German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, left, step on the podium during the welcoming ceremony prior to talks at the chancellery in Berlin, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, left, step on the podium during the welcoming ceremony prior to talks at the chancellery in Berlin, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. Markus Schreiber/AP

Europe Contemplates Life without NATO

Germany is leading a sweeping, on-the-fly rethink of how the European Union might best fend for itself.

For leaders of European nations, it’s impossible to know which of President Donald Trump’s remarks about Europe and the Atlantic alliance—the bellicose or the conciliatory—to take to heart. Is he agitating for the EU’s demise when he extols Brexit? Is NATO “obsolete,” or a cornerstone of transatlantic security? Is Moscow now Washington’s ally of choice? Is the transatlantic partnership truly defunct? If so, is Europe on its own?

A Europe on its own could prove easy pickings for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seems only to respect the language of brawn; borders pose no barrier to his volition. There’s zero indication that Moscow will divest itself of Crimea, regardless of sanctions. No one believes that the deployment of a few thousand troops from 11 NATO countries, including the United States, can defend the Baltics from a Russian attack, should it come to that.

The EU’s current defense deficit dates back to the end of the Cold War in 1990. European countries did not beef up their own militaries, nor did they create a security architecture to replace NATO that included, rather than excluded, post-Soviet Russia. Today, the Europeans still don’t possess the necessary conventional forces—tanks, war planes, helicopters, deployable ground forces—to intervene with purpose in crises in their own backyard, as evidenced by the 1990s wars in the Balkans; little has changed since then in terms of Europe’s military capabilities, a profusion of plans and policy papers notwithstanding. Europe has continued to piggyback on the United States. In Brussels this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explicitly called upon Europeans to bump up their military expenditures. “If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” Mattis said, standing next to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

A recently passed proposal to create a $5.5 billion defense fund to help members acquire helicopters and drones and to develop military technology is unlikely to bolster European security substantively or intimidate anybody. Moreover, with Britain out of the way, the EU is finally setting up a single military headquarters to coordinate and command EU troops, a move the British had long blocked out of allegiance to NATO. But this is a far cry from a full-fledged EU army.

In this uncomfortable new reality, European leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel foremost among them, are undertaking a sweeping, on-the-fly rethink of what the EU is all about and how it can best fend for itself. “Europe has its fate in its own hands,” she said on February 3 in response to Donald Trump’s barbs at NATO and the EU. Of course, considering the fact that Europe remains under the U.S. nuclear umbrella until further notice, Merkel’s declaration of independence isn’t entirely apt. But in the era of Trump, Merkel and her European counterparts must confront the possibility of life without the close Atlantic partnership of the postwar decades. “Sure we’d rather have NATO,” one Brussels insider close to the EU’s defense planners told me. “But if not, then we’ll go to the EU. There is nothing else.”

Add to this the impending departure of Britain, a traditional superpower, and the EU is more vulnerable than ever before, mired in its deepest crisis since March of 1957, when Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome, formally creating the bloc. Since then, the union has swelled to 28 members with over 500 million citizens—the world’s biggest free trade bloc and, as a single unit, its mightiest economy, too. The EU’s countries experienced their longest stretch of peace in modern times, and prosperity spread from the core to outlying states. The creation of a monetary union in 1992 led to the euro, which, most nations agreed, would form the basis of a kind of united states of Europe—the culmination of the Rome treaty.

But while peace and prosperity fueled the EU for six decades, it never became a fully integrated union. Brexit is just the latest spasm of many Europeans’ disapproval of a closely interwoven European community. Referendums on an all-EU constitution in 2005 in France and the Netherlands, soundly pro-EU countries, flopped spectacularly. Since the financial crisis, nationalistic parties from Helsinki to Athens have swelled their ranks using anti-EU rhetoric. The eurocrisis remains acute, the far right is gaining ground across the continent, and EU members seem to agree on ever less. “It’s not that Europeans are anti-Europe,” Michael Bröning of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank, told me. “But they’re tired of integration across the board. They’ve signaled that they don’t want it.”

No one’s panicking yet, at least not publicly. But the EU is trying to transform itself from a beleaguered bloc into a cohesive, resilient body: one that can manage its own defenses, as well as prosper together in the decades ahead. In a meeting of the EU’s leaders on the Mediterranean island of Malta in early February, Merkel insisted on a major change. The EU, she argued, must become a looser body that enables each individual member to decide for itself how it wishes to participate in the EUa Europe à la carte.

Among the benefits of an à la carte model—a Europe of “multiple speeds” or a “two-speed Europe,” in EU parlance—is that the pressure for all 28 nations to join in on most policies would be relieved. Instead, clusters of willing states would forge ahead in areas of their choice while others simply opted out or chugged along at a slower pace. This may not sound radical: After all, the principle has bounced around for decades, and is already in effect on things like the euro and freedom of movement for non-EU citizens. But this modus vivendi was always considered the exception rather than the rule.

“It’s hard enough these days to get even half-a-dozen nations to agree on anything,” Klaus Linsenmeier, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Brussels office, a think tank close to the German Green Party, told me. “The multi-speed approach has a logic to it that can work, as we’ve seen with the euro.”

And it could work particularly well where defense and security are concerned. Earlier this year, Bröning’s foundation published a study of eight EU nations, including Germany, France, and the Netherlands, that revealed that many Europeans actually favor closer cooperation in specific fields, but not others. The respondents wanted more cooperation in the EU on data protection, the taxation of transnational corporations, and foreign and security policies, too. “We were surprised,” Bröning said of the findings on security and defense, explaining that states traditionally prefer to maintain sovereignty over these matters. “Yet EU citizens seem happy to back stronger cooperation because they understand that the status quo is unsustainable given the sad state of affairs of current European capacities. It seems that many Europeans understand full well that shifting responsibility in security and defense cooperation to Brussels does not equate giving up, but rather could mean gaining sovereignty, agency, and capacity to act.”

Experts say that the possibilities for defense-related cooperation among subsets of EU states is vast, ranging from the pooling of resources on submarine development to cyberspace, medevac helicopters, and stealth drones. The potential to work across borders and save significantly on redundant expenditures is vast, studies underscore. McKinsey consultants found that Europe could save almost a third of what it spends on military equipment if governments coordinated investment and used fewer arms suppliers. Eventually, the mustering of a European army is not out of the question. But before that happens— in fact, before much of anything happens—the EU needs a big-vision defense strategy, mapping out how it will differ from that of NATO, which Washington controlled and directed.

The EU’s reorganization is critical to the creation of common European security and defense policies with teeth. “It makes sense in defense and security for smaller groups of countries to work together,” Linsenmeier said, pointing out that this is already happening with small-scale cooperation between the militaries of Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands. “But it’s important that it not happen under German command alone, but with both France and Poland in the driver’s seat, too.”

Thomas Henökl, an Austrian political scientist at the German Development Institute (DIE) who worked for years in the European Commission, said that a multi-speed Europe would represent a pivotal moment in the history of the EU. “We’ve got to stop the decomposition. If ever-closer cooperation between all of the member states isn’t working, then there’ll be forerunners ahead of the pack,” he said, referring to the countries that opt to work together.

But until now, formally inscribing this ad hoc mode of operation was heresy. It would mean the death of the dream of a single, unified Europe. In a poignant note of irony, it is on March 25 in Rome, on the anniversary day celebrations of the Rome treaty, that EU leaders intend to announce their decision on reforms, of which the à la carte model is one possibility.

While the à la carte approach may be among the only ways for the EU to save itself, it is not without risk. The fear is that the nations leading a multi-speed EU, Germany in particular, will wield greater power and influence within the union, which is supposed to be a community of equals. This could create a hierarchy within the EU, deepening the extant divisions—exactly the opposite of what the EU’s proponents want. Among the smaller nations, there is already a sense that Germany is too dominant, a state of affairs that many blame on Merkel, who is seen as promoting German interests over those of the union as a whole. Her dogged belief in the à la carte idea doesn’t assuage these concerns. In an EU of varying speeds, Germany would most probably wind up leading the front pack.

Indeed, experts like Gesine Schwan, a prominent Social Democrat and president of the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Frankfurt am Oder, Germany, fear that a Malta-type solution will only aggravate the EU’s underlying problems. “I’m against reforms that cement the EU’s current divisions, which is what this so-called multi-speed design has already done in the case of the euro,” Schwan said. “It doesn’t create unity. It’s a reflection of the nation states’ struggle for power among themselves, not a genuine effort to make the EU better.”

Nevertheless, some version of Europe à la carte looks like the EU’s future. “In a way, Trump has thrown a lifeline to Europe, presenting it with the opportunity to redefine itself against the foil of his administration,” Bröning asid. “The response to Trump’s ‘America first’ could be Europeans’ saying ‘Europe first.’” The objective, as one insider close to Germany’s foreign ministry told me, is to “limit the chaos,” while “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.” The worst, however, is downright perilous.