by Paolo von Schirach

WASHINGTON — In an April 25 speech at The Sorbonne focused on security issues French President Emmanuel Macron stated that “Europe can die”. Let me be more dramatic: “Europe will die”, unless Europe, that is the European Union, or EU, wakes up and decides to engage in a massive defense spending effort, while at the same time creating a federal constitution headed by a federal government, with clear authority on security and defense. Macron pointed out the obvious. Europe lacks a credible military deterrent. A virtually defenseless Europe has no voice in global security affairs, while it can easily become prey of aggressive powers. Russia continues its war of aggression against Ukraine. Parts of Europe may be next. However, Europe, fully aware of its own military weakness, will probably choose submission if confronted with a determined, bellicose adversary. In the future, Russia may be able to obtain concession from Europe without any use of force. At that point, Europe will be indeed a colony, and therefore a non entity. It will be dead –as Macron warns.

The NATO cover hides fragility

Right now the European Union, EU, is an odd mixture of significant economic power and military weakness. This systemic European weakness is veiled by the NATO Alliance that is still implicitly viewed by most Europeans as a unilateral American security guarantee to Europe. Banking on this guarantee, (“America will always take care of us”), for decades the European members of NATO have managed to invest very little and in some cases almost nothing in their own defense. The fact is that it is no longer a given that America will do the heavy lifting, coming to Europe’s defense, no matter what. America’s military strength, while significant, is not what it used to be. Should NATO end, the European Union by itself has no meaningful defense institutions and extremely limited military tools. As president Macron noted, this virtually defenseless Europe is extremely vulnerable. So vulnerable that it can be defeated or otherwise subjugated. This will be the death of Europe as a group of independent, sovereign nations.

Macron’s plan

According to Macron, and others who share his concerns –whether NATO continues or not as a viable transatlantic security pact– the EU needs a radical transformation that will enable Europe to have a credible self-defense mechanism. First of all, Europe needs a strong central government. In other words the EU needs to become a federal state. The new EU federal government will be in command of the new European armed forces. At the same time, this new federal Europe will invest money –a lot of money, beginning now– into a comprehensive effort aimed at creating powerful military means, operating under the control of a brand new EU military command structure that will be powerful enough and credible enough to discourage potential aggressors. Worst case scenario, should deterrence fail and war break out, Europe will have the tools to vigorously defend itself, relying on its own resources. Needless to say, a well armed Europe, confident of its ability to protect itself, will be able to be more assertive in the conduct of its international relations.

So, Europe needs two key ingredients: the political consensus that will generate the political will to create a strong and credible federal government capable and willing to take the authority and responsibility to lead Europe’s defense and security policies, and dedicated budgets that will make a credible European defense mechanism a reality. This is not about embracing bellicose attitude and warmongering. This is all about deterrence, or prevention. Si vis pacem para bellum. “If you want peace, get ready for war” –as the Romans said.. All this sounds obvious, but may be not obvious enough. So far, there is no evidence of any serious efforts underway within Europe aimed at achieving the ambitious and costly goals delineated by President Macron.

A fitting analogy

An example taken from a recent unrelated tragedy will illustrate what is at issue here: the high cost of failing to invest in prevention. On Tuesday March 26, 2024 a horrible accident happened in the port of Baltimore, a major maritime hub located on the Eastern shore of the United States. The Dali, a very large container ship, all loaded up and on its way out from the port of Baltimore to the open sea, destination Sri Lanka, suddenly lost all power, (reasons for this massive and rare malfunction still unknown). The harbor pilot could no longer steer the Dali. The huge ship drifted, and ended up striking a column supporting the massive Francis Scott Key Bridge. After this tremendous impact, in no time most of the bridge collapsed.

The cost of inaction

The accident caused the death of construction workers who were making small repairs on the bridge at the time of the ship’s impact. As the collapsed bridge and the stranded container ship blocked access, the port of Baltimore came to a standstill. The city of Baltimore and the surrounding region lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Hundreds of businesses that depend on the port suffered. Tens of thousands of workers had to be idled. Costly special equipment was deployed to remove thousands of tons of twisted metal from the water and from the ship’s deck. This difficult and very expensive operation has taken several weeks.

All in all, because of this one accident, we are talking about losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars to Baltimore and the surrounding regions whose economies depend on an active, well functioning port. Beyond the enormous cost of removing from the water the collapsed bridge, constructing a new bridge will take years and it will cost at least $ 2 billion. Ironically, had the Dali’s power loss occurred just a few minutes later, after the huge vessel had sailed under the Key Bridge, none of this would have happened. But no such luck.

Prevention was possible

That said, the real tragedy is that we now know that this terrible accident that destroyed in a few seconds Baltimore’s Key Bridge, this way causing a cascade of huge economic losses, could have been prevented. How so? For years, engineers, looking with concern at ports, rivers and bridges and at the increased volumes of marine traffic sailing under them, especially super sized container ships like the Dali, have been advocating the construction of “dolphins”, specially designed large cement structures, to be placed around the columns supporting bridges such as the Key Bridge in Baltimore. Large, well placed “dolphins” would serve as barriers and powerful shock absorbers in case of ships accidentally striking them. Their mission is to take the blow of the collision with a big ship, this way protecting the columns supporting the bridges and thus their structural integrity.

Prevention is expensive

The problem is that effective, large dolphin barriers cost a lot of money. The Key Bridge in Baltimore was protected by a few dolphins. But what was built was inadequately small and not strategically placed. Those dolphins did nothing to prevent the accident. Experts say now that a robust dolphins protection for the Key Bridge would have cost about $ 100 million. This was not done.

And here is the issue. Should policymakers invest or not invest in costly preventative measures? Why allocate millions of dollars with the goal of preventing a possible future accident that may never happen? Case in point, the Key Bridge in Baltimore was inaugurated in March 1977. For 47 years nothing happened. No accidents. But, as the Dali collision of March 26 demonstrated, one freak accident due to causes still unknown is enough to destroy an entire massive bridge, kill people, and cause catastrophic economic damage to a city and a region, affecting tens of thousands of people.

What is the point of all this? Very simple. Adequately investing in prevention of improbable events is very onerous and, for reason, difficult to justify. It may seem too expensive, if not utterly frivolous, when there are other issues that may seem more urgent, such as repairing smaller bridges in the region.

Yes, catastrophic accidents are rare and therefore unlikely. But one is enough. In a very similar way, Europe today is confronted with a similar choice. Keep under investing in defense and military preparedness, hoping that nothing bad will happen? Or invest heavily now in order to deter potential armed aggression, or other threats to its sovereignty –unlikely but quite possible developments?

Europe is unwilling to pay

Just like the case of the modest dolphins defenses that were after all built around the Key Bridge in Baltimore, many Europeans would argue that, as NATO members, they are already doing a lot for defense. They spend money with the goal of maintaining credible armed forces capable of deterring an attack, or face it, should one take place.

In theory, they are right. After all, many of them have met or will soon meet the threshold of military spending equal to 2% of GDP –a NATO-wide commitment. So, in their own defense the European members of NATO say that much has been done and more will be done. In practice the Europeans are engaged in self-delusion. It is true that they are doing “something”. However, what they are doing is a fraction of what should be done. A mere 2% of GDP for the defense of Europe is in fact very little. It should be regarded as a floor, the bare minimum, not as the final goal.

The Americans will do the heavy lifting

Yes, in theory the Atlantic Alliance –read the United States of America– is there to defend all NATO members, big and small, should they become the target of an attack. However, it is an open secret that the NATO Alliance is vastly under equipped, and is therefore very vulnerable, even assuming America’s help.

We also know that there are persistent political tensions between the US and Europe, caused primarily by the US resentment for the chronic under investment in defense by most European members of NATO, (see above). Any day these frictions may culminate in an unprecedented Atlantic crisis, especially if Donald Trump will be elected President of the United States this coming November –a possible if not likely development, if we look at all opinion polls.

Indeed, during his first term in office, Mr. Trump repeatedly and openly accused the Europeans of doing too little for the common NATO defense. It should not be excluded that Mr. Trump, if elected president, might want to terminate NATO altogether. It would be foolish to rule this out.

Should that happen, with America gone, Europe’s military weakness would be fully exposed. Right now it is still possible for timid European leaders to delude themselves, hoping that a strong America will do the heavy lifting in case of a conflict, this way allowing the European members of NATO the excuse for doing more of the same: just a little defense spending now, with vague promises of some increases in the future.

Europe’s predicament

And this brings us back to the stern warning issued by French President Emmanuel Macron on April 25, 2024, at the Sorbonne. Macron noted the obvious. Europe is militarily weak. It does not have the equipment and the armed forces necessary to credibly deter adversaries, or fight them successfully should an attack come. Equally important, the EU also lacks a fully empowered, robust command and control structure that would have the statutory authority to raise the money necessary to pay for and manage the defense of Europe and call armed forces into action, whenever necessary.

So, here we have it. Inadequate European defense budgets. Not enough troops. Not enough weapons. Limited airlift capacity. No European Government. No Commander in Chief. No European Minister of Defense. No European Supreme Commander with the recognized authority to conduct a war on behalf of Europe.

Even within the current NATO context, notwithstanding NATO’s existing peace time integrated military structure that includes the United States and Canada, with a NATO SACEUR, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, sitting at SHAPE, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the well known European military weakness in terms of troops and armaments makes NATO’s effectiveness in case of a conflict very questionable. Even assuming full support from America as the strongest NATO partner, when it comes to conventional forces the Alliance remains weak.

The structural military inadequacy of Europe, now partially hidden underneath the NATO blanket, would be fully exposed, should the Alliance end on account of near term political changes in Washington –changes that it would be unwise to rule out.

Enormous challenge, timid leaders

President Macron has the merit of having sounded the alarm. He pointed out the really serious issue of Europe’s dramatic military fragility –a problem routinely ignored by all or most European elected leaders. He suggested strong remedies. But here we see how the issues to be tackled are so huge that they may be set aside as politically unfeasible.

Indeed, it is not just a matter of more money, even though much more money for Europe’s defense, starting today, is vitally necessary. The problem is the structure of the European Union itself. If by “Europe” we think of a state, let’s be clear: a European State does not exist. We have of course the European Union, EU. But the EU is a set of complex agreements among sovereign states. The EU is not nor is it likely to become any time soon a federal state, with a clearly defined federal government, with real power. No such plan leading to this qualitative transformation exists.

This being the case, it is hard to imagine how a credible, well organized European military force will be raised, paid for, structured and directed without the creation of a clear, legitimate European federal political authority that will the power to raise the funds, manage the new defense spending programs, the European armed forces, and issue binding orders in real security emergencies.

“Europe can die”

So, here we go. “Europe can die” –said Macron. His stern warning resonated across Europe, and across the Atlantic –for a short while. In truth, Macron was on the cover of the prestigious and influential The Economist newsmagazine. But, in the end, I see no inflection point in Europe caused by his speech. In fact, I see the opposite.

In Europe, most of the calls these days are not for standing up against Putin’s naked aggression against Ukraine via an increase of military aid to Kyiv. We hear instead a chorus of calls for “peace“, for a reasonable “negotiated solution” with Putin’s Russia. And we know what that means. Since there is not even a small chance that Russia will withdraw from the Ukrainian territories that it occupied via this very bloody war of aggression, a negotiated peace will mean a Russian victory and a Ukrainian defeat imposed on under resourced Kyiv by tired and anxious Europeans who want peace, no matter the cost. A war of aggression is taking place literally at Europe’s door step. Yet, most Europeans would like to pretend that it is not so.

If this is is indeed the prevailing mood –and I believe it is– not a chance that the complex and costly agenda that Macron urges for the sake of Europe’s ability to protect itself from foreign threats –a new form of EU government that will lead the massive defense spending increase that Europe needs– will be enacted any time soon.

The authorities in Baltimore knew very well that a catastrophic accident might happen and did almost nothing to prevent it, largely because a major accident appeared unlikely and the cost of prevention was very high. In the same fashion, the Europeans will continue to believe that the best way to secure peace in Europe is to keep a low profile and talk peace, hoping that nothing will happen. After all, Europe has been at peace since 1945. No wars. So, all is well. And what about the war in Ukraine? Well, Ukraine is different –the delusional Europeans would say. It is not really Europe. It used to be part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. It is an unfortunate family feud among Slavs. An emotional issue for Moscow. Nothing to do with Europe.

Unless this attitude changes, Russia, China and may be others may be in real luck. Just by threatening aggressive actions, they may be able to subdue a virtually defenseless Europe –without firing a single shot. And so the Europeans will learn that peace at all cost may also mean becoming vassals –essentially colonies of the bully states. If and when this happens, Europe will be dead.