BRUSSELS — The coronavirus has upended the best-laid plans and priorities of many, including the European Union. But one of the biggest casualties may be European efforts to build a more credible and independent European military.
For several years, especially since President Trump came to office with his skepticism about NATO, European alliances and multilateral obligations, leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have been pushing for what he has called European “strategic autonomy,” the ability to defend Europe and act militarily in its neighborhood without so much reliance on the United States.
But even before the virus hit so hard, and despite loud calls that the bloc was in greater peril from new technologies and a more aggressive Russia and China, the European Commission was already sharply slashing projected European military spending in the next seven-year budget.
Now, with the pandemic having cratered the economy, there will be an even fiercer battle of the budget. Recovery and jobs will have to be the priority, and Brussels continues to emphasize investment in a European “Green Deal” to manage the climate crisis. Military spending is highly likely to lose out, making cries for European boldness and self-reliance ring increasingly hollow.
And only last week, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said that the virus “will only increase the need for a stronger E.U. security and defense and for a stronger Europe in the world.” He pleaded for more funds, saying that “the pandemic is a new threat and will deteriorate our security environment.”
But despite such calls, a modest trend toward more European military spending is likely to be reversed. European governments were struggling bitterly over the size of the bloc budget, especially after the hole left by Brexit, even before the virus added new elements of uncertainty and massive fiscal deficits.
Washington’s chaotic and self-centered response to the virus has made Europeans feel even more vulnerable.
“This pandemic has been another nail in the coffin of European trust in U.S. leadership,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, a European legislator and former Polish defense minister. “But if the idea of European autonomy has been strengthened by this crisis, the ability to finance it has been put on ice.”
Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, was blunt.
“If there’s no money for it, then you’re not serious about it,” he said.
Two years ago, the Europeans created, with much fanfare, two important programs — one for collective military procurement and investment on projects, known as Pesco and funded by participating nations; and another, the European Defense Fund, to promote military research and development, funded from the bloc’s new seven-year budget and projected at 13 billion euros, or €1.86 billion a year.
Pesco was a modest beginning, but the fund was a breakthrough, because it came from the collective budget. Another key proposal, in agreement with NATO, was a mobility initiative of €6.5 billion, to facilitate moving heavy arms like artillery and tanks through Europe if a crisis broke out with Russia. Those capabilities, including reinforced bridges, railway carriages and bureaucratic permissions, had been largely abandoned with the Soviet collapse.
But now, after Russian wars against Georgia and Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and increased Russian military pressure on Baltic nations, the idea of armed conflict with Moscow or its proxies no longer seems absurd. NATO enhanced deterrence by stationing troops along Russia’s borders — but NATO needed credible means to reinforce them.
But even in the European Union’s pre-virus negotiations over the next seven-year budget, more contentious than usual because of the gap created by Brexit, military spending was gutted. The European Commission cut the defense fund by more than half, to €6 billion. Proposed funding for military mobility dropped from €6.5 billion to €2.5 billion, then €1.5 billion and now, in the latest proposal, to zero.
Now the Europeans are wrangling over how to include a massive virus recovery fund. Defense is barely discussed.
Some analysts, like Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, caution that the budget negotiations are not finished. Given the pandemic, Brussels may decide to have only a one- or two-year budget, postponing harder choices.
But the crises of six months ago have not gone away, cautioned Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO.
“If anything,” he said in an interview, “the virus amplifies the problems,” which range from Russia and China to cybersecurity, terrorism and civil wars in Libya and Syria.
In the last two years alone, he said, China has built 80 new ships and submarines, while both Russia and China are investing in new missiles, nuclear capability, drones, unmanned weapons and artificial intelligence.
He conceded that there is a struggle for investment now, but insisted that NATO militaries had shown their usefulness during the pandemic and that “investing in defense can be a powerful engine for economic recovery.”
But it was obvious, Mr. Stoltenberg said, that “the European Union cannot defend Europe” without the United States. He hoped Europe would do more on defense, “but it cannot replace NATO,” he said.
If Mr. Stoltenberg is reluctant to criticize the Europeans, Mr. Hodges is less shy.
“Any European leader who talks of strategic autonomy and a European army and can’t come up with a single euro for mobility — well, no one will take that seriously, either in the United States or among adversaries,” said Mr. Hodges, who works with the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Anna Wieslander, a Swedish defense expert with the Atlantic Council, said that the funding debacle dashes dreams of European autonomy. “The way the E.U. budget on defense went even before the corona crisis, even on the most important project of military mobility — let’s leave this bit of naïve dreaming behind,” she said.
Europe’s dangers have only increased with poor American leadership and “new strains between the U.S. and China over the virus,” she said. “The signal to Europeans is that we need to act, and maybe even quicker. So we need to make the European pillar in NATO stronger and more explicit.”
Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, saw more squabbles inside NATO. “It will be harder for European governments, like Italy, to say that we need to spend more on defense to reach 2 percent” of GDP, the NATO guideline that obsesses Mr. Trump, he said.
Europe’s retreat on military spending will complicate relations with Washington, with its own huge budget pressures, no matter who wins the presidency. “With fewer resources to invest in key capabilities, Europe’s reliance on the U.S. as the main provider of common security will continue,” said Derek Chollet, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense.
But that dependency, resented in Washington by both political parties, may be unreliable. Washington will concentrate its firepower on China no matter who is president, Ms. Wieslander said.
The United States “has to focus on Asia but will have strained resources itself,” she said, and is incapable of fighting two regional wars at once. “It’s not that the Americans won’t want to come to Europe’s defense,” she said, “but will they be able to?”
In Britain, still a key to European and NATO defense, the virus has postponed a review of foreign and defense policy, meant to run in parallel with a spending review, said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of RUSI, a defense think tank. “Big choices have been put on hold,” he said. “Now the reviews will be dominated by the pandemic, and what defense has done and can do to tackle this central threat.”
Mr. Chollet sees a similar quandary in America.
“There will be a new debate about what security is, since this virus has done more damage and killed more people than any conventional power could have done in such a short period of time,” he said.
“The security of the Baltics can seem a little theoretical these days,” he said, “when nothing about this crisis feels theoretical.”