15 February 2019

How is European Defence going to be handled from the EU’s Council Presidency desk?

Niculae Iancu | Gheorghe Tibil

Image source: Mediafax

Niculae Iancu (Bucharest), Gheorghe Tibil (Brussels)

During the last weeks, given Romania’s takeover of the EU’s Council Presidency, there were a lot of discussions and articles on the significance and the special dimensions of this unique responsibility. An outliner key was related to how our country, Bucharest’s administration, will exploit the major opportunities that European centrality is creating. The following six months will seriously test Romania’s political and technical ability to manage the important files on Union’s agenda, given the extremely complicated European context. All the more so it will be important Bucharest’s capacity to draw the entire community bloc’s attention on national and regional priorities.

European Defence is one of the community domains with a special dynamic, as it represents a package of new important initiatives - Defence Package- in different implementation phases. The circumstances in which these specific files are taken over are not favorable at all. From a quite reduced strategic convergence space between Bucharest and Brussels, to the uncertainties created by the ambiguous internal situation at the highest level of the military leadership and the shortcomings of some procedures of complex armament systems acquisitions. All of these are only complicating Romania’s role as conductor of the future scores in European Defence field, against an orchestra that has to prove, now more than ever, that it can keep up the rhythm.


A strategic context with huge challenges

Twelve years after becoming an EU member state, Romania has access to a forefront role in Brussels’s complex decisional fora. Our country is one of the last nations from the ex-communist bloc that takes EU’s Council semestrial rotating presidency. As such, Bucharest had more than one decade to get ready for this moment and to learn from the experience of other fellows from the newcomers’ platoon, from a political perspective, but also a technical-institutional one.

On the other hand, we must say that the Romanian presidency of EU’s Council, taking place in the first semester of this year, is undertaken in the context of big strategic challenges. This is generated by the historical moment of Great Britain’s pull-out from the European Union, the negotiations of Union’s budget for the next European financial framework, 2021-2027, and the elections for the European Parliament, from May. The last one is going to have the toughest campaign ever, due to the wave of Euroscepticism and the serious contestation of the European integration’s meaning and benefits. All of these represent important challenges to the Romanian presidency’s agenda of EU’s Council including in the security and defence domain. The “transitional” presidency characteristic between the current and the future political cycle is creating another pressure for our actions, given the quite limited time at Bucharest’s authorities disposal.

In this complicated context, Romania aims to promote a pragmatic perspective, focused on the European cohesion principle for all the important domains: political, economic and social. Functioning under the motto “Cohesion, a common European value”, the Romanian presidency wants to promote a solidary, unite and strong Europe, by defining and supporting some European priorities, which can be distributed on four action pillars: (1) Europe of convergence: growth, cohesion, competitiveness, connectivity; (2) Europe of safety; (3) Europe as a global actor; (4) Europe of the common values.

As for the defence domain, taking the presidency from Austria and joining the trio together with Finland and Croatia, all states with modest military ambitions and systems is not actually an advantage in promoting a consistent agenda for the Common Security and Defence Policy / CSDP and its umbrella - Common Foreign and Security Policy / CFSP. To that end, Council’s Program for the following 18 months, prepared by the trio we are part of and published at the end of November 2018, devotes a limited space for CSDP, only listing the main implementation initiatives of the Global Strategy.


Defence stakes at the political-strategic level

Regarding the CSDP, wherefore the intergovernmental logic continues to be prevailing, the role of the semestrial presidency gets special significance, related to the importance of the coordination of national positions and the need to facilitate the consensus at the Council level. Furthermore, this current phase, which speeds up the developments from Defence Union’s area, will force our country to assume this general objective in its main components, from strategic autonomy to more specific elements regarding the implementation of the Global Strategy, like Permanent Structures Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD).

As for the strategic direction, it is possible to witness some tensions between Romania’s pro-Atlanticism traditional positions and the insistency wherewith the main Western states, firstly France and Germany, are promoting the objectives of the Europe of defence. The geopolitical changes of the international and regional context, Brexit, Trump’s administration unilateralist decisions and the last evolutions in the transatlantic relations are only weakening our country’s position. As such, it is becoming more and more difficult to define and assume a balanced attitude between the power centres from Atlantic’s two rims.

What Romania could promote as a response to this strategic dilemma is the intensification of the role and importance of EU-NATO’s special partnership, with a special focus on the complementarity of both organizations’ efforts in security and defence fields[i]. Moreover, Bucharest will have to find solutions to prove that the value of this special partnership is given not only by its political dimension, but also by very practical cooperation. Hence, it is expected for our country to insist on specific cooperation fields with the Alliance, like military mobility, cyber-defence, hybrid threats, resilience development and strategic communication. Also, it could be discussed the interlink between the European initiatives from defence and developments from NATO’s agenda, in order to guarantee with their complementarity.

On the other hand, Romanian presidency of the Council will be developed under the pressure of the deadlines and the need to present some concrete achievements at the end of the current European administration mandate. To that end, Romania committed to consolidate Union’s global profile by continuing the implementation of the Global Strategy (EUGS) and the guarantee of its tools’ effectiveness. Practically, we can expect, in the months to come, the maintenance of the momentum related to the recently launched initiatives, dedicated to European defence capabilities, mainly, PESCO, CARD and EDF.

Besides these evolutions, which are more or less self-piloted, we cannot exclude more ambitious developments in the direction of strengthening the EU strategic autonomy. An eloquent example is represented by the more and more serious discussion about the operationalization of mutual assistance clause, incorporated in article 42-7 of the Lisbon Treaty and the necessity for the member states to establish how to react in the future, in a collective way, when activated. After the first problematic activation of the clause at France’s demand, following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, the subject remained somehow in the background. We should mention that such clause of mutual support in case of an attack is the subject of the new Elysee Treaty, between France and Germany, which is about to be signed on 22 of January, in Aachen, by president Macron and chancellor Merkel.

Article 42-7 of the Lisbon Treaty and the whole discussion on the Unions’ strategic autonomy has a sound significance for the perspective of CSDP and CFSP, because it is dealing with the defence domain and it is addressing an extremely complex topic: territorial defence. Furthermore, considering the difficult evolutions of the current regional and international security environment, we expect this trend towards the development of the EU capacity to act independently in order to protect its own interests to be long lasting.

Complex technical dossiers in the defence domain

The agenda with concrete actions from defence is extremely complex in the following period. Concretely, each of the implementation initiatives of the EUGS must be advanced through actions which will involve an important negotiation effort between different member states’ positions and, in some cases, between the Council and the Parliament, respectively the Commission. We are referring to projects dedicated to the development of defence capabilities and the more and more urgent need to guarantee coherence between CARD, PESCO and EDF initiatives, in accordance with the EU’s priorities, agreed in the Capability Development Plan (CDP) and the new civil CDP.

Regarding PESCO, it is starting the effective implementation and testing phase of the used projects and mechanisms. The 34 launched projects are involving a big number of actions, in different phases of implementation, with an extremely different level of involvement from the participating member states. The immediate test in this field is the agreement on the general conditions for the third states to participate at projects developed across the initiative, given that it should be considered the participation across PESCO of some states which have a high military potential, like Norway and, in the following period, United Kingdom.

One of the most complex files for the Romanian presidency of the Council is the EDF. The first priority is the completion of the negotiations with the Parliament and the Commission regarding EDF’s regulation, with applicability in the future multiannual financial framework 2021-2017. Based on the general approach adopted by the Council in November 2018, Romania will have to negotiate the EDF’s regulation for the future period. It is worth mentioning that the consequences and the stakes of the whole process are extraordinary, at least considering the 13-billion-euro budget proposed to be allocated for EDF, in the next multiannual financial framework. Moreover, in the following period, they will have to rapidly finalize and adopt the Work Programme for the EDIDP, to actually start, as soon as possible, financing the concrete projects from capability window in 2019 and 2020.


In this area, starting with the national interests, are becoming important the encouragement and the proper support of the processes dedicated to defence industrial cooperation and research, by promoting the transborder integration of SMEs (small and medium enterprises), and those with medium capitalization in Romania. Also, the access to the European market of defence equipment, in the context of the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base Strategy (EDTIB), the participation of research entities and Romanian companies at the projects developed across the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR) and the European Defence Industrial Development Program (EDIDP) should be the success benchmarks for the next 6 months.

Other important technical field are related to the Military Mobility and Military Planning and Conduct Capability. We expect Romania to continue to support actions related to military mobility, in order to increase EU’s capacity to react to crisis in coordination and complementarity with transatlantic partners and other strategic partners, as well as the close neighbours. With the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) review currently under way, Romania will contribute to the implementation of the upcoming recommendations aimed at making the MPCC operational and a recognized, strong actor at EU military strategic level.

Across the operational domain, as one of the most important contributors to CSDP’s civil missions, Romania will have the possibility to capitalize the national expertise from this area, to guarantee a balanced and coherent development of the civil and military dimensions of CSDP, in order to effectively manage the current and emergent security challenges against Union and member states’ security interests. We expect our country to insist on the importance of the civil dimensions as an emblematic element across CSDP’s global tools and an essential tool for EU’s consolidation role as a global actor in crisis management. Romania is looking forward to boosting the implementation of the renewed strategic approach with the help of the Civilian CSDP Compact and the new Civilian Capability Development Plan.

Instead of conclusions…

In the following six months, Romania will be in the European spotlights, having, for the first time, a forefront role in the Brussels institutional and decisional architecture. Being the conductor of the debates and evolutions of the EU’s Council creates special opportunities to promote our interests on the EU agenda, including in defence.

Managing the urgent dossiers incorporated into the CSDP’s military dimension will involve, most probably, finding an equilibrium between supporting the initiatives that lead to increasing the EU’s global role by advancing the defence initiatives related to EUGS’s implementation and the important need to avoid duplication with NATO.

On the other hand, the current strategic context, which is extremely complicated, demands the development of the Union’s autonomous capacity to tackle the security challenges that have an impact over Europe and its citizens. Although common European defence is a long-term objective, now there is a real need for important steps to be made on this direction, through a consolidated partnership and a more balanced distribution of tasks with NATO. In these circumstances, Romania has the chance to make history by taking important decisions for the future of European security.


1) Taking forward the Strategic Agenda – 18 month Programme of the Council (1 January 2019 – 30 June 2020), http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-14518-2018-INIT/en/pdf

 2) PROGRAMME of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 1 January – 30 June 2019, https://www.romania2019.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/en_rogramme_ropres2019.pdf

3)European Union Institute for Strategic Studies – Planning for the future of EU defence, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Final%20Report.pdf