Europe Vows to Spend More on Defense, but U.S. Still Isn’t Happy

FILE-- Troops from a European tank battalion that consists of Dutch and German soldiers at Tank Battalion 414's base in Lohheide, Germany, Feb. 4, 2019. The United States and its European allies on June 6 commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which freed the Continent from tyranny. But at the same time, the two sides are squabbling bitterly over the future and funding of European defense. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)

Steven Erlanger

c.2019 New York Times News Service



BRUSSELS — The United States and its European allies on Thursday commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which freed the Continent from tyranny. But at the same time, the two sides are squabbling bitterly over the future and funding of European defense.

Washington has been pressing the European Union to spend more and do more for its own defense for well over a decade, with President Donald Trump just the latest and loudest to do so.

Now that the European Union is actually responding, with a defense fund and a project for military cooperation and development, the United States is criticizing how it is being done and complaining that the moves could harm trans-Atlantic cooperation and prevent American companies from competing for potentially lucrative contracts.

If anything, the spat is another reminder of the sour state of relations between the Trump administration and the European bloc and of the divisions on issues such as trade, climate change and Iran. The fact that a European plan to increase military spending — acceding to a demand from Trump — has degenerated into acrimony only emphasizes the split.

European diplomats say the issue recently boiled over at a private meeting in Washington. A senior U.S. diplomat, Michael J. Murphy, a top official at the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, lectured EU ambassadors about the United States’ unhappiness with proposed restrictions on third-country participation in EU defense projects.

Murphy warned that the European initiatives “could undermine trans-Atlantic security by duplicating NATO efforts and diverting valuable resources” and “make all of us less safe, Americans included.”

The confrontation is centered on two new European military spending initiatives.

For the first time, there will be a European Defense Fund, taken from the EU budget for research and development, planned with a relatively modest start of 13 billion euros, or about $14.6 billion, over the 2021-27 budget.

There is also a program called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, in which 25 of the 28 member states agreed to work on cooperative military projects. Small coalitions of member states are already proposing projects to build attack helicopters and armored infantry vehicles.

But London and Washington have expressed concern that their defense contractors will be shut out of such projects, since the program specifies that third parties may only “exceptionally participate.”

The current draft regulations, Murphy said, “risk delinking the North American and European defense sectors after decades of hard work to increase our integration” and “would only help our adversaries and create a new irritant in trans-Atlantic relations.”

A number of Europeans find that language overblown and believe that, seeing as the Pentagon spends American taxpayer money on mostly American defense manufacturers, Europe should do the same.

Increased military spending is a hot-button topic in Europe, especially with a widely disliked Trump pushing the issue, and European politicians need to show that such spending will produce jobs at home.

“The Trump administration can’t have its cake and eat it, too,” said Stefano Stefanini, an Italian former ambassador to NATO and now a consultant in Brussels with Project Associates, a consulting firm.

“If the U.S. rightly wants the Europeans to spend more for defense, the end must be more European capability to contribute to common security,’’ he added. ‘‘To do so, Europe needs to strengthen its industrial base and one tool to do it are the initiatives undertaken by the EU.”

A senior State Department official, explaining the context for Murphy’s remarks, said that discussions and maneuvering were continuing. But the official, who requested anonymity to speak publicly about private talks, also complained that the Europeans had leaked to the news media a May 16 letter to Washington even before the Americans had received it.

That letter was in response to a May 1 letter from two senior Defense and State Department officials raising concerns about third-party participation that was sent to the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

Officials in Washington also warn of a possible backlash in Congress if lawmakers deem that the European regulations are unfair.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said that deeper integration of military supply chains “is in the interests of both the U.S. and Europe, because it produces the best results for trans-Atlantic security.’’

‘‘For this reason,’’ he added, ‘‘we want to avoid a situation where Congress or the administration could see a need to respond to anything that looks unilateral or protectionist.”

The regulations on third-party participation in the fund are essentially done, the Europeans say, though the U.S. intends to keep pressing for changes. The regulations for PESCO are still being debated, with a decision probably slipping to July.

“It’s not finished and it’s up to us to raise these concerns,” the senior State Department official said. “We do support European defense initiatives, the idea that we don’t is simply untrue. But we have real concerns that it shouldn’t duplicate NATO and should be open to third-party states and not harm the way our military industries already work together.”