Transatlantic Burden Sharing: Do as I Say Not as I Do?

By Michael Trinkwalder

The Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Eyskens once famously described the European Union (EU) as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. Indeed, the post WW2 history of European defense integration is rife with examples of ambitious schemes failing to live up to expectations, ranging from the European Defense Community that never became operational to the multinational “EU battlegroups” that have not once been deployed. However, spurred on by a deteriorating security environment there are signs that the EU might finally getting serious about its defense. Only time will tell if the newest iteration of European defense initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or the European Defence Fund (EDF) can truly make EU military spending and security policy more coherent. [1] In the meantime, Brussels seems to have picked up an unlikely believer in the success of the European defense efforts: the current U.S. administration.  

Since taking office, President Trump has pursued the issue of transatlantic burden sharing with a single-minded focus that is bordering on obsession. Time and again he has demanded that European NATO allies must spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, with Germany becoming the favorite whipping boy of the president. [2] Consequently, the Trump administration should welcome the EU effort to strengthen European defense capabilities. After all the European Commission estimates that each year defense spending of up to €100 billion ($112 billion) is being wasted due to lack of cooperation between the EU member states. [3]

Instead, the U.S. administration has been highly skeptical about the usefulness of the EU initiatives from the very beginning and has argued that they could undermine NATO. Recently, it seems that skepticism has turned into outright hostility with Washington  accusing the EU of pursuing an “industrial policy under the veneer of a security policy.” [4] In fact, US officials have not only  threatened to cut off European arms manufacturers from the U.S. market, but have even gone so far as to imply that the U.S. might not come to the EU’s aid in case of a military attack. [5] Additionally, Washington has already set up an incentive program that offers several Eastern and South-Eastern European states subsidized American military hardware. [6] Ostensibly this was intended to get them off Russian equipment but some in Europe see this as an attempt to discourage these countries from joining common European initiatives.

Several European governments have rebuffed US criticism by arguing that the EU defense initiatives will “complement and strengthen” rather than undermine NATO military capabilities. [7] Additionally, according to EU officials, the European defense market is actually much more open to competition than that of the U.S., as demonstrated by the fact that the U.S. exports more than ten times as many arms to the EU as the other way around. Considering, that the EDF will only have a budget of €13 billion ($14.6 billion) which will be spread out over a seven-year period and 27 countries, there seems to be little danger of U.S. armament manufacturers being pushed out of the European market. So, why then has this initiative provoked such a vehement response? According to Ulrike Franke, a defense expert at the ECFR, the U.S. administration might be less concerned about market access than it is about intellectual property control. [8]

Thus, while U.S. companies remain eligible for EDF funding, any intellectual property originating from an EU funded project can neither be transferred out of Europe nor used in exports to another country without the EU’s consent. Accordingly, U.S. officials have criticized this provision as a “poison pill” that will effectively prevent outside participation in EU defense projects. [9] However, under U.S. arms traffic regulations Washington also retains the right to block arms sales abroad if the weapon system in questions contains U.S. components and technology. Considering, that in the past Washington has used  its discretionary powers to the detriment of European countries, U.S. criticism of EU defense efforts is seen in many European capitals as the Trump administration not only telling its allies what to do but also trying to dictate how they do it.  [10]

As much as Washington might prefer to work with Eastern European allies that met the 2 percent goal, it is not Eastern Europe that is most crucial to NATO’s military capabilities. After all, even with a defense budget of just 1.36 percent of GDP, Germany comfortably outspends every single NATO member east of Berlin combined. [11] However, the German government has struggled to raise defense spending due to a deep-seated historical aversion against all things military (in the country). Additionally, Germans despise Trump with a passion matched in few other countries, so whenever the President lambasts Germany for failing to live up to its NATO defense commitments the task of raising the defense budget becomes only that much harder. [12] Conversely, while only a minority of the population is in favor of military spending increases, 88 percent support stronger European defense cooperation. [13] Consequently, a push for higher defense spending in Germany will be more likely to succeed if it is framed as furthering the cause of European integration. This now leaves the Trump administration with the choice between constructively engaging with the European defense initiatives in order to improve NATO’s military capabilities or trying to undermine them in the hope of preserving Europe as an export market for U.S. armament sales – it is unlikely to get both.

Michael Trinkwalder is a graduate student at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt where he is pursuing a M.A. in International Relations.

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