Photo of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a speech in the Bundestag.

The Watershed Era: A New Security Architecture for Europe?

How will Russia’s war against Ukraine affect Europe’s future security architecture? Will Europe become more autonomous in its security and defence policy after the watershed or will it remain the European pillar in NATO?

These and other questions were at the heart of a discussion which took place during the German Federal Government’s lecture programme.

Three days after Russia attacked Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a watershed era for Germany and Europe. In answer to Putin’s war, Germany will supply weapons to the Ukrainian war zone; in future, it will spend two per cent of its gross domestic product on defence and thus finally comply with the NATO objective, and it has set up a special fund of 100 billion euros to improve the German Army’s equipment.


“The challenge consists in strengthening the sovereignty of the European Union sustainably and permanently. The opportunity lies in preserving the united front that we have demonstrated in recent days […].” He emphasised, “Europe is our framework for action. Only when we understand that will we prevail over the challenges of our time.”

Does that put the Chancellor in line with Emmanuel Macron? Since his famous speech at Sorbonne University in 2017, the French president has been continuously working for a strong, “sovereign Europe” and for Europe’s “strategic autonomy”, also in the security and defence policy.

However, another statement in the Chancellor’s speech stands in the way of harmony between Macron and Scholz: We “must […] do everything we can to maintain the cohesion of the European Union, the strength of NATO”. And in his European speech in Prague last year, Scholz said, “NATO remains the guarantor of our security. 

Photo of a man carrying firewood through a bombed street in Urkaine.
A man carries brushwood for a wood stove to an apartment house basement used as a bomb shelter in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. People have been living in the basement for months hiding from the Russian shelling and rocket attacks. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | LIBKOS

Yet it’s also right to say that every improvement, every step towards greater compatibility between European defence structures within the framework of the EU, strengthens NATO.” What do these commitments to the EU and to NATO mean specifically for Europe’s future security architecture?


A brief Review of Europe’s Security Order

The fact that, within the context of the Cold War, a unifying Europe saw its security ensured solely within the framework of NATO can be considered an outstanding feature of the history of integration. It was only France which demanded for decades that the European Community (EC), later the European Union (EU), be developed so as to become a strong actor capable of acting autonomously in security and defence policy as well, i.e. a Europe Puissance – but in vain.

However, with the end of the East-West conflict and in view of the USA’s foreseeable, stronger concentration on Asia, the necessity arose to strengthen the EU’s foreign and security policy. Thus, the Treaty of Maastricht, which took effect in 1993, resulted in the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) and the Treaty of Nice, which took effect in 2003, in the CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy).

Since then, both policy areas have been continuously and substantially developed; however, they were very strongly intergovernmental in character with far-reaching responsibilities of the member states. For example, the cumbersome rule of unanimity applies for resolutions in the CSDP. Nevertheless, the CSDP has provided the EU with the ability to respond to international crises in over 30 military and civil missions.


A European Army or an Army of Europeans?

The year 2016 was the Annus horribilis for the EU with both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA. On the one hand, as a result of Brexit, the EU lost a member which was very strong in terms of foreign and defence policy; on the other hand, it was able to achieve progress in the CSDP which would never have been possible with Great Britain and its strict “NATO first” policy, especially the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) founded in 2017 and the Strategic Compass adopted in May 2022. “... [W]ith a view to the most demanding missions” (Art. 42 (6) EUV), PESCO enables particularly able and committed member states to cooperate more closely and massively promotes the development of the necessary military capabilities.

The term of office of Trump, who was extremely sceptical towards NATO, set off a great debate in Europe on the necessity for greater security and defence policy autonomy.

The Strategic Compass sets out how the EU and its member states can strengthen security and defence in the existing strategic environment. It proposes the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity “allowing us to swiftly deploy up to 5,000 troops into non-permissive environments to respond to different types of crises”.

The term of office of Trump, who was extremely sceptical towards NATO, set off a great debate in Europe on the necessity for greater security and defence policy autonomy. Angela Merkel’s statement, which she made during an event held by the Christian Social Union (CSU) Party in Munich on 28 May 2017, became legendary: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to some extent, over and therefore I can only say that we Europeans really must take our fate into our own hands.”

This was followed by Macron’s previously mentioned speech at the Sorbonne and his demand for a “real” European army, which he expressed in an interview with the Europe 1 station in November 2018: “We need a Europe which can increasingly defend itself without being entirely dependent on the USA, in greater sovereignty.” The Germans countered with the objective of creating an “army of Europeans”. As Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen expressed it in 2018, “Armed forces under national responsibility, closely integrated, uniformly equipped, trained for joint operations and ready for action.” At the end of 2018, Angela Merkel stated at the European Parliament: We can be “collectively represented in NATO with a European army”.

Merkel’s Germany thus regarded Europe’s contribution clearly as complementary to NATO, as a strengthened European pillar in the Alliance; “strategic autonomy” was not an option.


A lot of Room for European Sovereignty

Russia’s war against Ukraine has cast the die in favour of NATO. The Alliance has shown itself to be united and strong; it has given Ukraine massive support while not letting itself be pulled into the war. Even Sweden and Finland now wish to join the Alliance – Ukraine in any case.


Close-up photo of a hard drive.
Excessive dependencies on authoritarian states such as Russia or China must be reduced, especially […] in the high-tech fields, for example in the production of semiconductors, Photo: picture alliance / Zoonar / SERGEY SERGEEV

Thus, in its security and defence policy the EU will not achieve “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty” in the foreseeable future. “There is more Europe in NATO than there is Europe in EU,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg provocatively summarized the defence policy situation in December 2022.

However, in view of the watershed era, it remains extremely urgent that the EU and its member states develop more “European” or “strategic” sovereignty in other policy areas so as to achieve a greater capacity for action and self-determination.

Excessive dependencies on authoritarian states such as Russia or China must be reduced, especially in the safeguarding of energy and raw materials, in industrial, competitive and climate policy, as well as in the high-tech fields, for example in the production of semiconductors. In a broader sense, this is part of a new security architecture for Europe and there is a lot of room here for the development of European sovereignty.

About the Author
Photo of Gisela Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet
Gisela Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet
Political Scientist

Gisela Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet taught political science with a focus on European studies and international relations at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg from 1999 to 2022. She developed her research on European integration and international politics in numerous publications. In autumn 2022, her book "Germany and the European Union: How Chancellor Angela Merkel shaped Europe" was published by Springer. In May 2022, she participated in a virtual panel discussion of the German government's lecture programme entitled "A new European security order?

Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government

Experts from politics, academia, culture and the media provide up-to-date and multi-faceted information about Germany in lectures and panel discussions. The ifa organises the Federal Government's lecture programme together with the German embassies and consulates abroad. It is aimed at multipliers from civil society in these countries. Find out more on the ifa website.