EU Common Defence
Divided we fall - Why Italy should promote a European defence policy


NATO's new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

© Creative Commons

Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has relaunched the debate in Europe, and in Italy, on a common defence strategy.

The subject is not new. At the dawn of the European integration project, after the Second World War, the problem of a European defence was well present to the supporters of the Schuman Plan. In fact, after the initial agreements that created the Economic Coal and Steel Community, the six founding countries (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) made an attempt to set up an European Defence Community. The ratification of this initiative was soon opposed; e.g. by the French parliament, fearing a loss of sovereignty in defence matters. This decision meant a severe blow to the European federation project. As the Italian liberal Luigi Einaudi[1] wrote, the creation of a common army imposed a European budget, common taxes, a parliament capable of deciding on common taxes, and the common army was immediately seen by all as the necessary condition for a federation. In fact, Einaudi continued, common European defence would presuppose that the embryonic European federal state, by virtue of the cession of sovereignty in defence matters, would entail a single diplomatic representation and, therefore, a federal foreign policy.

Europe, within the post-World War II bipolar set-up, thus benefited from NATO membership, depending, therefore, on the American ally as opposed to the Warsaw Pact. After 1989 NATO's role underwent a significant downsizing in terms of resources deployed in Europe, although many former Warsaw Pact countries asked - and obtained - membership of the Atlantic Alliance as soon as they regained their independence.

Today, the war in Ukraine imposes to take a choice on the states of the European Union, not only with regard to supporting the Ukrainian resistance, but in more general terms, it becomes essential to discuss a common European defence. A few weeks ago Italian populist politicians in particular the populist 5 Star movement group questioned the obligations to contribute to NATO. The obligations deriving from an international treaty must be respected; one cannot demand the benefits without meeting the necessary economic burdens. The role NATO can play in a changed international context is a matter for public discussion. But in such a debate an European defence project becomes a cornerstone issue. A European defence project would also imply more sovereignty of Europe in foreign policy: the two go hand in hand. The current functioning of the European institutions is still constrained by the need for agreement between all the individual states of the Union. The European Union is therefore standing at a crossroads: what is happening on its borders, the war in Ukraine, brings up the necessity for a more unified Europe, which favors a common European defence.

If we take a look at Italy there are pro-European forces in the political landscape: from the Democratic Party, which in Europe is part of the European Socialist group, to the parties of liberal inspiration, Più Europa and Azione, up to the forces that in Europe refer to the European Popular Party. But they are not enough: the Italian public opinion has to be convinced[2]; as a large part of voters continue to support populist forces that are against the European unification process such as the 5-star movement, Salvini's League or Fratelli d'Italia.

Closely connected to the issue of defence is energy: For some time now, geopolitics has also been exercised through the energy dependence of individual European countries. Italy, over the last 10 years at least, has increased its energy dependence on gas imports from Russia (to date this dependence is equal to 45% of national needs). In this way, Italian energy consumption finances Russia and its policies of aggression. The response that Italy and, more generally, Europe must provide, cannot be separated from reducing its energy dependence on countries that do not share the ideals of international peace. This objective, however, needs to be pursued by acting not only at national but on the European level. When searching for solutions, it is important to stay realistic: Energy consumption worldwide is set to rise by almost 50 per cent by 2030 compared with ten years ago. In this context, the question is how we can imagine limiting the use of fossil fuels and compensating for them with alternative fuels. At the European level, it is possible to think about the resources needed for research and development of renewable energies and to build the infrastructure that is needed. This is not an immediate process; it requires time and common resources.

In Italy, dependence on gas supplied by Russia has increased in just a few years to reach 40 per cent of Italy's requirements. The war in Ukraine may finally make Europeans realise that individual states on their own do not have sufficient weight and capacity to meet the challenges of our time.


[1] L. Einaudi, Tipi e connotati della federazione. Discorrendo di Comunità europea di difesa, in Lo Scrittoio del Presidente, Turin, 1956, 6-84.

[2] in which Italian public opinion seems to be more concerned about social and economic issues than to the effective construction of a Federation between European states.