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European Defence. Is There a Risk of Building an Autonomous European Defence Capability?
Although all along the European Union’s existence there have been numerous attempts to debate the subject of an autonomous European defence, which would make the Union less dependent on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in security and defence, so far we cannot talk about a real common European defence. The European defence keeps on being ensured by the Alliance, and the transatlantic link becomes more important than ever after 1990 given the threats from South and East which the Euro-Atlantic community, including the European Union, must face.

     Although all along the European Union’s existence there have been numerous attempts to debate the subject of an autonomous European defence, which would make the Union less dependent on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in security and defence, so far we cannot talk about a real common European defence. The European defence keeps on being ensured by the Alliance, and the transatlantic link becomes more important than ever after 1990 given the threats from South and East which the Euro-Atlantic community, including the European Union, must face. However, after the adoption of the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy[1] in 2016, the European Union has made important decisions with a view to strengthen the military cooperation between member states. In only three years there has been remarkable progress on the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), as the members of the EU agreed to concrete initiatives meant to encourage defence cooperation. The purpose of this cooperation is obvious: generating European military capabilities that would diminish Europe’s dependence on NATO and implicitly on North America, especially on the USA. Moreover, the European defence capabilities intended to be developed will also strengthen the image of the EU as a global actor by creating a worldwide competitive defence industry and conducting military operations in areas where NATO is not interested to intervene.

     According to the March 2018 Eurobarometer[2], the European citizens have high expectations from the EU as far as ensuring the peace and security of the continent, 68% of them hoping for the Union to do more in the field of defence. These results confirm those of the 2017 security and defence Eurobarometer[3]; it shows that 75% of the EU citizens are in favour of the European security and defence policy, while 55% even support the idea of an European military capability (so called European Army). The above mentioned results made the European political leaders understand that the citizens of Europe want more from the European Union regarding a common defence against the security threats to the member states. Moreover, leaders - such as the French President Emmanuel Macron - driven by political interests more or less objective, have launched ideas such as a joint European military project[4]. Germany, another important European player in the field of security and defence declared, through the voice of chancellor Angela Merkel (European Parliament, November 2018), that “we have to work based on the vision of a proper European Army being established one day”. These ideas have been embraced by the European Commission, as shown by the State of the Union Address delivered by President Jean-Claude Junker in September 2017[5]: “By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union. We need it. And NATO wants it.”

Picture no. 1 – The EU citizen’s opinion on the increase of the Union’s role in the fields of security and defence[6]


     Measures Taken by the EU to Increase the Defence Cooperation

     Although the policy of common security and defence is legislated at the level of the Union, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (the Treaty of Lisbon, art. 42 (2)) clearly states the importance of the national defence and resilience of the member states, including the responsibilities deriving from their status of NATO members, or that of neutrality. Following the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), the EU has set in motion an extensive process meant to implement ambitious steps in the fields of defence and security by assigning more resources, stimulating efficiency, facilitating cooperation and supporting the development of capabilities. The main components of this process are:

          - The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launched in December 2017. Currently there are 25 countries involved, as Great Britain, Cyprus and Ireland decided not to take part in it. The initiative proved to be even more successful than estimated in its inception, with 34 projects approved and benefiting from firm commitments from the participating member states. As far as this paper is concerned, the most relevant are: the European Medical Command, the Harbour & Maritime Surveillance and Protection (HARMSPRO), the Mutual Assistance in Cyber Security, the Joint EU Intelligence School, and the rapid response capabilities;

          - The European Defence Fund (EDF), that was established in June 2017 and marked a first in the history of the EU since, for the first time, the defence cooperation is co-financed by the EU. The fund destined to co-finance the defence constitutes a distinct section in the Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-2027), amounts to 13 billion Euro for research and industrial development in the field of defence. The European Defence Fund is meant to complement national investments and to provide practical and financial incentives for cooperation in the field of research (4.1 billion Euro) and for the common development and acquisition of military equipment and technologies (8.9 billion Euro). It is worth mentioning that, in the current financial cycle the EU allocates 590 million Euro for defence cooperation, out of which the amount of 90 million Euro is intended for research;

          - The Action Plan on Military Mobility across Europe, meant to ensure a quick response to crises by facilitating the movement of military personnel and equipment. The plan includes clear measures regarding military requirements, transport infrastructure and legal and procedural issues, especially on the cross-border movements between the EU member states. From this point of view, the European Commission has set the following main objectives for the interval 2019-2020: identifying the segments of the transportation network that are suitable for military use so they can be modernised and ensure the transport of military vehicles; identifying the civilian-military synergies regarding the transport of dangerous goods; recommending measures to reduce the duration of custom formalities for cross-border movements; improving the overall mobility in order to respond to threats, including hybrid;

          - a more effective financing of the military and civilian missions, through a comprehensive approach, better planning and management, coordination with the EU Delegations in the region, and through the coordination of all financial tools destined to a specific area;

          - improving crisis management through the establishment of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), to complement the already existent Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability (CPCC).

    These are the most relevant initiatives taken at EU level after 2016 in the fields of defence and security, with a view to make sure that the EU can act autonomously on security and defence whenever NATO decides not to intervene. These measures will definitely enhance EU’s military and security profile. This also fuels some countries’ worries that an European Army could be built and would duplicate their efforts within NATO. A thorough analysis of this issue clearly shows that the EU is far from getting there, because all the measures that have been taken so far are meant to build capabilities found to be ineffective or insufficient during the process of planning and launching the Union’s military missions. These measures are also meant to improve the efficiency of military spending at the level of the EU by avoiding fragmentation and duplication and to facilitate the military technological development, which is far behind the American one.


     Defence: Doing More with Less

     Following a complex analysis of the military expenses of the EU member states, the Union has reached the conclusion that, even though they would spend more on defence given the commitments made at the NATO Summit in 2014, the states that are also NATO members keep on facing a significat level of inefficiency because of the lack of coordination at the level of the EU. Consequently, strengthening EU’s defence doesn’t only mean an increase in the defence expenses, but also, and especially, improving their efficiency. Besides the USA, the EU member states provide - together - the largest defence budget, which means an assessed yearly  loss of aproximately 26.4 billion Euro because of duplication, fragmentation, restrictive domestic procedures in the field of military aquisition, and lack of logistic support coordination. Among these causes, fragmentation affects the most the efectiveness of the military expenses of the EU member states, if we are only considering the fact that the number of military technical systems used by Europe is sixfold than in the case of USA. (Picture no. 2)


Picture no. 2, The Benefits of Closer Military Cooperation at the EU Level


     Legal Issues

     The legal framework necessary to implement a common EU defence policy that could lead to a common European defence capability is provided by the Treaty of Lisbon. In ten years since the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon the geopolitical environment has changed significantly and new threats to the European security, including of military nature, have emerged. At the same time, just like the Eurobarometers show, the European citizen’s expectations have raised as far as the EU assuming a more important role in ensuring the security of the continent. Consequently, the EU member states have decided to implement some of the amendments of the Treaty of Lisbon regarding defence. However, the EU is far from reaching a real common defence that is based on military mechanisms and capabilities developed at the level of the Union.

     The support of the EU citizens to the common defence and security is undoubtedly generated by the increasing instability both on a regional and global level. The terrorist threats inside and outside the European continent, the crises in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, the Russian military threat at the EU’ eastern borders, illegal human trafficking, the shifts in the relationships between world powers, the abandonment of international nuclear treaties, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction etc. are security risks and threats at the origins of a new dynamic in the debates on security and defence matters at the level of the EU and its members. These risks and threats are not circumstantial; they will keep on shaping the international security environment for a long time. This is the main reason why both the European Council and the European Parliament have called for the full implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon’s stipulations on the Common Security and Defence Policy as part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Although these two policies continue to belong to the national governments as far as the decision-making is concerned within both the European Council and the Council of the EU, as shown before, many initiatives meant to strengthen the security and defence cooperation at the level of the EU have been launched. They have the potential to generate a common defence policy serving as the nucleus of a defence union that would, in fact, be what is already called the European Army. At the same time, the EU has taken steps to strengthen its cooperation with NATO by means of the Joint Declarations in 2016 and 2018, which have identified many fields of cooperation, except for the development of common military capabilities.

    In light of these developments, one of the most important debates on the European defence is the one dedicated to establishing the final objective of a potential defence union. The complexity of the concept of an European Army generates extensive debates as to its purpose and significance, including in the context of the dynamization of the NATO-EU relations, the transatlantic relationship and achieving an EU strategic autonomy as defined in the Global Strategy. While at the level of some European countries there is a high degree of concern generated by the danger of creating an European Army that would come in contradiction with NATO, the French and the German leaders have permanently tried to eliminate this perception by giving assurances that the EU wants to strengthen its cooperation and complementarity with NATO, including as far as the development and the use of military capabilities.

     At this moment it is difficult to say whether a real defence union will be built, how it will look like and how long the whole process will be. The potential of the Treaty of Lisbon is far from being exhausted from this perspective and, for this very reason, the EU institutions are involved in a comprehensive process of identifying new initiatives that are viable and agreed upon by all member states. This process seems more likely than ever to be implemented now, since BREXIT is bound to happen after the decisive victory of the Conservative Party in the December 2019 elections in Great Britain.

     The European Parliament seems to have decided to play a major and active part in this matter, as it wishes the Sub-Committee on Security and Defence (SEDE) to become a standing committee. This development would enable it to increase the number of its initiatives in the fields of security and defence and would allow it to submit report themes and rapporteurs directly to the Conference of Presidents, to adopt reports and submit them for debate in plenary sessions. More than that, the European Parliament requested the High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission to start the process of preparing a White Paper based on the Global Strategy and proposed considering the possibility to create a position of Director General for Defence within the Commission. Over the past few years, the European Parliament has constantly supported the use of CSDP instruments to their full potential, coordination of national actions and a more efficient sharing of resources. It has constantly highlighted the importance of solving all the operational problems regarding the deployment of EU Battle Groups in theatres of operations, demonstrating its political will to fully operationalize the CSDP’s instruments and to implement the initiatives authorized by the Treaty of Lisbon.

     On the other side, the European Commission issued - in 2017 - a reflection paper regarding the future of the European defence that is in fact its view on what is called the EU defence union. The Commission presented three views on the EU defence for the time horizon extending to 2025. The most ambitious of these is represented by the common defence and security achieved through common financing and acquisition of military equipment from the EU budget, by sharing the costs of the expensive military equipment and the efforts regarding technological innovation with a view to lower the costs of defence. To these they add the development of the necessary capabilities to launch military operations exclusively under EU mandate, all in complementarity with NATO. The Commission proposes the evaluation of the possibility of shared ownership of military equipment and common military budgets and doctrine to be considered. These are seconded by an EU common strategic culture that, according to President Macron, could facilitate the creation of a common military intervention force.

    From a legal standpoint, Article 42(2) of the Lisbon Treaty provides the necessary framework to produce a common EU defence policy. If this article could be fully taken advantage of, the European Council could decide on a common EU defence strategy to be agreed upon by the member states in accordance with their constitutions. In line with the Treaty of Lisbon, this should not affect the specificity of the security and defence policy of some of the member states and should comply with their commitment to NATO. Furthermore, the second subparagraph of Article 42(2) introduces a clear limitation concerning the EU defence policy, stipulating the primacy of the member states’ national defence policies, including the status of neutrality or of NATO member. Practically, the neutrality status of Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden must be observed. Thus, the decision regarding the EU’s common defence is strictly in the hands of the European Council and cannot be but unanimously adopted. This is the most difficult situation as far as the future of European defence is concerned, although the principle of subsidiarity could be invoked, which, according to those supporting the European defence, allows the implementation of the defence policy at the level of the EU, including the financing of common military structures.


     The Future of European Defence

    If the EU wishes to reach the level of ambition assumed by its Global Strategy in the next ten years, in cooperation and coordination with NATO, the Union must strengthen its member states’ cooperation in the fields of security and defence. The EU member states have to decide whether they wish to strengthen their military cooperation that would lead to a European Defence Union and, possibly, on a long term to a European Army. In order to achieve this the EU must consolidate the current institutional framework, including by assigning a Commissioner for Defence and establishing a Directorate General within the Commission that would ensure coherence to the planning and the efficient spending of the budget destined for common defence. The Union will have to allocate more financial resources to defence that would be spent on common projects and more efficiently than before. In this way, the EU could reduce the costs caused by fragmentation and duplication and provide the necessary funds to implement the common military research and development programs.

    Despite these ambitious initiatives, in the following period the European Union is expected to continue to remain what we call a soft power. At the same time, the Union should gradually develop the instruments specific to a hard power, since the international security environment is continuously changing and generates risks and threats that the EU must face. While maintaining their complementarity with NATO, the EU member states should accelerate their military cooperation efforts so that the Union can face the future conventional or unconventional security challenges. The EU must take the necessary steps towards strengthening its strategic autonomy so it can promote and defend its values and principles, protect its citizens, contribute to the defence of the international order and respond to the threats that its members will face individually or collectively. This is why the EU must strengthen its military cooperation, with a focus on the following: common strategic culture, institutional and decision-making consolidation in the field of defence, full implementation of the security and defence provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon, and the rational and collective use of the resources destined for defence. As far as the common strategic culture is concerned, the implementation of the CSDP led to its development and the Global Strategy fully proves that. At the same time, over the past ten years the EU managed to take important steps in the consolidation of the institutions and decision-making process in the field of defence, the newly established MCPP being a relevant example in this perspective. As shown above, exploiting the potential of the Treaty of Lisbon and allocating common financial resources to military projects remain the main domains of action regarding security and defence for the next 10 to 20 years.


     Final thoughts

     As far as the full implementation of the stipulations of the Treaty of Lisbon in the fields of security and defence, as well as the efficient common use of the resources dedicated to defence, the EU member states still have a lot to clarify in order to achieve a real defence union. The progress registered after the adoption of the Global Strategy, as far as the cooperation in the field of European defence is concerned, is remarkable. However, the member states should continue to strengthen their cooperation if they want to achieve the level of ambition set forth by the Global Strategy, so they can manage the challenges of a more and more volatile and unpredictable international environment. Moreover, the member states have to define the terms of the institutional framework regarding the cooperation in the field of defence by fully implementing the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon. This way, an European defence union can be created, which on a long term and based on the decision of the member states will be able to count on an European Army. At the same time, all these developments at the level of the EU have to comply with the neutrality status of some of its members, strengthen the cooperation with NATO as agreed in the Joint Declarations in 2016 and 2018, as well as generate a more efficient spending of the public funds allocated to defence through projects developed in common.

     As far as the prospect of creating a European defence union, the New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024[7] adopted by the European Council in June 2019 is very clarifying: “The EU’s CFSP and CSDP must become more responsive and active and be better linked to the other strands of external relations. The EU also needs to take greater responsibility for its own security and defence, in particular by enhancing defence investment, capability development and operational readiness; it will cooperate closely with NATO, in full respect of the principles set out in the Treaties and by the European Council, including the principles of inclusiveness, reciprocity and decision-making autonomy of the EU.” Thus, at this moment it is out of doubt that, on an official level, the EU does not aim for more than enhancing the investment in defence, developing capabilities, and operational readiness through cooperation with NATO. It is obvious that this does not imply the creation of the so-called European Army, but a better use of financial resources through cooperation between the member states at the level of the EU.

     The author believes that the EU is expected, at least over the next ten years, to make PESCO operational by implementing the projects already approved, so that the Union becomes an important factor in designing and developing military capabilities. This way the EU can secure a technological level that comes close to that of the USA, which will enable the Union not only to endow its armed forces with state of the art equipment, but to also develop its own defence industry and make it competitive internationally, compared to the USA. Hence, the stakes consist in developing a modern and strong defence industry that brings added value to the armed forces of the member states and ensures an export base stronger than it is today. To this end, the larger EU countries such as France and Germany have to understand that smaller member states should be an active part of the process. They must contribute to the European military research and development to improve themselves technologically and have the necessary motivation for purchasing with priority military equipment made in the EU. The principle of inclusiveness is always cited in all the documents that regulate PESCO and should be abided by the larger states, if they want the projects agreed upon by the 25 member states to be successful.

     In parallel with the military research and development activity, at the level of the EU will most definitely take place transformations, in the field of defence, which will eliminate the current deficiencies found when launching missions and military operations for crises management in areas of interest for the Union and where NATO doesn’t want to intervene. To this end, common rapid reaction capabilities must be built, logistics, medical and intelligence support have to be provided, transportation and strategic communication capabilities should be developed, and maritime search and surveillance capabilities are needed. These are absolutely necessary capabilities for the EU to ensure its security and role as a global player as the Global Strategy set forth. However, from this to an European defence union/European Army there is a long journey, which is impossible to accomplish at least until 2030.

     Until then, the EU-NATO cooperation and complementarity will keep staying relevant as far as the defence of Europe is concerned, and the transatlantic link will remain the foundation of the Euro-Atlantic security and defence, and will be strengthened by the implementation of the 74 projects agreed upon in the NATO-EU Joint Declarations in 2016 and 2018. Both the European and the North-American side of the Euro-Atlantic community have to understand that there is an industrial competition in the defence area that has the potential to turn them from competitors into adversaries if all these issues are not submitted for debate in the NATO and EU commitees and working groups form tactical level to the summits of heads of state and government. An eventual lack of readiness for a constructive dialogue between the involved parties will affect the security and defence of the Euro-Atlantic community, and strictly commercially speaking, countries such as China, the Russian Federation or Israel will only benefit from it.

     Despite the constant debate on the need to share the military effort between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and on the need to increase the defence budgets, it is hard to imagine that the cooperation between NATO and the EU won’t prevail. The military cooperation of the entire Euro-Atlantic community is the basis of a strong, effective and successful military alliance that shares the same values and acts to counter the same threats that face all the EU and/or NATO member states. Without the North-American military potential, Europe would not enjoy the current security status, as the North-Atlantic Alliance would be much weaker without the EU even after BREXIT. Strengthening the military cooperation at the level of the EU will lead to the increase of military spending of the member states and to their efficiency, especially as far as enhancing and modernising the European combat capability, diminishing fragmentation and duplication of military equipment, systems and standards of the EU member states is concerned. Complying with the principle of “a single set of forces”, which no EU member state puts into question, the member states of the two organizations will have no restriction on deploying that set of forces in NATO and/or EU operations. Thus, the EU’s ambition of strategic autonomy can be developed in complementarity with NATO.

[3]Special Eurobarometer 461, Designing Europe’s Future: Security and Defence, https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/search/defence/surveyKy/2173