European Defense Spending is Low by Choice


Following PolicyMic pundit Georgi Ivanov’s thoughtful post about an “EU Defense Fund” to overcome Europe’s military spending shortfalls, I’ve been thinking about European defense spending, and the oft-discussed criticism that it is too low to support Europe’s military obligations/ambitions. After all, when Europe can’t maintain even one aircraft carrier for operations in Libya, it’s clear the cupboards truly are bare.

However, Europe’s defense deficit is not a freak accident. It is important to remember the conscious political choices that have informed this situation, as well as how Europe’s largest nations must be held accountable for their under-investment in defense.

It must be remembered that European states have, to a greater or lesser extent, consciously chosen to under-spend on defense. Although the current financial crisis is of course forcing many militaries to drastically cut back, the past decade has seen European defense spending decline, despite high rates of economic growth.

So it is important to remember that today’s low defense spending has not been “inflicted” on European governments — they chose that path over the other options available. The motivations for this are varied — from pacifist sentiments, to an electorate who value welfare more than the military, to the U.S. “security umbrella.”

Therefore, as Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen recently said, the real challenge for Europe is not finding the resources, but convincing electorates that defense is a worthy recipient of those resources. In Europe, the military is comprehensively losing this battle.

Another issue is where the greatest degrees of European defense under-investment are actually occurring. Her,e NATO’s (in)famous 2% of GDP spending benchmark is the most discussed metric. In this study, I have tried to count the cost of failing to meet this target — the annual shortfall amounts to $54 billion.

Yet this gross figure can be deceiving. Latvia’s spending shortfall of 0.8% of GDP amounts to only $187 million — a drop in the ocean of Europe’s defense deficit.

In fact, of this $54 billion, a staggering $43 billion is the responsibility of just three states — Germany, Italy and Spain. Indeed, if Berlin alone was to meet the 2% target, an additional $20 billion could be added to European defense spending.

So while the sum total may indicate a continent-wide problem, the reality is that European under-investment falls on the shoulders of its larger economies; after all, France and Britain account for 50% of all European military spending between them. It is thus clear that political decisions made in Madrid, Italy, and Berlin account for a major portion of Europe’s current defense spending crisis.

All of which helps to illustrate why the base level of defense spending is as low as it is in Europe. Hillen’s call for a dialogue on defense with European electorates is thus clearly an apt one. Until the average Spaniard or German is willing to see their government increase defense spending, the current $54 billion annual shortfall is only set to grow. And it will grow by choice.

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