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The EU should borrow together once again — this time for common defense

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Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as a senior adviser in the State Department from 2011-2017. Benjamin Haddad is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has changed everything. With war back on the Continent once again, European security can no longer be taken for granted — and leaders across the European Union have taken notice. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made history on Sunday, announcing a dramatic increase in German military spending. And countries like Sweden have broken with neutrality, announcing weapons delivery to Ukraine. The EU is delivering some €500 million worth of military equipment to a party in conflict – something that was unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

 But while talk of defense is cheap, actually building a stronger military costs real money and political courage. As Scholz recognized, a quick and massive injection of funds is necessary to immediately modernize European capabilities. Fortunately, there’s a precedent as to how this goal could be achieved, and swiftly.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, EU leaders recognized the historic nature of the crisis, collectively — and successfully — borrowing to fund the union’s economic recovery. And just as the pandemic exposed Europe’s economic vulnerabilities, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has exposed its geopolitical vulnerabilities. It demands a similar collective response.

The EU’s collective defense efforts so far have been concentrated on the development of a “Strategic Compass” ahead of a March meeting of the Council of the EU. But while the compass is an important roadmap, what the EU and NATO urgently need are more military capabilities.

To achieve this quickly, the EU should develop a second NextGenerationEU, borrowing together once again, this time in order to invest in defense and security to the sum of €400 billion. Such a program could either acquire EU-owned capabilities or provide matching funds to member countries enhancing their defense capabilities, if the acquisitions fit pre-agreed criteria among its 27 members.

Such a move would also be an asset for the United States, so American policymakers should actively support it. Not only would it ensure the U.S. has robust European allies, even as it maintains focus on the Indo-Pacific, it would also help “sell” the transatlantic alliance domestically.

Europe may be reassured by the moves of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has one of the most transatlanticist presidents in decades at the helm, but the prioritization of China is not going away anytime soon — even with full-scale war going on in Ukraine. Despite the U.S.’s massive $750 billion defense budget, defense planners there are already facing hard choices about where to deploy military assets.

The U.S. needs the EU to step up as a defense actor and develop its own integrated defense industry, as it can play a significant role in strengthening NATO and reducing the burden on U.S. military assets. The crux of the problem is that few European countries can afford high-end procurements on their own, which creates a dependence on U.S. military assets in NATO.

A NextGenerationEU fund for defense could help address this by identifying capabilities that Europe is currently lacking and making significant acquisitions of high-end defense capabilities. For instance, the EU could help fund the procurement of and maintain air and missile defense systems that could be deployed anywhere in the union. It could also buy fleets of air transport and air refueling tankers, unmanned aerial vehicles and heavy-lift helicopters. The EU could even make investments in procuring new ships and submarines, as Europe is also sorely lacking naval capabilities.

With such a tool, the EU could also help fund the modernization of the militaries of Central and Eastern European countries, many of which still operate aging Soviet equipment. These frontline nations never received an injection of funds to modernize their forces and have thus sought to do so in a piecemeal fashion, when instead they should have the most advanced equipment possible. These countries aren’t just defending themselves, they are defending Europe.

Across the Continent, European militaries are in disrepair. Few vehicles are ready to roll, few planes ready to fly, few ships ready to sail. NATO’s biggest shortfall is land combat forces that are ready to fight. This has created a significant conundrum for European defense planners — invest limited resources in acquiring new high-end systems, or address the woeful readiness of current forces? With the EU spending on high-end acquisitions, European NATO member countries will be able to focus more on addressing their deficiencies.

The war in Ukraine is a turning point. It has given a new sense of purpose to NATO, reaffirmed transatlantic unity and shown that Europeans can step up in solidarity and support an embattled democracy. This moment should help us move beyond old taboos. A strong and sovereign EU is an asset for NATO, and the Biden administration should embrace tangible European ambitions. It’s time for the EU to act.

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