A flurry of activity suggests the European Union may be coming to terms with new defence challenges. But how radical are its latest strategies – and will they make the continent safer? Bastian Giegerich cuts through the jargon.

Photo by European Union

By Bastian Giegerich, Director of Defence and Military Analysis

A series of blows has forced the European defence debate into high gear. Russia is modernising its armed forces and pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, tearing down dearly held principles of Europe’s security order in the process. To the south, the actions of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have sent instability, migrants, and terrorists across the Mediterranean. Brexit will deprive the European Union of one of its most militarily capable and extrovert members, and will reduce the bandwidth leaders have available for other strategic questions. NATO ally Turkey is adrift, after a failed coup and a crackdown against alleged conspirators that is shaking society and state. Across the Atlantic, president-elect Trump suggests he might interpret NATO’s Article 5 collective defence guarantee as a modern-day protection racket, in which partners who pay up enjoy a security umbrella while others miss out.

Under pressure externally and undermined internally, EU leaders have turned to defence to prove European cooperation can still add value and deliver for Europeans. At the end of June Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, presented a Global Strategy meant to clarify priorities for European action. In July, a new agreement between NATO and the EU suggested the two organisations would work together ever more closely. Staff at both have worked out a plan comprising of 42 actions across the policy areas of hybrid threats, maritime security, cyber security, defence capabilities, defence industrial matters, better coordination on exercises, and defence and security capacity building. Not to be outdone, the European Commission put forward a European Defence Action Plan on 30 November including proposals for a European defence fund, measures to strengthen Europe’s defence supply chain, and a renewed commitment to a single European defence equipment market. On 15 December EU heads of state and government endorsed the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, drafted by Mogherini to advance the objectives of her global strategy document.

Just before Christmas, then, a sense of achievement spread through offices in Brussels and member states’ capitals. It was suggested Europe’s security problem had been triangulated. EU–NATO collaboration would finally take off. The Commission would make EU money available for defence purposes for the first time ever. Ambitions had been clarified, and member states would cooperate more in pursuit of defence capability generation and provision. Compared to just 18 month ago, when the EU’s defence agenda had stalled completely – witness the insubstantial decisions on defence at the time – progress was huge. More cooperation would bring more security. All that was left to do was to communicate this to citizens and get on with the business of protecting Europe.

But doing more than 18 months ago cannot be the benchmark. The real question is whether Europe’s decisions supply greater international security capability: is the continent better equipped to face risks and threats, or not?

Against this yardstick, real commitment is actually limited. Mogherini’s implementation plan, which outlines 13 separate actions, asks EU member states to ‘agree to review the military requirements stemming from the [EU Global Strategy] and the Level of Ambition, in line with agreed procedures under the control of the Political and Security Committee as well as the EU Military Committee, as a contribution to the [Capability Development Plan].’ Stripped of jargon, this means member states have not yet agreed that a review of their military capability targets is necessary, nor that it should be driven by the EU Global Strategy.

Another action item calls on EU member states to ‘agree to explore the potential of a single and inclusive Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defence (PESCO) based on the willingness of Member States to strengthen CSDP by undertaking concrete commitments. If so requested, the HRVP can provide elements and options for reflection’. PESCO is part of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, but was never activated. Now, at the end of 2016, member states and EU bodies propose to consider activating it – but only if it can be inclusive, meaning as many member states as possible should participate. This makes it difficult for PESCO to be effective in terms of generating capability. The implementation plan promotes some sound ideas, for example around output rather than input-oriented capability development. However, without proper buy-in from EU member states it will remain a marginal paper.

The European Defence Action Plan is, likewise, a mixed bag. Much of what it proposes is not strictly new. The research element of the defence fund, for example, essentially rehashes plans for a preparatory action on defence research which may in time lead to a Commission funded defence research stream. Old idea or not, if successful this initiative could unlock billions of Euros of research and development funding for security and defence in the 2020s. The capabilities element of the defence fund is nothing more than a Commission invitation to EU member states to make money available for pooled projects (the Commission suggests €5 billion, or about US$5.2bn, a year). Small and medium enterprises will hope that the Commission’s focus on the supply chain gives them access to EU funds through European Investment Bank loans or access to the European Structural and Investment Funds programme. The Commission estimates up to 50% of EU member states defence spending is inefficient because of poor cooperation. Its focus on defence industrial matters is understandable. It has much less expertise, and no authority, to develop capability targets by itself.    

The EU and NATO have tried to develop a strategic partnership since 2002. When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, that partnership was essentially hijacked by the unresolved Cyprus issue and has atrophied ever since. But with the external security landscape deteriorating and threat vectors multiplying, the view that the EU and NATO should complement each other has gained traction, and leaders in both organisations now seem determined to make this idea a reality. Not least because the overlap in membership is so significant and governments cannot afford to provide two sets of instruments – as the mantra goes, Europeans have a single set of forces that can be used in NATO, the EU, or in other settings.

The record of over 30 EU missions and operations since 2003 demonstrates that EU member states do not undertake high intensity or combat missions through an EU framework, even though they have the capacity to conduct them. There might be a single set of forces, but there is obviously no single set of responsibilities when it comes to NATO and the EU.

Currently, the EU is expanding its set of autonomous responsibilities to include the protection of the EU and its citizens (without defining what this might mean). Much ink has been spilled trying to determine whether or not there should be EU headquarters, EU strategic autonomy, or even a European Army. Perhaps this energy could be channelled more constructively into determining a proper functional division of labour, based on where NATO and the EU can add value. If EU member states are not willing to make existing capability available to the EU for certain missions, but are willing to make them available to NATO, then perhaps herein lies an answer. Participants in recent defence roundtables have joked that if a problem can be bombed it is for NATO, and if it can be fixed it is for the EU. Reality is, of course, not this simple – a look at first principles might, nevertheless, be helpful.      

All the strategy making Europe has engaged in over the past 18 months should be judged in light of a simple stress test for European defence: which threats would overwhelm the capacity of EU institutions and EU member states? Recent plans, strategies and action items will only prove their worth if they reduce the size of that list.

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