by Michael Gahler MEP, Brussels/Strasbourg
The Covid-19 pandemic is the most severe global crisis we are facing since World War 2. Fighting it is undoubtedly our current top priority. At the same time, we must not forget about the other global challenges that face us: the steady erosion of the international rules-based and multilateral order, the re-emergence of power politics, a difficult transatlantic partnership as well as conflicts and instability, especially at Europe’s periphery. These developments raise the question of Europe’s future international role as well as its ability to protect its interests and citizens.
An ambitious EU global strategy
In 2016, the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) formulated the goal of strategic autonomy, defined as Europe’s ability to act autonomously if necessary, to respond to external crises, build partners’ capacities and protect its citizens. While the level of ambition derived from the long-term goal of autonomous action is, at least for the time being, a political rather than a concrete military one, the improvement and development of the necessary capabilities remain a key element. Considering that we are facing these challenges together as the European Union, we also need to address them in a joint effort by moving forward to a European Defence Union.
Following the EUGS, the European Defence Union has already made substantial progress through various initiatives. Building on the EUGS’ level of ambition, the revised Capability Development Plan (CDP) of 2018 defined 11 capability priority areas ranging from communication and information, cyber responsive operations, and logistics to ground, air and naval defence and combat capabilities. The CDP is complemented by the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) which analyses EU Member States’ progress in the priority areas laid out in the CDP. CARD is designed as a two-year cyclical process and does not only aim to describe the current state of defence development in relation to the goals but also identifies areas for further cooperation between Member States, evaluates existing initiatives on the European level and analyses Member States’ activities in capability development and their respective defence budgets trends.
Concrete developments and projects
While CDP and CARD provide the long-term orientation framework and evaluation for European capability development, concrete and joint development is facilitated through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF). With 25 EU Member States participating and 47 projects launched since the activation of the PESCO chapter in the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) in December 2017, PESCO addresses European capability development in all relevant defence areas: land, air, sea, cyber, space, command, communications, surveillance, enabling capabilities and joint training. The participation within the different projects ranges from 2 to 24 Member States with up to two states having a coordinating role. The EDF, which will be fully implemented in 2021, functions as a complementary instrument by providing European funding for research and development in the area of defence. Following its announcement in 2017, a preliminary EDF has been implemented through the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR) and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) with budgets of € 90 million and € 500 million respectively. Within the EDIDP budget, € 37 million are directly awarded to PESCO projects of a European remotely piloted air system (€ 100 million) and secure defence communication systems (€ 37 million). Until today, 18 research projects have been launched within the PADR and 16 within the EDIDP, with 24 tendering procedures still ongoing.
Major immaterial shortcomings
The CDP, CARD, PESCO and the EDF mark important steps towards a European Defence Union as they provide viable tools for European defence planning as well as joint research and development. However, besides this material level of European defence cooperation, two major immaterial shortcomings remain.
A continued lack of political will
Firstly, we can observe a continued lack of strong political will and financial commitment to European defence by Member States. The Council proposal for defence funding in the next Multiannual Financial Framework of the EU in July 2020 illustrates this quite well: the Commission’s initial proposal of € 11,45 billion for the EDF has been reduced to € 7,01 billion, and the budget for Military Mobility as a key enabling capability for deployment has shrunk from € 5,75 to € 1,5 billion. Additionally, European defence lacks another capability that is essential for achieving the goal of strategic autonomy. While in 2017 the European Military Staff was complemented by the so-called Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) for EU training missions, the EU still lacks a fully-fledged military headquarters to conduct robust military operations. Accordingly, European military operations remain dependent on NATO command structures that significantly weaken the EU’s capability to act autonomously. Especially in light of the current relations with Turkey that seem to be developing towards a strategic rivalry, access to NATO command structures due to a potential Turkish veto cannot be considered a guarantee anymore. Another example of insufficient political will and financial commitment are the EU Battle Groups (EUBG). These quickly deployable intervention forces of 1,500 men have not yet been deployed despite various potential opportunities. Therefore, the concept requires a review during which there should be a thorough analysis of whether or not it still meets the operational requirements of today’s possible scenarios. This review should also strongly consider changing the EUBG from a rotating provision by Member States to a permanent structure within PESCO.
A missing common perspective
Secondly, Europe’s strategic autonomy is additionally weakened by a lack of shared understanding and agreement on the threats and challenges we are facing together as the European Union. Such a common perspective is crucial to define a concrete military level of ambition with a scenario-based definition of capability needs. The first headline goal in 2003, from which the EUBG concept was derived, made a first step in that regard. We need to take that up and move beyond it by clearly defining our strategic interests, prioritising shared threats, developing concrete operational scenarios that reflect Europe’s current security environment and deriving our needs of operational assets from that. The so-called strategic compass that was launched this year marks an important step in that direction. During a two-year process, the strategic compass aims at providing a shared threat assessment from which a concrete level of ambition should be derived. As the concept builds on a repetitive process that is supposed to restart every institutional cycle, the strategic compass possesses the long-term potential to facilitate a European security and defence culture as long as we manage to move beyond the lowest common denominator. With the recent finalisation of the threat analysis in early November, the German Council presidency achieved a solid and promising foundation for the next steps in the process.
In the last four years, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy has made more progress than in its almost 20 previous years of existence. The EU now possesses the structures and instruments to achieve a fully-fledged European Defence Union and become a credible security actor. We have to keep that momentum by maintaining the necessary political and financial commitment as well as by reaching a common understanding of our strategic challenges. Without a clear idea of what we want to achieve in concrete terms, any structures, capabilities and funds become a mere end in themselves.