The aggregated military spending of EU and European NATO countries reached 346 billion dollars in 2022, an increase of 1,9% in real terms compared with 2021 and of 29,4% compared with its 2014 low point. It is almost four times Russia’s spending and 1,65% of total GDP. This may seem logical in wartime. But are things really that simple? We in Europe often claim humanism and the Enlightenment as central principles. These require us to assess a policy in terms of its contribution to the progress of humanity on the one hand, and reason on the other. It is therefore legitimate, even essential, to ask to what extent this increase in military spending meets the challenges facing humanity today, and what the underlying logic and consequences are, beyond the legitimate emotion aroused by Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine.
On top of national military spending, the European Union itself has exponentially increased its military budget in a few years. While the European treaties seemed for long to exclude the use of the Community budget for military-type activities, today the EU devotes at least 2% of its budget to military purposes. Apart from military aid to Ukraine, this is mainly about funding the arms industry through the European Defence Fund (EDF) or the new ammunition fund (ASAP), but also through facilitated access to most of the European structural funds, Erasmus+ to make the sector more attractive to young graduates, or the LIFE environmental programme to develop green weapons.
The fact that the EDF and ASAP are based on EU competence in industrial matters, and led by the Commissioner in charge of the internal market and industry, already illustrates the underlying logic: this is first and foremost about subsidies to support the competitiveness of the European military industry, including internationally. That is, supporting arms exports which then fuel the global arms race and conflicts around the world.
So it’s hardly surprising that only 4 countries receive almost 2/3 of the budget allocated so far by the Defence Fund: France, Italy, Spain and Germany, i.e. the 4 leading military powers in the EU and major arms exporters in the world.
Yet, increased military spending and the global arms trade have a direct impact on peace.
A recent empirical study confirmed that both military spending and arms exports/imports influence states’ involvement in armed conflicts: increases in either a state’s military spending or its arms exports/imports increase the likelihood that this state will be involved in one or more armed conflicts. Moreover, the higher a country’s military expenditure, the higher its arms exports and/or imports tend to be.
As countries allocate larger portions of their budget to military purposes, the probability of their engagement in armed conflicts escalates, as they tend to rely on importing weapons and military solutions to meet their security needs, to the detriment of peaceful approaches. Moreover, when one country increases its military spending, this may cause a greater insecurity feeling among regional rivals, leading them in turn to increase spending and so on, fuelling an arms race.
Military spending also has an influence on greenhouse gas emissions, an existential threat to humanity: the same empirical study suggests that the higher the military spending of a country, the higher its CO2 emissions. Seven of the top ten historical emitters are also among the top ten global military spenders (US, Russia, UK, France, Japan and Germany.
Furthermore, if the world’s militaries combined were a country, they would have the fourth largest national carbon footprint in the world, as military emissions are estimated to be 5.5% of global GHG. This includes emissions from military vehicles, bases and the upstream supply chain (including the industry). Reliable data is lacking about emissions resulting from the impact of war fighting (fires, damages to infrastructure and ecosystems, reconstruction…), meaning that the ‘military carbon footprint’ might be far higher.
And the new weapon systems that are being currently bought, many with a lifespan of up to 30-40 years like the F-35 fighter jet, are much more polluting than the previous generation. There is currently no alternative to fossil fuel propulsion for aviation (civil or military) remotely near the level of needs, while the need for drastic reduction of emissions is now and cannot wait another decade or two.
The main ones to benefit in a tangible way from the drastic increase in European military spending are the manufacturers: the 15 main European arms companies have already seen their sales increase by 1.5% (for a total of €95.8 billion) and their profits rise by 11.2% in 2022. The arms industry has taken advantage of the shock generated by the Russian invasion to position itself as an indispensable, ‘sustainable’ and ‘peacemaking’ player against all the evidence, fuelling the arms race and the military economic cycle all the more. Politically, this is also reflected in a worrying new development in the European narrative, which had already moved from ‘development for security’ to ‘security for development’; today, security is limited to defence and “defence starts with industry”.
At a time when the richest countries are spending 30 times as much on military spending as on climate finance for the world’s most vulnerable countries, Europe does not need to become yet another military superpower. European military spending is already far higher than Russia’s, and the path towards economic competition and even confrontation with China goes against necessary international cooperation to fight climate change.
Europe is a strong continent thanks to the cooperation it established among member states since 1958, despite the difficulties and limits, and whose prime objective was to avoid another arms race between states. This experience of working between different nations is what Europe should foster in order to bring another kind of security to the world. One based not on military power but on dialogue and cooperation, on climate justice and positive peace. And for that, Europe needs to de-grow the military and re-allocate resources to fighting climate change and ensuring transition to a fair green economy for all people.