Netherlands Boosts Defence Spending in Light of MH17

MH17 wreckage
Local workers transport a piece of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 wreckage at the site of the plane crash, in which 193 Dutch nationals died, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, November 20, 2014. Antonio Bronic/Reuters

The Netherlands might be better known for its tulip fields and liberal ideals than bombs and bullets. However, a report commissioned by the European Leadership Network (ELN) has found that the Dutch are bucking the trend in western Europe in terms of military spending.

The Dutch government boosted its defence budget to €8 billion for the fiscal year 2015, up from €7.6 billion in 2014. They have also committed to a €100 million annual real terms increase in defence spending. According to Dutch Ministry of Defence figures obtained by Newsweek, defence now accounts for 1.15% GDP.

Whilst there is some way to go to hit the 2% target set at the NATO Wales Summit last September, the Netherlands is moving in the right direction. Europe's 'Big Three' - the UK, Germany and France - have all failed to increase spending, and none are meeting the aforementioned target.

So for the first time in a decade, why are the Netherlands spending more rather than less on defence? Lukasz Kulesa, research director at the ELN, points to deteriorating relations with Russia, the Ukrainian conflict and the downing of flight MH17, in which 193 Dutch nationals were killed, as reasons which have forced the Netherlands' hand.

"These events made clear to the Dutch that their geographical distance from the conflict zone does not in itself guarantee that they could completely cut themselves off," Kulesa says. "It showed that the Netherlands is connected with the world and that the security situation in areas bordering Europe is of paramount importance to the country."

He emphasises that the Dutch military was depleted after spending cuts in previous years coupled with out-of-area operations, including a four-year campaign in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010 and deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey after confrontations with Syria in 2012.

"In a sense the Netherlands was in a position where you couldn't really cut more on defence without sacrificing important elements of the military capabilities. It was high time to reverse the trend."

According to the spokesperson for the Dutch minister of defence, the budget is being spent on military vehicles, including helicopters and anti-landmine vehicles. The country is also targeting cybercrime and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) threats.

While the Dutch are making small steps forwards, other western European countries analysed in the report are falling behind. The UK is set to fall below the NATO target by cutting spending from its current 2.07% level to 1.88% of GDP, a decision that's drawn concern from the U.S., NATO's biggest financial backer. Despite its growing GDP, Germany is cutting its defence budget by $3 billion, whilst France's military spending has plateaued at approximately 1.5% of its GDP, the same as in 2014.

Albeit, the starting point for defence spending is much higher in the Big Three, but Kulesa worries that they are moving away from, rather than towards, the 2% target. "Right now, the European countries together still look powerful but if current trends continue, Europe will get weaker and weaker militarily and that will impact the ability of Europe to shape the global environment," he says.

The ELN report, entitled The Wales Pledge Revisited, was published on February 26 and served as a first assessment of NATO members' fidelity to the commitments made at the 2014 meeting. Of the 14 nations assessed, only Estonia was found to be on course to meet the 2% target. Along with the Netherlands, five other nations across eastern and northern Europe had also boosted defence spending, though none were due to meet the NATO target.