Europeans take over? etc. Sweeping them under the rug is not good policy. Mixing true information with false statements resembles disinformation. This discredits the Alliance rather than serving it.

But the Norwegian is right on one point: to warn of a necessary rebalancing within the Alliance. The Europeans still rely too much on the Americans to ensure their own defense. Donald Trump is not wrong: Europe, a rich continent, should provide more for its defense. Even put into perspective, we cannot ask the Americans to pay as much as the Europeans for the defense of their continent. But Americans must also be more consistent with themselves. They cannot howl wolf as soon as Europe wants to equip itself with a few instruments (such as permanent structured cooperation or European defense fund) and engage in intense lobbying to reduce its scope and power as soon as the Europeans show the slightest will. to organize themselves more consistently.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read also: Where is NATO's 2% target? Is Trump telling the truth?

  1.  Without NATO, the US defense budget would have to be much higher because it would have to take care of its eastern flank more. Reversing the question and trying to find out what the cost of the Non-Alliance would be for the United States is just as interesting as this question posed for the Europeans.
  2. Excerpt from the briefing on the draft US defense budget for 2020
  3. As proposed by the Commission. It is not yet approved by the Member States.
  4. It will be noted that American President Donald Trump, although quick to rant on Twitter, did not react to Emmanuel Macron's comments.

Updated on 3.12 with NATO figures from November 2019

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).