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European Defence Cooperation in Times of Crisis
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the heavy financial burden it is likely to put on all EU Member States, but one stands out: European defence cooperation in general, and collaborative capability development in particular, are now more indispensable and urgent than ever before.


15/02/2021 Region: European Union Topic: Geopolitics

This pandemic is not behind us yet and the full scale of its repercussions still unpredictable. Yet, there are lessons to be learned already now as Europe must adjust to a new post-Covid reality. Defence is no exception. The budgetary shockwave caused by the pandemic may heavily weigh on some Member States’ ability to sustain existing national defence programmes, let alone launch new ones. Which in turn threatens to further curtail Europe’s security and defence clout.

There could be a plus side to the crisis as well, though: some of its effects might help speed up the process towards genuine EU defence cooperation. Looked at from this angle, this emergency offers a unique and unexpected opportunity for making collaborative capability development the new norm in Europe. Rather than weakening national defence forces one by one, the new reality imposed by Covid-19 could advance the Europe of Defence as a whole.

The follow-up costs of the pandemic are likely to squeeze national public spending across the board and for years to come, including on defence. What’s more, the budgetary downturn hits at a time when Europe needs to invest more and better in its security and defence. The many good reasons that led the EU and its Member States to raise the Union’s level of ambition on defence in 2016 and to work towards European strategic autonomy as a long-term goal, are still valid. To drop or even lower this ambition is not an option, even under today’s exceptional circumstances, as this would seriously undermine Europe’s security role in the world.  

How to square this circle?

Defence cooperation is the answer. Europe needs more joint defence planning and capability development. The call for pooling and sharing of resources and capabilities is not new, but it has become more pressing today. When defence budgets come under pressure, the smartest way for Member States to safeguard or even increase their military resilience is to plan, develop, procure, maintain and operate their defence equipment together. Multinational capability development - be it under PESCO, EDA or any other format involving several EU countries - is more cost-efficient and impactful than national solo efforts done in isolation. Money saved through EU cooperation can compensate for expected cuts in defence spending, at least in the long run. Beyond the financial benefits, cooperation also pays off thanks to increased operational effectiveness and interoperability, for the benefit of EU, NATO or other multinational operations. Joining forces will allow those Member States under budgetary strains to do more, for their own defence and that of Europe.

The other good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. All instruments and processes needed to enable and manage EU defence cooperation are already in place and ready to be used: updated European Capability Development Priorities, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund. And not only the instruments are there, but also plenty of very concrete opportunities for cooperation. The first CARD, carried out last year under the auspices of the European Defence Agency, has identified no less than 55 European collaborative opportunities throughout the whole capability spectrum, considered to be the most promising, most needed or most pressing ones, also in terms of operational value. Based on this catalogue of identified opportunities, Member States are recommended to concentrate their efforts on the following six specific ‘focus areas’ where the prospects for cooperation are also looking particularly good (encouraging number of interested Member States, national programmes already underway or in the pipeline), namely: Main Battle Tanks (MBT), Soldier Systems, Patrol Class Surface Ships, Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems, Defence applications in Space and Military Mobility

If Member States don’t use the EU defence instruments and the identified cooperation opportunities now, when will they then?

The same applies to the European Defence Agency, the EU hub for collaborative research and capability development which currently hosts more than 110 research and capability programmes as well as some 200 other activities. Here too, Member States have still some leeway available if they want to use the Agency’s expertise and potential to the full extent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought to light, indirectly of course, the enormous disruptive potential of biological substances. Although Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats have been on our radars for some time - the European Capability Development Priorities reviewed in 2018 under EDA guidance explicitly refer to the need to strengthen European capabilities in the CBRN domain - this crisis has nevertheless highlighted the urgent need to do more in order to be better prepared and equipped to deal with these kind of threats in the future.  This is another important lesson to be learned from this dramatic experience. Given the magnitude of the challenge, it can only be mastered together, i.e. through cooperation.

Finally, and this is a third lesson, Covid-19 has shown the importance of maintaining strategic local production capacities able to provide critical material of high quality and in sufficient quantities when crises hit – from relatively basic commodities such as masks or other protection utilities to live-saving Covid-19 vaccines.  This has served as a reminder to all of us, also in the defence sector, that European strategic autonomy cannot only refer to high-tech, high-end military capabilities but also industrial expertise and production capacities. Maintaining critical industrial production capacities in Europe is thus a crucial prerequisite for building a Europe of defence and moving towards strategic autonomy. Here too, cooperation is the way forward as Europe’s key strategic activities can only be sustained together.

NOTE: Jiří Šedivý is the Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency (EDA)