Markos Kounalakis

Turn European youth unemployment into NATO deployment

Breaking up, it turns out, is not so hard to do. It is a simple matter of a stupid vote.

The “Brexit” result is a shock to the international financial system, a threat to post-Cold War stability and raises tensions in a region with a historically bad war habit.

Brexit dealt a new blow to European integration and collective strength, and adds pressure to a further weakened European Union already facing strategic challenges from places like Russia.

Despite Brexit’s destabilizing potential, there is one European-wide institution that promises to be a unifying European political structure. It is NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a voluntarily built, Cold War-tested and generationally supported collective security alliance binding America to free, liberal democratic European states.

Over the years, NATO has kept Europe living and working together. It has kept Europe stable, safe and secure. It has endured, and its importance, post-Brexit, just ratcheted up a notch.

Keeping NATO going is not cheap, however. A continual problem is most European allies have failed to meet their financial commitment. The obligation for nations to spend 2 percent of annual GDP is met by only four European countries: Poland, Great Britain, Greece and Estonia. The United States is the alliance’s greatest contributor and even President Barack Obama has complained about “free riders.”

America’s large contribution has further added fuel to the Trumpistas’ fire, allowing them to claim that Europe is not doing enough for its own defense.

There is a potential solution to this problem, however, though it would take time, energy and political will to implement.

Europe’s enormous security and stability problem is in great part due to the lasting effects of the global great recession. Europe continues to struggle with austerity and a need for economic growth. Continentwide youth unemployment averages more than 20 percent. In Greece and Spain, nearly 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are unemployed. In Italy, it’s almost 40 percent. France and Belgium are around 25 percent. Things are not getting better.

While NATO faces a shortfall in its commitment to collective defense, it has young, idle but healthy and able bodies hanging around with nothing to do, waiting for a structural economic change that is nowhere on the horizon.

NATO’s leadership wants European member countries to fulfill their GDP commitment with expensive hardware – new guns, ships, planes and tanks. NATO’s leaders, however, should instead consider an alternative. What if an expanded part of the commitment is the deployment of newly trained and outfitted young troops to man the still-porous borders, build and maintain Europe’s strategic infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.), and become a part of newly formed cyberfighting force? Could NATO accept substituting a commitment of human software for military hardware?

NATO should exploit the power of Europe’s young digital natives to confront the greatest challenge to national and collective security in the 21st century. Call them the “Erasmus Brigades” (Erasmus was a 16th century European intellectual titan), turning the energy of European cybercafes to form the core of newly created cyberdefense units.

Cyber is, after all, the greatest gathering global threat, with NATO defense ministers recently recognizing cyberspace as a “new domain of warfare.”

In the new virtual battlefield, idled youths can be ideal youths. From where else are the new ranks of cyber sophisticates likely to come? Not from the soon-to-retire senior military officers – they may have great tactical and strategic skills, but do not easily “Control F8” on the keyboard.

Enlisting new NATO cybertroops would require active recruitment; it might even demand a gender-agnostic general conscription. Europe’s superb technical universities would need to help train the next generation of web warriors.

“Erasmus Brigades” may not solve European employment problems – pay for soldiers is notoriously low – but it would engage an increasingly disaffected and cynical youth population, actively deploy them in civil defense while instilling civic responsibility. In the process, gained training and experience would improve their workplace skill set.

Europe should use the coming EU breakup to make up and make over NATO. That should not be too hard to do.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.