The European Union and Direct Defense of Europe: Its Post-COVID-19 Future

By Robbin Laird

In discussions with then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in the mid-1990s about the future of the European Union as an alliance, he was very clear on the need for a convergent European core to work more closely together and work through, at the same time, relationships with other European powers who were not posed for or easily tailorable to a convergent path.

He assumed that multi-speed Europe was not only a given, but how Europe could progress. He did not assume that projecting a centralized top down integration process would be effective.

The European Union took a very different path with the opening to the East offered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospects of Europe “whole and free.”

But taking a path initially suggested by Prime Minister Balladur, it may be that Europe will end up following such a path with the disaggregation pressures almost certainly leading to re-calibration of what the way ahead of the European system of collaboration, consultation and decision making going forward will look like.

The challenge is that the European Union as an alliance has multiple trajectories and they do not all reinforce one another. The Euro trajectory requires significant convergence to work; and the Greek crisis highlighted that not everyone is really capable of the kind of economic convergence which the Euro requires.

This poses the question of whether or not Greece or other states not able to manage their public finances effectively really are going to remain in the Euro at all. The Brussels trajectory is about shaping convergent rules of behavior across the European Union states such as good governance, rules of law and common approaches to social management.

This agenda clearly has been challenged by the inclusion of the “new” European states in the European Union as well as the political impacts of migratory forces into the European Union.

The national trajectory has seen the return of a focus on shaping national approaches as a priority over the convergent rules-based approach to key issues, such as social cohesion, the rule of law, the identity of the national over Europeanization.  In the case of Hungary this has seen the coming to power and consolidation of an authoritarian regime within the European Union itself, but the overall migration crisis has been a central one in the reinforcing of the national trajectory.

The return of direct defense in Europe associated with the Russian seizure of Ukraine and the use of cyber war, enforced through the privatization approach of the Putin regime, has also reinforced a version of the national trajectory, namely clusters of states with similar perspectives working more closely together on defense and security or pursuing coalitions of the willing whether within either European alliance, the European Union or NATO.

A recent book by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi entitled Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance Across Borders provides a detailed look at a core effort within the Brussels trajectory, namely using aid and trade as tools for shaping common approaches to good governance as new states have been added to the European Union, or in the management of Europe’s neighborhood. “The union has the unprecedented ambition to bring even its member states to comparably high quality of governance, due to the need to manage the common on currency, the euro.”[1]

Her judgement is that the Brussels effort has been mixed at best, but actually has enhanced conflict within the European Union itself as the new states have not “converged” along the lines of Western democratic standards and have often violated “European values.”

In fact, she argued that providing significant aid to regimes which had not eliminated corruption only exacerbated the situation. “It is difficult to make a corrupt situation better, but very easy to make it worse. Scandals, even in the European Union proper – in Greece, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, or Malta – are related to EU funds the opened new opportunities for corruption for local elites.”[2]

In the book, she highlighted two case studies concerning key European states and the “good governance” challenge. Notably, both are from Southern Europe.  She argued that the two states demonstrate that “Europeanization” and corruption can exist quite nicely.

“Eventually as the EU pressed on the implementation of fiscal rules regardless of the governments in power and their commitment to good governance reforms, populists in both countries managed to set the agenda on anti-corruption themselves and take the political initiative.”[3]

The Brussels effort to shape “European values” and “good governance” reflective of those values has underscored significant national disagreements about what those values are and what kind of governance the different states believe they need. The rise within the European Union itself of an authoritarian regime such as is governing Hungary or in the key European neighborhood, by the Turks, has changed the nature of the game.

And if one combines, the migratory dynamics of the past ten years, with the return of direct defense as the Russians have returned to reshape threats to Europe along with the combined Russian and Chinese effort to make the world safe for authoritarian regimes, the differentiation among the European nations about how best to shape their abilities to defend their interests is to be expected.

The question now is how to handle political divergencies on fundamental political questions, different threat assessments, and varied working relationships with the global authoritarian powers, and to sort through the way ahead for both the European Union and NATO as alliances.

How to protect within the alliances against the significant political divergencies and the inclusion of authoritarian states within both the European Union and NATO? 

It seems inevitable that there will be alliances within alliances, as clusters of states shape convergent agendas and capabilities, and “coalitions of the willing” are forged to deal with specific threats as well.

And such a forecast is reinforced by how the Europeans have navigated the COVID-19 crisis. In a piece by Charles Grant, the London-based Centre for European Reform and former Economist journalist, highlighted that the European Union was being pushed in what he considered new and “undesirable” directions.

But whether or not is undesirable is whether you believe that enforced uniformity from a Brussels-based bureaucracy his how Europe should be managed, or whether you take a more alliance-shaped perspective to European management.

He identified several trends.

The first was de-globalization or “reshoring supply chains. His concern is that such a trend could lead to support for “European champions” which would reduce competition and drive up costs. What this does raise is the question of how to shape “trusted supply chains” which can encompass non-European suppliers as well, but set curbs on dealings with the authoritarian states, which we have argued is a key element for reshaping the response to the direct defense of Europe.

The second trend he highlighted was that of national capitals taking charge rather than relying on the European Union and its institutions. But this has happening in response to migratory, terrorists and defense challenges in any case. So the challenge is how to manage the semi-sovereignty which European states have in defense within a broader trans-Atlantic and European framework?

The third trend is the focus on having stronger national borders. The Schengen agreement is clearly in flux but the question of how to ensure effective flow of peoples throughout Europe will require a strengthened national approach but how best to do this and to keep the crossflow of European collaboration is a key question. And if one is to prioritizes the first issue, namely, ensuring the operation of trusted supply chains, then clearly flows of goods and personnel are crucial to shaping a way ahead.

A fourth trend which he highlighted were the structural divisions within the European community in general, both East and West and North and South. But this problem is rooted in the utterly unrealistic expansion policy of the European Union itself. The differences in levels of economic and political development are profound within the European region, and with the key authoritarian powers, Russia and China, expanding their ability to shape a way ahead within European development, a new approach is needed to manage the relationships within Europe.

Grant concludes that: “When the EU is faced with transnational challenges such as economic depression, a pandemic or climate change, strong central institutions are in everyone’s interest.”[4]

But we would argue that the return of direct defense in Europe challenges the concept of how indeed key European nations will collaborate to reach the kinds of consensus where action will follow.

And we have argued, that it is far more likely, and therefore better, for European states to follow the “coalition of the willing” model within broader alliance frameworks, rather than waiting for bureaucratically enforced centralized solution set.

[1] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance Across Borders (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 7

[2] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Europe’s Burden, 265.

[3] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Europe’s Burden, 153.

[4] Charles Grant, “Coronavirus is Pushing the EU in new and Undesirable Directions, Centre for European Reform (May 13, 2020),