"A Stronger Europe in the World" and the Role of Defence

2 February, 2020

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made it clear that foreign affairs will play a central role for the new Commission. During her keynote speech last Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, she stressed that it is time to step up in some fields in order for Europe to be “more assertive in the world”. Defence is one such field and von der Leyen continued her speech by stating that Europe “needs credible military capabilities” and that it is time to “set up the building blocks of the European Defence Union”. This is an important statement showing that the Commission is highly dedicated to strengthen the integration on defence.

During the last three years, European states have shown an increasing willingness to cooperate in the area of security and defence. This has been visible through the development of recent defence initiatives, such as the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which aims at deepening defence cooperation within the EU, as well as the establishment of a European Defence Fund (EDF), set out to enhance EU’s defence capabilities and support the European defence industry. The momentum on European defence has been driven by different factors, such as rising uncertainties in EU’s immediate neighbourhood, by Brexit and the subsequent incentive to boost European integration, and by the uncertainty of America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) under president Trump. In light of these events, increased European defence integration has been welcomed by member states and the plans set out by the new Commission have the potential to enhance the independent defence capacity in Europe.

“A Stronger Europe in the World”

Under the title “A Stronger Europe in the World”, Commission President von der Leyen sets out the foreign affairs priorities for the new Commission in her Political Guidelines. The new Commission is a “geopolitical” one, according to von der Leyen, and the hope is to strengthen the role of the EU on the global arena. Even though much has been done over the years to strengthen this role, challenges remain and developments in the area of defence is one of three points where policies can improve, as mentioned in the Guidelines. This direction has not least been visible through the creation of the new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS), which will be headed by the Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton. One task of the new DG is to coordinate EU’s fragmented defence industry and strengthen the single market for defence. Its creation means that the Commission increases its competence in defence and it will be able to manage different defence initiatives under one structure. The EU has long struggled with defence integration, not least because of the reluctance to give up sovereignty in military issues. Recent events have created a window of opportunity to change this and the progressive direction taken by the new Commission towards defence is a welcomed development that could tackle unnecessary spending and crucial capability gaps, which weakens the European defence capacity. The EU should always seek international collaborations but must be able to go it alone if it has to. Certain concerns have however been raised. The future role of security and defence will largely depend on the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027 and with the budget proposal set out by the Finnish presidency of the Council of the EU in December, it looks like the proposed funding could be heavily reduced. There are also fears that current initiatives won’t be able to address the shortfalls in European defence but instead lead to continued lack of coordination and inefficiency. It remains to be seen how much the new Commission’s can achieve during its five-year term and if the new Commission will be able to take the necessary steps towards a genuine European Defence Union.

The push for European defence integration

The launch of the European Defence Fund (EDF) marked a move towards a stronger role of the EU in European defence industries. The aim of the fund is to create an incentive for member states to increase collaboration and spending in defence research and capability development, and it could place the EU among the top four defence research and technology investors in Europe. To access funding, at least three member states must be involved in the intended project, which is meant to foster a collaborative approach. The current lack of cooperation in defence is costly and a fragmented industry leads to unnecessary duplications of defence capacities. The EDF can therefore make spending more effective, promote innovation and cooperation while strengthening EU’s strategic autonomy. The EDF is set to be part of EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027 and the Commission has proposed to allocate €13 billion to the fund (the Finnish budget proposal however suggested to reduce it to €6 billion). Commissioner Breton will be responsible for the implementation and oversight of the EDF supported by DG DEFIS.

The EDF will for the first time make the goal of a cooperative defence industry part of the EU budget and this raises certain concerns. One worry is that the conditions for accessing funding will not be appealing enough and it might seem more rewarding to continue favouring other types of intergovernmental partnerships, especially since some projects will not yield direct results, as with joint development of European military equipment of greater strategic value. Bureaucratic obstacles could also make it more attractive to stick with current arrangements. If member states are to continue supporting further defence integration, it will have to generate real results and show that it tackles capability gaps effectively.

Another concern is about transparency and accountability. The Commission will get increased agenda setting power in the area of defence and they will have the final say in which projects to fund. Without the responsibility towards voters, there is a risk that important decisions are made behind closed doors. Critics note that the defence industry might set the agenda and shape EU’s interests though powerful lobbying. Concerns like these indicate that the Commission must be clear on how to guarantee continued integrity and transparency if it wants to ensure public legitimacy and support. It will therefore be important to establish clear accountability and oversight mechanisms as well as guidelines on how to deal with lobbying and the defence industries interests in a transparent and inclusive way.

Another ambitious initiative that complements the EDF is the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launched in 2017. 25 member states are currently participating and it is intended to promote cooperation on defence, increase investment, enhance operational readiness and establish a more coherent European capability landscape. The commitments are legally binding and member states submit national implementation plans yearly. These as well as the degree to which the states fulfil their commitments are later reviewed, which can generate an incentive to meet developed targets. A total of 47 projects have been adopted and the focus in 2020 will be to effectively implement them “making sure that these projects deliver on their purpose”, as stated by the former High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. This has indeed been a concern and early assessments have shown that more must be done if the capability problem is to be dealt with in a meaningful way. PESCO offers an opportunity for member states to jointly strengthen EU defence and enhance its military efficiency by pooling defence efforts, but it risks falling short of its goals due to lack of funding and articulation of how the projects are to improve the operational readiness by tackling certain capability problems. Since PESCO projects are still in the control of the member states, it would have to be coordinated with EU institutions to make sure that the most pressing gaps are prioritised. This would yield real results that could produce continued confidence in future projects. It will also be important to make sure that efforts are coordinated with NATO so that it becomes complementary rather than competitive to it, as has been reiterated by the Commission. This will not least be important to countries with smaller capacities that are already committed to NATO. They should not feel the need to choose but rather that their efforts within both constellations help fill important capability gaps that will in the end make EU as a whole a better strategic partner. European capability development can be useful for transatlantic security and that must be clarified.

It will be important for the EU to take steps like these that can enhance security and defence cooperation in Europe. It can be economically beneficial for member states since it reduces the “waste rate” caused by duplication. By supporting innovation and competitiveness in the defence industry and capability-building projects, recent initiatives would foster much-needed collaborative efforts while addressing capability gaps, which thereby enhances EU’s assertiveness. This will be necessary to promote a stronger Europe in the world. In a world where international relations are continuously volatile, a cooperative Union with strengthened strategic autonomy could also act as a stronger counter-balance to protectionist and confrontational tendencies. But, to foster continued support for a stronger EU in defence, the EU must deliver on its goals with these initiatives and this will only be achieved if conditions for funding are favourable, if plausible benchmarks are established and if clear parameters are set on how defence initiatives will complement NATO, while continuously striving for transparency and ensuring accountability.


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