Interview with Michael Gahler MEP, European Parliament, Brussels/Strasbourg
The European: Mr Gahler, you have been dealing with security and defence issues in the European Parliament since 2004 and have held leading positions both in your party and in Parliament. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and a substitute member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE), you are strongly involved in European defence issues. What does it mean for you that the European Union engages its defence capabilities as a pillar in NATO?
Michael Gahler: Soon the number of EU Member States in NATO will amount to 23, thereby further increasing the EU’s weight in NATO. However, the capabilities of these 23 are still far behind those of the United States (US). Strengthening the European pillar within NATO means first and foremost that EU countries fulfil their commitments towards NATO as expressed in the 2% goal. Living up to that ambition would strengthen the European contribution to transatlantic security, provided, of course, that this money is also better coordinated and jointly invested in the development and procurement of armaments and technologies.
The European: To that end, can the EU function as a facilitator?
Michael Gahler: Indeed, the EU can be a facilitator through the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the future European Defence Investment Programme (EDIP) which provides additional money for defence. And money is something that NATO cannot provide. Nonetheless, it is vital to ensure coherence and close cooperation between the EU and NATO when it comes to defence planning and capability development. Unfortunately, the recent third EU-NATO Joint Declaration of 10 January did not indicate that there will be a new and deeper dynamic in coordinating EU-NATO cooperation.
The European: Does that mean, Mr Gahler, that we should not refrain from political demands in discussion that there should be “European autonomy” in matters of defence?
Michael Gahler: There is no doubt that NATO is and remains the backbone of our collective defence in Europe. However, given that about 80% of the so-called strategic enablers within NATO are provided by the United States and considering that US capabilities might in future become increasingly bound in the Indo-Pacific, EU-NATO members should improve their capabilities in that area.
That is also vital in cases where NATO does not want to engage in a given scenario, or where access to the Alliance’s capabilities for an EU operation is blocked by certain NATO members.
The European: In such cases, the EU should be able to act on its own.
Michael Gahler: A more capable and therefore autonomous EU would indeed strengthen the transatlantic bond as we Europeans would have more to offer our transatlantic partners and could ease the burden on the US. For me, a strong European defence technological industrial base is also an integral part of “strategic autonomy”.
The European: Does that not also lead to unnecessary duplications? Why do we need a European Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC) if we have the NATO Response Force (NRF)?
Michael Gahler: I do not consider the EU’s RDC a duplication of NATO’s NRF, especially under recent circumstances. Until Russia’s war of aggression the NRF was mostly deployed in disaster relief operations. With NATO’s new force posture following 22 February 2022, the NRF became a core element to deter Russia and if necessary, defend Europe. Therefore, for the time being it is highly unlikely the Alliance would deploy these troops for crisis management operations. While Russia’s war is indeed the biggest security threat we are currently facing, other crisis areas tend to be overlooked, notably in Africa. There, the EU is engaged in different missions and operations in a volatile security environment. In overseen developments, we need to react quickly, at least to evacuate our citizens and personnel.
The European: So, the primary task for the RDC would be crisis management?
Michael Gahler: Yes, however, I also foresee an option to temporarily assign the RDC to NATO in case of need, thereby achieving conjunction rather than duplication between the two organisations if we ensure the RDC’s compatibility with NATO standards.
The European: Your answer brings me to the issue of work sharing, which means that not every country should procure everything, but systems must be interoperable and complement each other. Is this the future for European defence procurement?
Michael Gahler: Ideally yes. EU Member States already committed to a level of joint defence investment of 35%. In 2021 we only reached 18%, a huge gap to fill. To finally move closer to a capable European Defence Union, coordinated joint investments are vital as only a joint approach can ensure interoperability and complementarity of systems as well as adequate economies of scale, saving European taxpayers’ money. With the so-called EDIRPA regulation that aims to refill defence stocks that have been depleted because of the support given to Ukraine, we are already making an important step in that regard. But the decisive step will be the subsequent larger and long-term orientated European Defence Investment Programme (EDIP). Its ambition should be to close the gap between the Member States’ commitment to joint defence investment achieved thus far. Translated into numbers, that would require a budget of at least €10bn for the period 2024 to 2027.
The European: The European Defence Technology and Industry base (EDTIB) has as objective to foster European armament industries. It seems that there is still more splitting than cohesion. What are the reasons?
Michael Gahler: I see two main reasons for that. Firstly, the fragmentation of the European defence market is a consequence of the fragmented demand in procurement in close conjunction with national industrial considerations by EU Member States. EU Member States prefer to award procurement calls to their national champions, neglecting the European perspective. The European Defence Fund already provided some remedy by bringing national industries closer together. However, breaking that structure and moving towards a real European Defence Technology and Industrial Base (EDTIB) will require EU Member States to also move towards joint procurement. As mentioned before, EDIRPA and EDIP can provide a big step forward to that end.
The European: Does Europe need armament cooperation with the United States?
Michael Gahler: Of course. The US are not only Europe’s most important partner, but they also possess a very developed and capable defence industry providing sophisticated and fully developed military equipment covering the full capability spectrum that can be bought off the shelf. In light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the latter is crucial to improve European defensive capabilities that are urgently needed.
The European: Mr Gahler, I am grateful for this conversation.
The interview was led by Hartmut Bühl on 7 February 2023.