31 July 2019

The European Defence Agency, still in search of its identity 15 years later

Niculae Iancu | Gheorghe Tibil

Created 15 years ago as an inter-governmental organism with the aim to support the processes of developing EU defence capabilities, the European Defence Agency (EDA) had a relatively upwards trajectory in its involvement into what we generously call “European defence”. Through its legal status, mandate, large involvement and flexible work mechanisms, the EDA was an important factor in advancing defence integration processes throughout the Union. On the other hand, if we look at it more closely, we can see that the agency has yet to bring any spectacular results, in terms of added value, such as major development programs for significant Union-wide military systems.

Image source: Mediafax

The paradigm shift brought by the Juncker team through assuming defence as a priority and adding the field into the Commission’s area of action has resulted, for the first time, in a promise of consistent funding for the research and development of defence means from EU funds. This also brought new responsibilities for the EDA, which thus begins to become an instrument with an important potential to support the interest of member states and the EU Council in common security and defence. It remains to be seen how the capitals will decide to play the EDA card, in supporting its ascension through regulations, financing and, finally, by delegating it the responsibility to run major programs with over-national requirements and benefits.

Short historical retrospective

In the context of operationalizing the PESA institutional framework, at the junction between the second and third millenniums, member states felt the need to establish a new actor, which would complement the military structures created by replicating those from NATO. In these conditions in June 2003, the European Council decided in a meeting in Thessaloniki to establish an inter-governmental agency for developing defence capabilities, research, purchases and weaponry. One year later on July 12, 2004, the Council adopted its Joint Action establishing the EDA (2004/551/PESC), with a set of ambitious responsibilities, regarding the development of capabilities to handle crises, the consolidation of EU cooperation in the military area,  the development of the European industrial and technological bases for defence, the establishment of an EU market for military systems and equipment which would be competitive internationally and, lastly, increasing the efficiency of European research and development in defence technology.

Since the beginning, the agency was created and structured on the principle of voluntary participation of member states and variable geometry, which ensured the flexibility necessary to become involved in the various programs carried out through it, and took into account the existing differences in specific sensibilities, military capacities and the defence spending of various states. At the same time, the variable geometry mechanism allowed for the ad-hoc grouping of member-states interested to launch more ambitious projects and, at the same time, offered the possibility to associated third party states or institutions, agencies and international organization to EDA programs.

In these conditions, the vast majority of EU member states decided to join the agency from its beginning, with the exception of Denmark, which maintained its self-exclusion clause, in accordance with its general stance on European defence. The agency also signed administrative agreements with Norway (2006), Switzerland (2012), Serbia (2013) and Ukraine (2015), which allowed these states to take part in its projects and programs, as third parties. All these administrative arrangements are approved by the European Council, and the agency’s chief is responsible with negotiating these dispositions in accordance with directives issued by the EDA’s Steering Board.

The Lisbon Treaty, enacted on December 1, 2009, contributed to the growth of the agency’s importance, by giving it new attributions alongside those established previously, such as identifying requests for member states capabilities and promoting the harmonization of defence purchases. Therefore, through revising the Council Decision (PESC) 2015/1835 regarding the agency’s statute and operative rules, on October 12, 2015 resulted in three main objectives: to support the development of defence and military cooperation capabilities between member states; to stimulate research and development of defence technology and strengthen the European defence industry; to establish a military interface with the other EU polices.

Funding, organization and work mechanisms

Funded by member states, the EDA manages an annual budget which barely passes EUR30 million. However, carrying out the different programs and ad-hoc collaboration projects from its own agenda, including through the use of OCCAR, implies a total budget of between EUR100-250 million. The total number of personnel is of approximately 170 experts hired directly by the EDA or deployed from member states, distributed among three important operational directorates: Industry, Synergies and Enablers (ISE); Capabilities, Armament and Planning (CAP); Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI).

The EDA acts as a catalyst, with the scope to encourage collaboration between member states, launch new initiatives and bring new solutions to improve defence capabilities, according to the strategic priority of each state, operative requirements or their interest in specific programs. Based on these elements, member states decide how much they will take part in the different programs in the agency’s portfolio, with the EDA ready to support specific initiatives, starting with those promoted by at least two actors. This makes EDA flexible and enables the variable geometry which describes its systems of implementing projects. At the same time, this marks a distinction between member states which take part in the agency’s activities in general, and member states which are directly involved in various specific projects.

The EDA specifically carries out three types of projects, which the EU jargon differentiates into projects that are fully funded and implemented by the agency, such as various studies, and ad-hoc projects of “type A” and “type B”. The first type of projects generally aims to make conceptual studies and other types of analyses of interest for member states, which can later lead to more advanced projects within the other two types. Type A ad-hoc projects involve a large participation of member states, with a voluntary withdrawal clause, while type B projects are launched as an enhanced cooperation among a restricted group of member states. Despite this, type B projects are later opened up to the other EDA members, with a flexible join-in clause, which allows member states initially more reticent to wait for the first results, and to request participation after. Type B projects are easier to launch and are, therefore, more frequent in the EDA’s current activity.  

An attempt at a provisional review, from the initial Defence Package programs and the potential increase of the EDA’s role

Throwing a retrospective glance on the EDA’s 15 years of existence, we can identify three important phases of evolution, directly influenced by the way in which member states and European leadership approached the area of defence and solid efforts of integration in this field. In a first phase, immediately after its creation and until the first Capability Development Plan(CDP) was shaped in 2009, we can talk about an initial phase of growing and outlining work mechanisms, which resulted in the development of various studies and the launch of less relevant projects for member states, such as the “Pooling & Sharing” initiative and the Code of Conduct.  Afterwards came stage of implementing the CDP, during which there was a proliferation of programs and projects destined to develop new capabilities, such as force protection, the future soldier, the European transport fleet or reception cells for satellite communications. At the same time, the cooperation with OCCAR was formalized, with an important role in the development of future EDA programs.

Furthermore, major initiatives and projects continued to be more of an exception rather than a rule on the agency’s agenda. In order to somehow make up for the member states’ relatively low appetite for such programs and their tendency to conserve a rather modest profile for the EDA, a top-down approach was decided at the European Council in December 2013, through which heads of states and government approved four major capabilities’ programs proposed and prepared by the agency, with the aim of approaching critical deficits in the field and also to support the European defence industry: 1. air-to-air refuelling of aircrafts (AAR); 2. remote-controlled  aircraft systems; 3. government satellite communications and 4. cyberdefence.

The current stage starts with the drafting and adopting of the European Defence Package, as a direct effect of the implementation of the EU’s Global Strategy for Security and Defence, and creates a series of opportunities and challenges to grow the EDA’s role and responsibilities. The end of 2016 saw a series of firsts in European defence proposed by High Representative Federica Mogherini, who presented an unprecedent level of ambition for Brussels in the field of common defence, justified by the Juncker vision to attain the EU’s strategic autonomy, as a premise towards winning a credible role in the future competition of great powers which will dominate the international system in the decades to come. Essentially, there will be a regrouping of some defence initiatives and mechanisms, such as the adoption of new initiatives, with the potential to produce the “shock” necessary in order to change mentalities, practices and results. Among these, the idea of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), introduced through the Lisbon Treaty in 2019, was basically resurrected in December 2017, when member states decided to consistently become involved and assume a greater responsibility in respecting commitments towards realizing common defence capabilities with national funding. Therefore, PESCO projects took off, and the initiative became an indispensable element for the political discourse of EU officials to justify investments into European defence, the last frontier before the Union becomes fully integrated. From here, there are also numerous confusions surrounding the sense and purpose of PESCO. Some observers in the field overlay the initiative to near-identicality with the Common Defence and Security Policy, giving it a political dimension which is not proper for a technical work instrument, while others said that PESCO equals the very contested idea of a European army recently promoted by France and Germany. The EDA ensures PESCO’s secretariat, together with the European External Action Service and the EU’s Military Staff. The EDA’s responsibilities support the annual assessment of the contribution of PESCO member states to its capabilities, as is mentioned on the agency’s official page. At the same time, the EDA coordinates the assessment of project proposals and grants assurances to member states that there are no duplicates of PESCO projects in initiatives developed within other institutional contexts

At the same time with PESCO, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) was launched, a mechanism destined for cooperation on the member states’ priorities and the exchange of relevant national information in order to ensure the availability of modern force structures for the EU. The EDA also ensures CARD’s secretariat, together with the EU Military Staff, on behalf of which it collects information from member states regarding defence plans and spending, as well as the priorities for developing EU capabilities which result from the CDP.

Maybe the most important CDP initiative, and certainly the most innovatory, is the European Defence Fund (EDF), of which I comprehensively wrote about when it was launched. Today, after three years of testing the idea and implementation mechanisms, the EDF is prepared to begin its mature phase, in which the European Commission considers allotting it some unprecedent budgets from common R&D funds for future defence capabilities. Practically, through the EDF, the Commission aims to develop a culture of collaboration for realizing common projects with the sensibility specific to the military field, and also to realize an integrated European R&D infrastructure for military technologies, in which national affiliation will take a backseat. In the current stage of validating the concept of technical integration of European defence, from operative requirements up to the establishment of multinational capabilities with multiple beneficiaries, the initiative is manifested on two complementary levels, named “windows” in the Commission’s documents, one destined for research and the other for the development of military capabilities, up until the point where there can be a technological transfer towards production. After 2021, the EDF will function in an unitary manner, under a unique governance and in a convergent sense towards consistently expected results, at least if we report to the total planned funding sums, which will reach EUR13 billion over seven years, with a potential to be multiplied five times, according the Commission’s estimations, depending on the level of success and the availability of member states to support it with national funds. Currently, the EDA plays a central role within EDF, benefitting from a competency assignment from the Commission to directly manage the research window, with another role of providing expertise for the capability window, which is still in the first place of filing proposals for initial projects competition.

It is expected that, based on how the new European leaders which will be appointed at the helm of European competitions until the end of this year will treat the issue of common defence, the EDA’s role in managing the CDP will increase, both in how involved it is as an agency, as well as through its involvement in the EDA’s experts different organizational roles and in the accomplishment of objectives resulted from the common European vision.

Instead of conclusions… Romania and the EDA

Romania became an EDA member state once it acceded to the EU, on January 1, 2007. Our country’s participation to the agency’s programs and initiatives has been rather modest, below the potential offered for the need to modernize our own defence capabilities and below the level of involvement shown by other Central and Eastern European states. Immediately after its accession, Romania created self-inflicted vulnerabilities in the relationship with Brussels, as it is the only agency member state which has not adhered to its Code of conduct for defence purchases. In more than 10 years of being a part of the EDA, our country has not initiated any important project, and its participation to projects in general was mostly reduced to those involving most member states. In the same idea of irrelevancy, we also find inconsistent involvement and sporadic participation to technological R&D actions coordinated by the agency, which will have negative effects on the long and medium-term on the chances of linking Romanian research in the area to European developments.

Currently, developments concerning the EDF and the Commission’s transformation into an important player in the field of European defence transforms the EDA into a special instrument to promote the interest of member states, especially the medium and smaller ones. The potential insertion of defence into the Union’s logic, as a result of Commission-funded R&D of military capabilities, will have the effect of applying the qualified majority decision mechanisms, which would make it nearly impossible in the future for Central and Eastern European states to make a blocking minority, as their interests could be affected by the future decision on allotting defence funds.

On the other hand, the fact that states and important players from the European defence industry have reservations in using the agency to launch major programs which could define the future evolution of European defence  - such as the fifth generation fighter jets (Future Air Combat System/FCAS, recently launched by France, Germany and Spain) or the future European tank (European Main Battle Tank/EMBT, developed by France and Germany) – signal the tendency to maintain the EDA at a rather reduced profile in the European defence’s future complex institutional equation. Towards this same conclusion leads the relative irrelevant manner in which the process of the EDA’s long-term revision, carried out in 2016 and 2017, took place, having been finalized with adopting rather modest conclusions when compared to the current real need to redefine the agency’s role.

It remains to be seen how much the future evolution in the field of European defence will lead to the establishment of a critical mass of states, with Romania’s direct involvement, interested in increasing the EDA’s “institutional weight” in relation to the European Commission, in the sense of preserving the capital’s specific interest and stances, especially with regards to defence activities funded by the Union.

Translated by Ionut Preda