The EU’s Defence Momentum

The EU’s Defence Momentum

Opening the Annual Conference of the European Defence Agency EDA on 23 November 2017, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini called the letter notifying the intention of 23 Member States to embark on a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on defence: “probably the most important moment for European defence in decades“. It is unquestionable that the past 12 months have seen more activity on EU defence than has been witnessed over the last 12 years. The acceleration has been driven both by internal and external factors that has open challenges but also opportunities. For example, Brexit gave the chance to further discuss the creation of a more coherent and unified military and defence policy, since the UK has always been hardly against a similar kind of step further. Donald Trump election has moved the US from their strong commitment towards NATO and collective defence in reference to the European Countries, pushing this way the Europeans to realize that they can’t always and in any case relay on the US intervention, but they have to stand on their own to guarantee security in the continent. These threats have worked as speeding forces for taking new measures on this subject: “The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned” was the opening line from the June 2016 EU Global Strategy that has initiated reflection and action on EU defence to meet the triple task of dealing with international crises, helping partners and protecting Europe. It is now important to analyze the set of tools and instrument implemented to see how realistically these initiatives advance EU defence.

One of the very first tool adopted was the military planning and conduct capability (MPCC) within the EU military staff (EUMS), approved by the Council on June the 8th 2017, following the commitment expressed in the 2016 conclusions on progress in implementing the EU Global Strategy in the area of security and defence. The MPCC will assume command of EU non-executive military missions, currently: EU Training Mission (EUTM) Somalia, EUTM République Centrale Africaine (RCA) and EUTM Mali. The MPCC will be the static, out-of-area command and control structure at the military strategic level, responsible for the operational planning and conduct of non-executive missions, including the building up, launching, sustaining and recovery of European Union forces. This will allow the mission staff in the field to concentrate on the specific activities of their mission, with better support provided from Brussels. The logic is that having a single command structure for operations, as opposed to an individual structure for each operation, would improve the EU’s reaction time to crises. At the same time is important to keep in mind that many factors such as a lack of financing and capabilities, both human and material, and complex rules of engagement affect the effectiveness of CSDP operations.

In the November 2016 Council conclusions on implementing the EUGS in the area of security and defence, Member States invited the HRVP/Head of the European Defence Agency (EDA) to present proposals on the scope, modalities and content of a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). The modalities were for creating the CARD has been approved on May the 18th2017. The rationale is that the European Defence Agency can assist member states overcome national and unsynchronised defence planning. The review should certainly lead to greater coherence of defence spending and capability priorities, but a key challenge will be generating the right degree of transparency among member states. It is any way important to take into account that the objective of CARD is: “to develop, on a voluntary basis, a more structured way to deliver identified capabilities based on greater transparency, political visibility and commitment from Member States”. Since everything is managed on a voluntary basis, it is not to be taken as a given that every member state will engage in a constructive manner.

The year 2017 has also been the first one to see the European Commission investing directly on EU defence. A European Defence Fund was launched on June the 7th 2017 to help Member States spend taxpayer money more efficiently, reduce duplications in spending, and get better value for money. The fund, that consists of 5.5 billion per year, will coordinate, supplement and amplify national investments in defence research, in the development of prototypes and in the acquisition of defence equipment and technology. This puts the Commission in the higher tier of defence investors in Europe but there is still much work to be done on knowing where best to target EU funds to help the development transition from defence technologies to scalable capabilities. Luckily, EU-funded defence research projects are already off the ground but the real test will be whether the fund leads to the development of capabilities that can enhance Europe’s ability to act strategically and autonomously.

One very last initiative was taken in autumn 2017 with the agreement on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which has been announced by Federica Mogherini as an historic agreement which is finally implementing some of Lisbon directives ten years later. PESCO is a treaty-based political framework that takes a contractual approach to defence cooperation based on common binding commitments and projects. These commitments will be subject to an annual review by the HR/VP to provide top-down support. PESCO is already leading to interesting common projects such as cyber threat response teams, a crisis response operation core, military mobility and many more. However, despite the momentous nature of PESCO a number of questions still remain. The project was initially thought to be open of a few member states but is now enlarged to 25, this could slow down the concrete implementation of the projects that need the unanimous approval of the whole members; still pending and to be clarify is the relationship with NATO, it will be in fact important to find convergence and to avoid duplication and overlap of competences between the two institutions. A final remark concerns the leadership of PESCO which has reopen a competition between the member states, Berlin and Paris seem to be the most pro active forces of the process, and the related question on how will PESCO lead to closer defence cooperation when it is still a largely intergovernmental affair governed by the unanimity principle.

There can be no doubt that the EU has collectively taken great strides on its defence over the past year. However, we must see all of these initiatives as a means to an end, a more responsive, more capable and more responsible EU. The real mark of whether these initiatives will improve EU defence will come when the Union is a more capable defence actor that can stand up to a range of security challenges.

By: Flavio Previtali