By Karlijn Jans
On February 4th, Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen signed a new deal paving the way for the full integration of their countries' naval units. When this agreement enters into force, it will push Germany and the Netherlands further towards a pioneering model for European defense cooperation. While these are perhaps small steps in the bigger picture, both countries are making an effort in consciously maintaining, expanding or gaining some of their military capabilities. Is this the way forward for Europe?
Some might find it odd: a tiny country such as the Netherlands not only cooperating with but also integrating units within the larger German Armed Forces and vice versa. While both countries are EU and NATO members, it has been a mere 76 years since the German forces occupied the Netherlands during the Second World War. European history aside, a long track record of diminishing defense budgets and shortfalls in European military capabilities are an uncomfortable reality in 2016. And although spending will grow by an estimated average of 8.3% in 2016 compared to 2015, the financial crisis that began in 2007 has exacerbated these problems, with European members of NATO spending on average 1.69% of their GDP on defense in 2008, in contrast to 1.43% in 2015 (the NATO defense spending pledge aims at 2% GDP). With the United States focusing elsewhere, Europeans need to do more to keep their own defense assets in order. European defense cooperation is the only effective way to combat shortfalls in European military capabilities, since no single European country, especially smaller ones, can afford to maintain a full-spectrum of military capabilities on their own.
European defense cooperation is not an easy matter. Institutions like the European Union and NATO are instrumental but do not always succeed in pushing member states to cooperate more. The challenge to greater defense cooperation remains national sovereignty, with the military at its core. Yet as the Dutch Defense Minister recently noted: "Each and every European nation shares responsibility for our collective security. [...] And it is important to realize that enhanced defense cooperation does not mean giving up sovereignty: it is all about enhancing our collective ability to act." Nonetheless, as was noted in a report for the European Parliament, "there is a significant gap between the cooperation rhetoric of governments' joint declarations within the EU and what they deliver." Many politicians talk the talk but do not necessarily walk the walk of defense cooperation and only sporadically sign up to detailed cooperation programs on a practical level. Most cooperation efforts have been focused on 'low-hanging fruit': education and training.
The Dutch-German initiatives seem to be an exception to the rule, with both states engaging in real and far-reaching initiatives. Their close military friendship dates back to the 1960s, with a long track record of joint training exercises and deployments. To put things into perspective, the Netherlands currently works with 41,900 military service personnel, as compared to Germany's 177,069 military service personnel. Nevertheless, both armed forces have managed to make meaningful steps forward in defense cooperation and integration.
During earlier agreements in 2014 and 2015, the Dutch and Germans agreed to integrate two army units and further enhance cooperation between a wide range of military branches. For example, the Dutch Air-Mobile Brigade was put under command of the German Rapid Forces Division. This was the first time a Dutch unit was placed under foreign command, the most far-reaching form of military integration in Europe to date. Moreover, by reinforcing a Dutch mechanized brigade with a German tank capability and integrating it into a German tank division, the Netherlands is able to re-introduce the tank-capability it infamously lost in 2011. The latest naval agreement foresees the full integration of the German Naval Force Protection Battalion into the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps. It will be the first time that German armed forces will be placed under foreign command. In turn, Germany gets access to the Joint Logistic Support Ship Karel Doorman, thereby gaining access to a transport capability it currently is in need of. With these deals, both countries have been able to maintain, expand, and rebuild their military capabilities and operational knowledge.
The Dutch-German efforts encompass fundamental steps in European defense cooperation. As understood by military leaders, international defense cooperation is all about complementing each other's capabilities, creating more with less. With initiatives such as the Dutch-German agreements, Europeans could work towards maintaining and (re-)building a full-spectrum of military capabilities on their own, independent of the United States.
The Dutch-German initiatives may be limited in their scope, but they (along with other bilateral agreements) are a good start towards broader European defense cooperation. Bilateral initiatives should not halt any progress on maintaining and improving Europe's military capabilities in a wider sense. To deal with the current financial and security situation facing European states, every meaningful effort of cooperation and possible integration is of importance. Small steps, as taken by the Dutch and Germans, guarantee steady progress. As fragmented and slow such developments might be, if Europeans had to wait until all 28 EU member states were on board for a goal as lofty as a pan-European army, no progress would be made at all. With their initiatives, Germany and the Netherlands are true pioneers in European defense cooperation. Both states have opted for far-reaching integration of forces and capabilities. Similar and coordinated initiatives in the future could go far in alleviating the pressures placed on European defense budgets due to economic shortfalls, shifting U.S. interests, and capability shortfalls at home.
Karlijn Jans specializes in defense and German politics. She received an LL.M in European Law from Maastricht University and MA in European Studies from King's College London. Karlijn is a part-time modular student at the Netherlands Defence Academy and chairs the Netherlands Atlantic Youth Association. She is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
Image Credit: Netherlands Ministry of Defence