28 April 2020

Cinderella with no shoes. The European security in the post-Covid-19 period

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Analysts say that, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we will be experiencing an economic crisis, one to be way more difficult than the 2008 one, having deeper effects on the society. That means that societies will find it more difficult to recover from this crisis, as it will affect not only the national finances, but industries and economic fields that will have to reinvent themselves in the following period. The European security, although permanently invoked, could be forced to stay at home, just like Cinderella, until the well financially supported Prince will come and rescue her. But only if her only left shoe will not get damaged until that happens.

Image source: Profi Media

The first target: the military budgets. In general

The 2020 issue is, for Europe, a highly special one: the continent is, most likely, facing the most diverse and large spectrum of threats in the post-war period. Many of them are foreign threats – terrorism, migration, the aggressive economic competition, the disavowal of the post-war order, the abandonment of strategic partnerships - but there also many foreign ones – the products exits and exit threats, lack of solidarity, institutional bureaucracy, military incapacity, foreign dependency in essential fields.

It is now the time for a new European strategy, but how many of them? Because, this time, Europe has “great” chances to be left alone . It is the time, they hope, for a new impulse in arms control, even to establish agreements on the nuclear weapons between the two big powers, US and the Russian Federation, the West and the East.

The future of the post-Covid-19 European security depends on how much will US continue to get involved in protecting its continent partners. 2020, with these still unclear presidential elections, is no longer a proper time for new foreign commitments for Washington.

An important role will be played by the German presidency of the European Union’s Council in the second half of 2020. It will be, in its greatest scenario, a post-epidemic presidency in the ongoing crisis. It is better for the worst scenarios to simply not happen. Considering how it handled the COVID-19 crisis nationally and within the European structures, Berlin does not seem either to put the European solidarity first. But maybe the second half of this year’s circumstances will be better for partnerships.

For now, the plan project for this presidency was strongly criticized, for example the plans regarding environment’s management.

As for the things that could be done for the European security, we can mention: a new approach for the European Defense Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation/ PESCO, as discussed on this platform; maybe rethinking the national military budgets, their correlation within EU, their distribution between national needs and common necessities.

I will tell you a secret: the crisis will not pass by the military budgets. And these will not be dramatically affected, more than in the post-2008 period, for at least two reasons:

- the financial loses will be bigger than a decade ago and will be extended in many economic fields, not just within the banking system;

- Europe of 2020 is, as I was saying, seriously changed, facing more pressing, more complex, numerous and, unfortunately, expensive threats.

A hindsight of what happened with some European military budgets after 2008, can give you a better imagea:

- all in all, military budgets registered decreases of 30% in small states, 10-15% in medium states and around 8% in big states;

-European states spent, annually, with 24 billion euro less for defense, in the post-2008 period, but differently, sometimes even breaking the rules of the group’s behavior these were part of: Finland lost 10% of the GDB, but it did not decrease the defence budget (neighbors push one to be more cautious and constant in terms of the security approaches), meanwhile Slovakia had a 5% smaller GDP, but the defence budget was somewhere around 30%. In Romania, the situation of the defence budgets immediately after the 2008 crisis is the following:


3.00 million USD

1.40 % of GDP


2.22 million USD

1.28 % of GDP


2.08 million USD

1.25 % of GDP


2.37 million USD

1.29 % of GDP

For a similar GDP decrease, 10% of the Romania defence budget followed the specific national possibilities. It followed the same tendency as almost half of the European states.

The bounce-back to the initial values took 5 years, as 2014 was the year when the pre-crisis levels were financially reached. But not the anticipated capabilities. The capabilities and programs to be made after 2010 are not fully accomplished today, and that’s because of the annual budget decrease for more than 5 years, as the difference extended to 35% of what was supposed to exist.

In the post-2020 period, the security needs will be bigger, the threats more numerous and complex. As for the military budgets, the story repeats.

Five factors that may influence the military costs level

Indeed, everyone does and will continue to do the needed estimations to see how they can manage crisis’s effects for each field.

For the defence field, there are some elements that may change the post-crisis military budgets’ level:

- the situation of national state finances at the end of the economic blockage period, supposing that it will not meet a revival. The numbers are rough now, but the short-terms loses may be somewhere around 20-50% of this period’s GDP, following a small recovery. In Germany, for example, losses may stay somewhere between 255 billion euro and 729 billion euro, depending on how much the crisis will last. Having such a negative balance sheet, political leaders will prioritize economy’s revival, placing the military endowment programs on the second place. Of course, these programs may start again, but it will need another 10 years for the proposed objective to be reached. Also, the enemies may do the same thing, as the crisis acts democratically, but there may also be case when, due to the different priorities, some differences in terms of defence will affect the national and European security on specific fields;

- the security environment of 2020 is different from the 2008 post-crisis one. At that time, European states were not conditioned by an immediate threat, such as the one that emerged in the East, after 2014. Participation in various foreign operations, under NATO’s aegis or the EU was not coercive, countries being able to choose according to internal factors, external partnerships, and even training needs. However, 2020 has already gained new threats, which leave no room for many options. The Russian threat is much more obvious, China's rise has also taken place militarily - in 2019 was recorded even a medical military exercise (!) on the European continent - and the US has changing positions on European security. In terms of crisis’s management, Washington is more concerned about the internal crisis, leaving Beijing room to continue to softly get the sympathies of some European states. Russia is also using the period to create ad-hoc solidarity for the bilateral dispute with the US over nuclear weapons control;

- the uncertainty of the US commitment in Europe remains one of the certainties of the current White House administration’s mandate. Although in the pre-crisis period, there was a permanent gap between rhetoric and actions, which pushed European states to say that the US remains committed to Europe's security needs, the crisis management also revealed that the option of reducing Americans’ commitment in the transatlantic partnership is also an option. What could activate this option is the perspective of a major economic recession. The two trillion dollars promised to the American economy will have to be recovered from somewhere. It should not be neglected that the debates on rebalancing member states' contributions to NATO and increasing national military budgets had a great start after the previous crisis. The current one could relaunch these debates. We must also not forget that 2020 is an election year, and voters are attracted by economic measures. For the American voter, the European security issues are somewhere between the parking fee and the value of vouchers received from K-Mart. Here, too, China's evolution makes the choice easier for the United States, to the detriment of the transatlantic partnership;

-the recovery and relaunch of European cohesion also stays a goal. The European project has already been discussed through a number of recent developments. The crisis has exacerbated and made even more visible the fractures between the various "schools of thought", in fact "clubs of interest" within the European Union. Crisis management was primarily a national attribute, accentuated by the initial attempts at European solidarity that started quite bad. If states have regained their decision-making framework in the field of economic measures, the circulation of people and values, where the EU was, however, an active decision-making body, in the military security field, the independence of national decisions will be even more evident. Although it is clear that no European state is able to provide its full security, exclusively by its own, against the current threats, the temptation to act alone is, however, present. This idea could be "activated" by the seriousness of crisis’s effects. And the first measures could be:

- national policies "bounced back" to internal needs and priorities;

- unilateral decreases in national military budgets;

- low contributions to bilateral or multilateral military programs.

Probably one of the NATO members that will do so will be the United Kingdom, "liberated" from European constraints, but it may not be the only example.

Beyond these factors - there can certainly be others - military budgets and spending will be influenced by post-crisis developments.

What happens after 2020?

Dealing with a crisis that has an uncertain path and end, even what will happen next can hardly be predicted. Therefore, there are many scenarios to be considered when it comes to the post-Covid19 period.

1. The catastrophic scenario - the financial disaster. The financial costs of the crisis are, in this case, so high that national budgets will focus primarily on this period’s needs, everything related to a medium and long term project being postponed sine die. Military expenditures considered second priority, exercises, contingents deployed abroad, proposed acquisitions, yet under discussion, contributions to common funds, repairs, modernizations, spare parts will be included in files that will wait for better times. NATO will once again become only a forum for debate, with too few decisions that can be jointly implemented, while the EU defense component will continue as a utopian project, focusing more on situations of internal crisis. And the defense industries will look for foreign markets, perhaps investors, to ensure the survival of at least some of the facilities;

2. The US abandons Europe. It is also included in the catastrophic changes, but it may also be an evolution partially caused by the crisis, as the part may be the consequence of ​​Washington's domestic policy decisions. The situation may be even more dangerous than in scenario 1, because European security needs will increase exponentially, without transatlantic connections. And this evolution implies that the financial situation is as precarious as in the previous scenario. A Pandora's box will open in the nuclear debate, with only two European states having a military arsenal in this field and only one remaining in the EU. And with states that will not be able to afford to maintain conventional defenses at the pre-crisis level;

3. Populism and nationalism will replace joint decisions. Without going into details on how these trends will manifest in other areas, in the security and defense field, they will reflect and emphasize, in fact, previous approaches of some political forces seeking new legitimacy. Internal or strictly national security needs will prevail over common, NATO or EU ones. This will affect participation in partnership programs, change the guidelines on endowment and equipment. Common military cooperation structures, such as PESCO, could lose contour;

4. The US is not leaving. Next is the construction of new defense capabilities. As they remain engaged in the European pillar of NATO, some of the problems disappear, but others remain. The post - crisis situation will not be favorable for a comprehensive approach to European security, there will no money for the states on the continent, and less for the USA. This situation could materialize in new discussions within the Alliance on the financial burden distribution, investments in the defense industry, continuation of large endowment projects. Military research will suffer, expensive structures, such as expeditionary forces, will probably wait for better times.

5. Financial losses can be managed. The great European states start to coordinate security. It is a scenario that considers an end to the crisis with moderate consequences, felt especially by small and medium-sized states, bearable for the big ones. Under these conditions, the latter could resume, and take over, previous defense coordination projects, by assuming responsibilities in specific areas - air defense, electronic warfare, strategic transport, are just a few - and integration of states that do not have such capabilities. In an empirical approach, this is what the Alliance is currently proposing through NATO’s Framework Nations Concept (FNC), a framework by which large and potential states can support lagging partners without affecting national sovereignty and pride. Of course, this requires trust and loyal cooperation, at least in the medium term. Germany, France, the United Kingdom could assume some of these post-crisis responsibilities.

Too soon for an epilogue

For now, such scenarios may not be materialized. The crisis is somewhere at its climax, no one know how things will turn out in the end, what pandemic exit model will prove to work. The strongest European country, Germany, will get the EU presidency in the second half of 2020. The fact that the biggest economy, the one to have the highest European military budget, the second army of this continent will manage this period seems a good premise for the European security as well.

The national contributions will also be decisive. If the previous crisis’s lessons were correctly and fully acknowledged, this experience, updated with what happened in the 2020 spring, will be a great starting point for the European state, in the post-crisis period.

English version by Andreea Soare