by Patrick Bellouard, President of EuroDéfense-France, Paris
Since the beginning of 2020, Covid-19 and its economic and social impacts have revealed the vulnerability and dependencies of Europe in the health sector and more globally in the economic domain and value chains. There is a feeling of global uncertainty.
The battle to halt the pandemic is a reminder of the importance of European strategic autonomy, one of the features of the EU’s June 2016 Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy. It has highlighted the need to extend this autonomy to areas such as health and the numerous economic sectors where globalisation and unbridled competition have exposed the EU and its Member States to a degree of dependency not only unacceptable but fraught with long-term risk.
A wake-up call to pull together
At the start of the pandemic, Member States reacted in isolation, giving the impression that it was every man for himself. The European Commission, while it may have no specific responsibilities for health issues, was slow to play its coordinating role and propose consistent action. But with the Commission’s support, Member States finally began to pull together, although the road towards solidarity and cohesion was bumpy, to say the least. However, to emerge from the crisis created by the pandemic, Member States now need to take matters further and demonstrate solidarity on all fronts.
The Franco-German European recovery initiative of 18th May set the scene for further developments and the Commission reacted swiftly by unveiling plans on 27th May for a massive reboost of Europe’s economies. In July, the European Council agreed on a plan based on these proposals in addition to the draft 2021-2027 budget under discussion with the EU Parliament. This plan will represent major progress: for the first time, it will allow the Commission to borrow funds to inject into the European budget to top up contributions from Member States and its own funds and pave the way for EU-specific public borrowing.
Although Hungary and Poland, who do not fully agree with the funds allocation conditions, have delayed the budget approval process, the European Council has reached a consensus on 10th December. Then the 2021-2027 budget package should be approved on time by the Council and the Parliament. One thing is certain: the EU cannot afford to fail in this venture, since a failure would threaten its future and that of the Member States.
In her speech on the state of the Union early this year, the President of the Commission invited the Member States to shape the changes to protect European citizens. But she never mentioned the field of defence. It is obvious that it was not prioritised in the compromise approved by the European Council for the 2021-2027 budget. The Europen Defence Fund (EDF) budget has been halved compared to the initial proposal of the Commission, the Peace Facility has been also significantly reduced, to a level which will not incentivise Member States to improve their participation in EU military operations.1 The European space budget (with civilian and military applications) has also been reduced.
Defence is no longer taboo
However, the word “defence” is no longer taboo in Brussels. Before 2016, the simple idea of a defence line in the EU budget was unthinkable. Since 2016, with the Global Strategy putting forward the new objective of EU strategic autonomy, Member States are ready to accept or take new initiatives to improve their defence cooperation.
The EDF demonstrates the progress of EU defence, with its preliminary experimental programme, EDIDP,2 already implemented in 2019-2020 with funds provided by the EU budget. Although the EDF budget for 2021-2027 is lower than expected, the annual amount is four times higher than before: it will be a huge incentive for the increase of cooperation between Member States in the armament domain and will have a positive impact on the efficiency of the European industry. But this is still a fragile dynamic:
The level of cooperation between Member States in the defence domain remains too low, in armament programmes as well as in operations.
The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launched in 2019, has not yet produced concrete results.
The EDA budget remains limited, which reduces its efficiency.3
The decision making process, based on consensus for all intergovernmental issues (foreign affairs and defence), is strong but it takes too much time, and there is no real solidarity for the funding of operations (the ATHENA system has not been improved).
The European Defence Fund will finally be approved, but there is no guarantee that the funds will be rightly used to cater to priority capacity requirements, as there is no common agreement between states on priority investments.4
The progress of EU defence requires the full commitment of Member States and the full cooperation of all stakeholders, mostly the European Defence Agency (EDA) – which was created in 2004 precisely for that purpose, the Military Staff of the European Union (EUMS),5 the EU Military Committee (EUMC), and the European Commission, in particular its general directorate in charge of defence and space.
EDA – a major instrument at EU level
The EDA carried out a long-term review in 2016-2017, following which ministers agreed to reinforce the agency’s mission by giving it several new roles. They qualified it as the major intergovernmental prioritisation instrument at EU level in support of capability development, as the preferred cooperation forum and management support structure at EU level for technology and capability development activities, and as the facilitator with the European Commission and other EU agencies with regard to EU funded defence-related activities.
This means that, with the support of Member States and the EUMS, the EDA has a major role to play before project funding decisions, by ensuring coherence among EU defence tools, mainly PESCO,6 the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD),7 the Capability Development Plan (CDP), for which periodic revisions are produced by the EDA in close cooperation with Member States, the EUMC and the EUMS, and the EDF managed by the European Commission. CARD and CDP must provide the Commission with the information and priorities it needs to make choices for the use of the EDF. Downstream, when a decision to launch and fund a project has been made, the Member States and the Commission can rely on OCCAR8 for the management of the project.
European strategic autonomy
In an uncertain world where the American military strategy has created doubts on the full support of Europe’s main ally which may not significantly change after the last US election, European nations will have to rely more and more on their own capacities, as Chancellor Merkel recently said.
Behind the risks, it is indeed the question of European strategic autonomy which is at stake, and even the question of the sovereignty of the EU and its Member States in the future. In these difficult post-crisis times, in which the pandemic is still with us, conflicts are still at Europe’s doors, and post-Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom continue to make a mark, it is only by driving the EU onwards and upwards that Member States will be able to shape their future.
1 The operations will continue to be funded by the Athena system, which is insufficient.
2 European Defence Industrial Development Programme
3 This situation may change with the Brexit, as the UK was the main opponent to the EDA budget increase.
4 A European White Book on defence is critically needed, as required by the European Parliament in its last report.
5 The EUMS is the directorate-general of the EU External Action Service (EEAS) that contributes to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) by providing strategic advice to the High Representative (HR/VP) and commanding operations through its Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) operational headquarters.
6 Together with the EEAS (including EUMS), the EDA acts as the PESCO Secretariat.
7 Together with the EUMS, the EDA acts as the CARD Secretariat.
8 OCCAR (Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement / Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation) is an international organisation whose core business is the through life management of cooperative defence equipment programmes. OCCAR signed an agreement in 2012 with EDA and recently with the Commission for the implementation of EDIDP projects.