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Munich Security Conference Highlights Europe’s Defence Crossroads

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The future of European defence and support for Ukraine’s war effort were always going to dominate this year’s Munich Security Conference. But nothing could have brought the importance of these issues into focus like the two events which occurred during the Conference.

The future of European defence and support for Ukraine’s war effort were always going to dominate this year’s Munich Security Conference. But nothing could have brought the importance of these issues into focus like the two events which occurred during the Conference.

Firstly, the death of Russia’s leading Putin-critic and opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, served as a stark reminder of the despotic nature of Ukraine’s enemy.

Secondly, the Russian capture of Avdiivka, in no small part a consequence of the Ukrainian Army’s ammunition shortages, was a painful illustration that, some two years on from its initial invasion, the Russian war machine continues to plough on. The loss of Avdiivka is the clearest demonstration yet of the direct impact the political gridlock in Washington is having on the Ukrainian front lines, with a major military support package continuing to be stalled by Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress.

Add a gridlocked Washington to Trump’s recent comments on NATO and his possible victory in this year’s Presidential election, and what you get is a Europe contemplating a potential new reality where the US can no longer be relied upon as the ultimate guarantor of European security.

The conclusion of many European leaders and officials in Munich was that the possibility of American retrenchment, though remote, requires a significant increase in defence spending across the continent. Despite increases in recent years, still only 11 of NATO’s 31 member states met the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence in 2023. Currently only three members – the US, Poland and Greece – spend over 3% on defence, which is the figure NATO officials have suggested will be required to fulfil the first comprehensive national defence plans since the Cold War which were agreed at last year’s NATO Leaders Summit.

While the UK has consistently been one of the few NATO members to meet the 2% target, we are also one of the few members which has not increased defence spending as a % of GDP since 2014.

With a £17bn funding black hole in the MOD’s equipment budget needing to be plugged just to stand still, boosting our defence capability in a meaningful way will require a significant increase in spending. Even to meet the Government’s long-term aspiration to spend 2.5% on defence will require upward of £10bn extra per year.

This presents uncomfortable political challenges for both main parties.

The Government is determined to offer some form of tax cut in next month’s Budget and, with the OBR already noting the headroom for such cuts is shrinking, they will be resistant to additional public spending on this scale. Similarly, a Labour Party which recently scaled back its central green investment pledge on grounds of affordability is unlikely to be receptive to spending an additional £10bn a year on defence.

But while politicians in the UK and Europe may see spending significantly more on defence as unaffordable as things stand, a diminished American role in guaranteeing European security would mean that not doing so is a risk they cannot afford. 

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