EXPLAINER: Why Europe lacks voice, power in Ukraine crisis

Feb 3, 2022, 12:22 AM | Updated: 12:27 am

FILE - Red poppies bloom in front of the World War I Ijzertoren (Yser Tower) Monument in Diksmuide,...

FILE - Red poppies bloom in front of the World War I Ijzertoren (Yser Tower) Monument in Diksmuide, Belgium, June 17, 2014. In Belgium, where bodies of World War I are still being found in Flanders Fields to this day, the Yser Tower contains an inscription of "No more war", in four languages so no one misses the point. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

(AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

SAINT-SYMPHORIEN, Belgium (AP) — Scarred by losing tens of millions of lives on their soil in two world wars, many European Union nations have been wary ever since about military spending.

Now, as Russian pressure builds at the Ukrainian border, they face a painful reality: Europe remains heavily reliant on U.S. might to deter another potentially big conflict on its turf.

Because of a half-hearted attitude to defense and security over decades, “the EU has almost nothing to bring to the table,” says Piotr Buras, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank. “So, Russia can simply ignore it.”

With U.S. President Joe Biden the most authoritative voice challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin on the European continent, some top EU policy makers know what they face.

“We have a choice to make. Either we seriously invest in our collective capacity to act, or we accept being an object and not a subject in foreign policy,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week.


“War, never again,” reads the visitors book of the Saint-Symphorien military cemetery south of Brussels, where some of the first and last casualties of World War I lie buried, German soldiers alongside former enemies. Bodies from the 1914-1918 war are dug up to this day in Flanders Fields, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. Memorial sites and monuments to war dead are scattered around the continent.

After an equally brutal World War II left an estimated 36.5 million Europeans dead, it was clear things had to drastically change.

Germany, which had set off both global conflicts, and neighboring France needed to be knitted together in a tight economic embrace that would make war practically impossible.

The alliance that eventually grew to become the EU began with a trading community focused on steel, coal and farming — not soldiers and bombs. An attempt at a European Defense Community and a potential European army was politically stillborn and never got past French ratification in 1954.

After the United States was decisive in winning both world wars and then developed a nuclear arsenal to face the Soviet Union, relying on Washington became a political no-brainer for Europe.


Within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, set up in 1949, Europeans could shelter comfortably under U.S. military power, which grew significantly over the decades while spending by many of its Western allies lagged.

The Saint-Symphorien cemetery is close by NATO’s military headquarters, called the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. It is invariably led by an American, ever since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Just outside its headquarters is a restaurant called “Chez L’Oncle Sam” or “At Uncle Sam” — well known for its burgers and Tex-Mex grills — and that’s how NATO feels to this day.

The EU has grown into a global economic powerhouse, but never developed security and defense clout to match.

“Often people would describe the EU as an economic giant, but also a political dwarf and a military worm. I know that is a cliche. But, like many cliches, it had a basic element of truth,” Borrell said.

It was painfully evident during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos declared it was “the hour of Europe,” yet it took U.S.-led NATO troops to make the difference.

To make matters worse, EU decision-making became more unwieldly as the bloc grew, with each individual nation able to threaten veto power on foreign policy and defense issues. This week, many in European capitals winced as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban went to visit Putin. He sought tighter relations through larger natural gas imports at a time when the rest of the EU wants to distance itself from Moscow.

Efforts to increase European defense spending or to integrate weapons systems have largely failed.

Here’s how NATO sums up the situation on its website: “The combined wealth of the non-US Allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. However, non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defense.”

American presidents going back a half-century have expressed irritation at Europe’s dependence on the U.S. military.


There are political and historical reasons for the gap.

The United States was intent to make the 20th century its own and massive defense spending came with that. In contrast, post-war Western European democracies built their welfare states. Spending on hospitals and school desks always trumped tanks, and any hint of military spending to bolster an aggressive posture could unleash demonstrations.

Even today, 15 years after committing toward spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense, 13 European NATO members still don’t make the grade. Last year, major nations — like Spain with 1.02%, Italy with 1.41%, and Germany with 1.53% — still fell well short.

EU proponents note it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for keeping continental peace. Instead of hard power, it wants to be a giant of soft power, with its world-leading development aid, economic cooperation and cultural outreach.

But amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis, soft power doesn’t pack the necessary deterrence. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, representing Europe’s two nuclear powers, have a direct line to Putin, while the EU seems to be largely locked out of the diplomatic efforts again.

“In the longer term, this situation can only change if Europeans themselves straighten their backs,” wrote Alexander Mattelaer of the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. “Only from a position of relative strength can progress be made at the negotiating table with Moscow.”

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              FILE - Liliya, a resident of Donetsk-Severne village in the outskirts of Donetsk, poses next to a wall with written years of living in a basement used as a bomb shelter on the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants not far from the frontline with Ukrainian government forces, eastern Ukraine, Jan. 30, 2022. Liliya and five other people live in a five-storey apartment building without heating and water supply. Many houses were abandoned because of significant damage during military actions in 2014-2015. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov, File)
              FILE - Lithuania's Minister of National Defense Arvydas Anusauskas speaks during a press conference in front of a Danish Royal Air Force F-16 fighter jet during the welcome ceremony for the reinforcement of the NATO Air Policing Mission at the Siauliai military air force base some 230 km (144 miles) east of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Jan. 28, 2022. As tensions build with Russia, NATO is focused on defending its 30 member countries. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, File)
              FILE - A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. (AP Photo, File)
              FILE - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron speak with each other during an EU Summit in Brussels, Dec. 17, 2021. European Union leaders discussed during the one-day summit Russia's military threat to neighbouring Ukraine. (Stephanie Lecocq, Pool Photo via AP, file)
              FILE - Enthusiasts fix a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin to a balloon during celebration of the anniversary of Crimea annexation from Ukraine in 2014, in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 18, 2021. The sign reads "Another gave us back the cradle of baptism. March 18, 2014". (AP Photo, File)
              FILE - Soldiers carry the flag draped casket of World War I British Private Thomas Edmundson during a re-burial service at Perth Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, March 14, 2018. In Belgium, bodies of World War I are still being found to this day, testimony to the brutality of four years of fighting in Flanders Fields. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, file)
              FILE - Wooden crosses and Canadian flags adorn the grave of World War I Canadian soldier Private George Lawrence Price, center, at the St. Symphorien Cemetery near Mons, Belgium, July 26, 2014. Price was recorded as the last Canadian soldier to die on the Western Front during the First World War. Hundreds of troops died on the final morning of World War I, even after an armistice was reached and before it came into force. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
              FILE - Red poppies bloom in front of the World War I Ijzertoren (Yser Tower) Monument in Diksmuide, Belgium, June 17, 2014. In Belgium, where bodies of World War I are still being found in Flanders Fields to this day, the Yser Tower contains an inscription of "No more war", in four languages so no one misses the point. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
            FILE - Red roses are placed on the casket of U.S. Navy sailor Julius Pieper during a reburial service at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 19, 2018. The brutality of World War II left an estimated 36.5 million Europeans dead. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) FILE - A Bosnian militiaman runs for cover in the hills above Sarajevo, May 12, 1992. It was there for all to see when the Balkan war over the split-up of Yugoslavia dominated the 1990s. Former Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos boldly declared it was "the hour of Europe," yet it took U.S. led NATO troops to make the difference and the Bosnian war was ended in 1995 with a U.S. brokered deal in the Ohio town of Dayton, not in Europe. (AP Photo/Santiago Lyon, File) FILE - A Ukrainian serviceman, seen through a camouflage mesh, stands at a frontline position in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Jan. 29, 2022. Few have appetite for war, but major powers prepare and stand ready. Many wealthy Western European nations have fallen short of that mark. Instead they have been sheltering under U.S. cover for decades, counting it will suffice. It is all too obvious in the current standoff over Ukraine and the lack of hard power translates directly into a lack of voice. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File) FILE - A Ukrainian serviceman walks through a trench on the front line in the Luhansk area, eastern Ukraine, Jan. 27, 2022. When some 100,000 Russian troops have closed in on the border of Ukraine over the past weeks, soft power does not seem to pack the necessary deterrence, and it frustrates the European Union to be largely locked out of the diplomatic efforts again, with Russia and the United States taking center stage. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File) FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron, center, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a NATO summit in Brussels, June 14, 2021. France and the United Kingdom are nuclear powers with a might still somewhat redolent of their imperial past. But for all so many nations, defense spending felt like too high a burden as they sought to re-emerge from World War II. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File) FILE - Military vehicles and tanks of Poland, Italy, Canada and United States during the NATO military exercises ''Namejs 2021'' at a training ground in Kadaga, Latvia, Sept. 13, 2021. NATO responded to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula by bolstering its forces near Russia and conducting drills on the territory of its Baltic members, the maneuvers the Kremlin described at that time as a security threat. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov, File)


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EXPLAINER: Why Europe lacks voice, power in Ukraine crisis