The European Union is at the crossroads of common defence

The European Union is at the crossroads of common defence

The last two years have seen a paradigm shift in how European defence is envisaged, reflecting the progress made in framing the European Union’s military strategy. This photo from 31 May 2017 relates to a 3D printing project for the defence sector launched by the European Defence Agency.

(European Defence Agency)

The EU’s defence strategy rests on greater independence from NATO, without weakening cooperation with the Alliance, and the development of its own programmes geared towards the collective security of its member states. The idea is that this military cooperation should also give new impetus to the complex process of integration within the European Union.

The last two years have seen a paradigm shift in the evolution of the EU’s concept of defence, reflecting the progress made, although not free of risks and obstacles, in framing the European Union’s military strategy. The ever-fluctuating and unpredictable foreign policy of US President Donald Trump, Brexit, the waves of migration towards Europe from conflict zones, international terrorism, threats to cybersecurity and the geopolitics of Russia, once again highly influential outside its borders, are a few of the reasons behind the revival of this strategy, supported by the majority of EU members but which, since the Treaty of Brussels in 1948, had made very little real progress.

The current, almost against-the-clock bid is seeking to promote the development of a common security strategy providing greater independence from a US-dominated NATO that has often placed its European members in conflict with their own objectives and principles. The EU is not seeking to weaken NATO, but to strengthen it by pursuing greater strategic autonomy.

The 28 June 2016 marked a milestone in the slow process of creating a common defence consciousness. It was the day when the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, presented the Union’s Global Strategy on Security Policy and Foreign Affairs to the European Council. There were no few doubts about its effectiveness at the time but, spurred by the difficult international situation and the commitment shown by the EU partners, the old project started to take new form. In his State of the European Union address on 13 September a year later, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, could not have been any clearer: “We must work towards a European Defence Fund and Permanent Cooperation in this area. By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union.” The cards were laid on the table and most EU countries agreed to play.

Defence as a new cohesive force for the old continent

And so the work began to lay the foundations of the European defence edifice. That same year, 2016, the EU-NATO joint declaration was signed, and the European Commission presented the European Defence Action Plan. It included the European Defence Fund, a key component in optimising security spending, with the development of joint capabilities and the promotion of a defence industry that is much more competitive on the international market. With one precision: the idea is to integrate the European defence industry into this broad and effective security strategy and avoid it remaining no more than a simple national mechanism for trading and selling associated technologies.

“We have made as much progress over the last two years as in the last four decades,” Mogherini recently said regarding the future of European defence. According to the high representative, the defence strategy “has served as a springboard to relaunch the process of European integration after the British referendum”, which has left Great Britain ostracised. If the euro was a milestone in the political construction of the Union, this European Defence Union could be the second major contributor to greater cohesion in the old continent. Eurobarometer polls point in this direction, as does the view held by most European governments: a credible security policy is the keystone of a credible foreign policy.

A crucial step forward in the process of building a European defence framework was the launch, in 2017, of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), already foreseen in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. This mechanism, bringing together 25 EU countries (all except the United Kingdom, Denmark and Malta), provides scope for a wide range of joint initiatives such as the coordinated deployment of military personnel in peacekeeping, disarmament and humanitarian missions. There are currently 5,000 European Union troops taking part in six international operations and ten international civilian missions. Their mandate covers tasks such as conflict prevention, the strengthening of international security, the prevention of human trafficking, the fight against piracy, support for governance and the defence of the legal framework in the areas where they operate, such as Somalia, Mali or the Central African Republic.

EU member states currently spend around €200 billion a year on defence. Greater cooperation and joint coordination, built on the foundations laid by PESCO could, according to the estimates of the EU itself, mean annual savings of between €25 billion and €100 billion, simply by reducing the duplication of activities.

The path towards integrated European defence was already set out nine years ago in the Lisbon Treaty, in Article 42.2, which clearly states that, “The common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides.” This idea is now being materialised with the PESCO and a roadmap supported by the commitment of the signatory countries to progressively increase their defence budgets and to cooperate in the military capabilities programmes of the European Defence Agency, the body that will shape the future of Permanent Structured Cooperation.

There are many challenges facing the European Defence Union, ranging from differences between EU governments themselves, be they ideological or financial, to external threats. At internal level, the course taken by countries such as Poland or Hungary could delay the implementation of the security roadmap.

In the case of Hungary, there is also the apparent pressure from Russia, a throwback to the cold war era. If we add the fact that Europe lacks an adequate intelligence community – based on coordination between the strategic intelligence systems of the 28 – which is particularly evident in the military field and security in relation to third countries, it is not surprising that various issues with European cybersecurity have been exposed, as well as the interference and disinformation campaigns seen in various electoral processes and independence movements within the EU.

This web of Russian influence, and the impact of better intelligence work, also stretches across the Atlantic and is subtly reflected in the contempt shown by the Trump Administration for the European security system and Washington’s full cooperation within NATO. The tangled web led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say that the United States could no longer be considered a “reliable partner”. Meanwhile, other fingers were pointing at Capitol Hill for discrediting the West in the Middle East, where the failure of US intelligence enabled Moscow’s successful interventionism in Syria, the breaking of the agreement with Iran, the general decline in Washington’s influence in the region and, as a knock-on effect, the regional distrust in British and French diplomacy.

Those who argue that Brexit could impact “positively” on the progress of the EU defence system (one example: the establishment of the EU’s first military headquarters, blocked time and again by the United Kingdom, was given the green light in March 2017) also claim that the same could be true of a distancing between the EU and the US. One immediate and simple outcome would be the realisation that European security must, first and foremost, be in the hands of the Europeans.

We are not likely to see the formation of an EU army any time soon. But very strong steps are being taken towards shared defence under the prism of strategic autonomy. The EU will, as a result, acquire the military potential – and prestige – to take on certain missions without NATO being able to veto them.

One of the next milestones in the journey towards a European Defence Union will no doubt be better coordination and integration of the military and civilian intelligence capabilities of the EU member states, to remedy the shortcomings that have led, in the recent past, to very serious errors on European territory, as seen in the Balkans, or as we are now seeing in Ukraine. There can be no credible foreign policy without a security policy, and without proper strategic intelligence every step towards joint European defence could lead to a blind alley.

This article has been translated from Spanish.