NATO summit meeting

Could European Military Defence Exist without NATO?

Nearly a month ago Emmanuel Macron caused a great scandal in international politics when he had called NATO “brain dead”, a month shortly before the London Meeting, where the leaders of the NATO’s member states came together to celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO’s birth.

The aim of his provocative statements beyond Macron’s political ambitions was to give a new meaning for the NATO Meeting taking place in London, and to shift the political focus from the anniversary to the heated debates about the future of the Alliance, and Europe’s role in it.

NATO Summit
Scandal in international politics

Not surprisingly, the Russian Foreign Minister’s Secretary of the Press, Maria Zakharova, welcomed Macron’s statement, while most of the Western political leaders, like the NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the head of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki immediately distanced themselves from his statements.

Differing conceptions about the future of the Alliance

According to Macron’s vision, in the near future the United States will not be willing to guarantee the military defence of Europe. Germany will not be willing to undertake the leading role after the Americans, while the Brits are leaving the EU. There would be a possible scenario for Europe in which she could be left without substantive military protection. Meanwhile, China could take over the dominant position in Asia, which can challenge Russia’s positions.

Macron argues that a Security Cooperation with Moscow is the only hope for Europe to avoid getting to the periphery. He believes, it is the common interest of both sides, (not to mention the many European industries’ dependence on Russian gas, and the huge market that Russia means for the products of the Western economies.) That is why the core states of the EU are less insistent on sanctioning Russia, as these sanctions would harm their economic.

Although Macron’s notion is refused by most of the EU leaders – especially by Central Europeans states – many of them agreed with his criticism about the necessity of reforming NATO. This is due to the mistrust of the European countries in Trump’s erratic foreign policy. A good example of this is the recent fact that the European States were left out of the conciliation efforts concerning the withdrawal of the US Army and the launch of the Turkish military exercises in Syria.

Most of the European countries do not welcome Trump’s view of NATO as a commercial project in which the products of the US armament industries get supremacy in European countries in exchange for their military protection. Moreover, it has been debated that for some time the US has turned the Alliance’s focus more on the Pacific, due to its rivalry with China. Mainly Poland and the Baltic States argue, that instead, the Alliance should deter Russia, who tries once again give rise to its imperial ambitions.

On the other hand, the US has recognised, that albeit NATO is still the most powerful military alliance of the World, the rise of China and her alliance with Russia bears a significant security challenge for the West. China is not just standing its ground in the economic competition – for example in 5G and 6G technology and in the field of drone warfare – but it can compensate her disadvantages thanks to the technological development of warfare. This has placed NATO into a totally unfamiliar situation. This is one of the main reasons why the US wants to decrease her expenditures and wants to put more focus on the Pacific region.

These arguments demonstrate how the current depression of NATO has derived from these very different conceptions of the Member States and what should be the aim of the Alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It hasn’t been clarified what should be that cohesive force, what could hold the Alliance together and keep it going after the disappearance of the common enemy. Collective strategies can’t be determined without collective goals. 

Macron and Trump
NATO Meeting in London (Source: BBC)

At first sight it seems the Meeting highlighted the seriousness of the conflicts that lies between the NATO member states. The fact that the event had been disrated from Summit to Meeting forecasted doubtfulness about the success of the gathering. The reason behind this must have been the idea, that heads of states should not have been compelled to give a joint statement if they are unwilling to come to a common agreement.

Not surprisingly the tensions generated by Macron was in the spotlight of the Meeting’s public debates. Though a more moderated mood was shown in the joint press conference of Macron and Trump compared their previous statements. At the same time a heated debate evolved between the two politicians in the crossfires of the cameras, mainly about the trade tensions between France and the USA, the ISIS fighters captured during the operations and the NATO’s prescribed 2% payment of the member states’ GDP for defence expenditures. In addition, Macron stood heavily with his former critique about NATO.  

A harsh debate also escalated about Turkey. Before the Meeting, Erdogan stroke back to Macron for his criticism about NATO, stating that Macron is braindead, not NATO. As a response, Macron charged Erdogan as he was the reason for the ISIS’s return back to Syria. Macron also criticized Turkey in his bout with Trump accusing Erdogan that it is inconsistent with NATO and that Turkey attacked the Kurdish who had been Western allies against ISIS and also about his deal with Russia about the purchase of the S-400 Missile System. During the gathering Erdogan stood strenuously for these, nevertheless he withdrew from his earlier standpoint about blocking the defence of Poland and the Baltic states in case NATO will not recognize the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist organisation, what is a great achievement of the Meeting.

Although all of the key players of the Meeting had to face many difficulties at home, for none of them ended the gathering so embarrassingly like the host, Boris Johnson who was captured in a leaked video in which he was laughing at Trump in private with other European leaders. Not surprisingly Trump called the joint press conference off and flew home after the footage was leaked.

However, despite all the disputes the recent NATO Meeting meant a significant turning point in the current situation. Finally, substantive debates have been conducted about the strategic objectives of the Alliance and heads of states could come to terms in certain concretes.

Although Macron’s demands about debating NATO’s basic strategies were not taken into the final joint declaration, Space as a domain of operations and mass migration were regarded as security issues. This was also the first time when NATO recognised China as a strategic threat as member states of NATO had just agreed few weeks before the Meeting about launching the military monitoring of China.

Russian threats for the North-Atlantic Security with her aggressive acts have been a key focus. If her behaviour makes it possible for NATO to be open for maintaining the dialogue with her. It is also a considerable achievement of the Meeting that Member States agreed on 400 billion dollars’ extra appropriations. This would be spent most probably for defence and armed forces expansions according to strategies, the deployability of weapon systems and the increase of inter-compatibility. These outcomes ensure reasons for being optimistic about NATO’s viability, and we could hope that these will be the first steps on a way towards renewing NATO.

EU soldiers
On the way towards establishing a European Defence Force?

In the light of witnessing these disputes about fundamental issues and the recent junctures of world politics, the American Trade Wars and isolation from Europe, and steadily growing aggression of Russian foreign policy, a significant question arises. How long can the EU be left vulnerable to US’s military protection? And isn’t it time for the EU to establish her own military defence in some form or another, which would be independent from NATO?

These conceptions are not without precedents in European political thinking. Yet the concept of the European Defence Community failed in the mid ‘50s, within the framework of the Western European Union and the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy – though in close cooperation with NATO – an ambition for establishing an own European Security Integration could always have been detected.

If EU member states were willing to put their political will and the needed financial background into this conception, even an independent European Defence Alliance could be established. Theoretically.

A Task Force based army established by the pattern of NATO, with English as a language of command and a leadership that would be rotating among member states and to where all nations could delegate officers can’t be inconceivable within the EU’s structure.

The geopolitical background

Today it seems impossible for the EU countries to be left without NATO’s – especially the US – military protection in the light of the current political circumstances. The heavy American military presence is heated by American and European interests as well. While the USA wants to increase her geopolitical influence on the continent, EU countries want to put their focus on the development of their economies and the sustainment of their welfare systems.

We can hardly assume that those states who refuse to devote the NATO’s prescribed 2% of their GDP to defence expenditures could sustain an independent and thus much more expensive military alliance. Since the beginning of the Cold War for the EU and her predecessors it has come in handy that in exchange for the recognition of the leading role of the USA, the American nuclear deflector has guaranteed the security of these countries against the Soviet-Russian threat, which has threatened specifically her Eastern borders. 

We also have to admit that an independent Security Integration of the EU countries would be significantly weaker than NATO, as the USA and Turkey, the two principal military powers of NATO are not part of the EU, not to mention the leaving United Kingdom who is one of the two European countries with nuclear weapons. That means the potential of deterrence would be far less than NATO’s and could increase the EU’s vulnerability against foreign threats and security challenges.

The EU’s impotence during the Ukrainian Crisis and the Yugoslav Wars are sad reminders for how limited is the EU in managing these kinds of conflicts without the USA, especially that it was not the integration of the European nation states what has guaranteed the peace in Europe since WWII, but the US’s military presence on the continent. Although according to Macron’s vision, NATO’s vanishing resources could be replaced by a security cooperation with Moscow at some point, that would never be accepted not just by the US, but mainly by the Eastern-European member states of the EU as they consider Russia as the greatest threat to their security.

EU security measures
Who should take the lead in Europe?

It is also important to remember, that the EU is not a military alliance, but an economic-political community that is exposed to the clash of the always-changing interests and bargains among the 28 member states. It is enough to recall how the French veto cut the EU’s further enlargement treaties on October. Although NATO has also had a political wing, a military alliance couldn’t be operated like this. A leading nation that could indicate the direction in strategic matters and establish that kind of core culture which could be the basis for military cooperation is unequivocally required.

Currently, only France and Germany have the chance of taking this leading role. But while France has the ambition to lead, it misses the necessary economical background. Meanwhile, Germany is not willing to undertake the military leading role because of her different economic interests, as well as its historical heritage. It is certain that because of its past, Germany will not gain the support of other member states in the near future. However, the History of Europe is a cycle of events. Every time a European country tried to acquire military dominance on the continent, the others have immediately formed an alliance against the possible hegemony where they felt insecure.

This deeply rooted tradition of European balance of power is one of the main reason why the political integration of the EU couldn’t have been fulfilled up until today. In the light of these historical experiences, it is strongly dubious if the nation-states of the EU could recognise one of their own who could supplant the USA. 


Until the current circumstances and interests will not change radically, the EU’s military protection could be guaranteed only by NATO. The accidental end of the Alliance could easily bring along the end of the era of European peace as well. That is why it is essential for EU countries to maintain the vitality of NATO, because currently it has no alternative for preserving European security.


The author of this article was Andras Miko, International Relations Content Creator and Post-graduate student at the University of Corvinus. 

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