19 November 2019

The European Defence Fund and PESCO ahead the “brain death of NATO”

Niculae Iancu | Gheorghe Tibil

The recent statement of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, on “NATO’s brain death” has blindsided everyone through its frankness and cynism. The whole interview the president had with The Economist draws the attention, again, on the political balance of the transatlantic cooperation, affected by the trust shortfall between Alliance’s two bridgeheads during the last two years.

Image source: Mediafax

The latest developments related to the Syrian crisis and their consequences for NATO’s unity and the transatlantic solidarity, given the situation of the international climate and the continuous disputes related to Donald Trump’s unpredictable attitude on Europe’s defence and security seems to offer Elysee’s leader the unique motivation to force, within this whole fight spirit of “now or never” battle cry, the materialization of Paris’s elite strategic vision on the European strategic autonomy. The meaning of the recent developments of the European Defence Package initiatives seem to follow this direction. The question would be: how much of a strategic defence convergence exists between the main European capitals and how far are the EU member states willing to go on this path promoted by Macron?

Macron and the new impulse in European Defence direction

 Since taking power, president Macron was the greatest promotor of the “European technological and military sovereignty concept”, in a world full of security pressures. With such challenges in the background, the international security foresight offered during The Economist interview raises concerns for every European observer of global developments. “So, firstly, Europe is gradually losing track of its history; secondly, a change in American strategy is taking place; thirdly, the rebalancing of the world goes hand in hand with the rise—over the last 15 years—of China as a power, which creates the risk of bipolarization and clearly marginalizes Europe. And add to the risk of a United States/China “G2” the re-emergence of authoritarian powers on the fringes of Europe, which also weakens us very significantly. This re-emergence of authoritarian powers, essentially Turkey and Russia, which are the two main players in our neighborhood policy, and the consequences of the Arab Spring, creates a kind of turmoil.” Particularly, “In the eyes of President Trump, and I completely respect that, NATO is seen as a commercial project. He sees it as a project in which the United States acts as a sort of geopolitical umbrella, but the trade-off is that there has to be commercial exclusivity, it’s an arrangement for buying American products. France didn’t sign up for that.”

In fact, Paris has followed its own path during this entire period, through the critical messages sent from the highest level, focusing on the need to redefine Alliance’s strategic profile, along with the “complementary” development of a better individualized European defence in the Euro-Atlantic space and a more consistent defence in terms of vision and capabilities. We can see in his speech the recurrence of fundamental joint defence topics. The leitmotiv of the forceful messages is supported by the semantic construction “European security”, along with many ambiguities in terms of its coincidence with “European Union’s security”, a concept placed under the aegis of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), promoted by Brussels.

Also, Macron is often criticizing Union’s current priorities, which would continue to focus too much on economic objectives than on the political integration, the foundation of a united Europe since its very beginning. Moreover, through such statements, the French president is criticizing also the frankness of EU’s social and economic policies priority, promoted by Berlin, whose magnitude gives Germany the legitimacy of taking bloc’s leader chair. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that CSDP’s governmental nature has led to the situation wherein these progresses are highly dependent on EU’s member states national interests’ convergence and the political will, which are normally opposed, especially of Great Britain, France and Germany. BREXIT takes London out and, therefore, Germany remains France’s most important partner in developing a homogenous European profile in security and defence, by developing concrete bilateral projects, politically and procedurally, but also in the industrial cooperation field. Paris has also promoted, for the past two years, some operational cooperation solutions in “European defence” field, such as the European Intervention Initiative, which are definitely placed outside Union’s military cooperation institutional framework.  France proposes European states’ voluntary participation at the establishment of a joint defence resources package of the adherent states, hoping that such a construction will ensure a better reaction time in crisis situations, by avoiding, but also eroding, Brussels’ slow decision mechanisms.

However, there are no guarantees that such solution will actually bring the expected results. But, as Macron himself states, they will have to successfully pass the “stress test” before actually declaring that the European defence capacity got strengthened. Furthermore, the president thinks that the “solidarity clause” will bring more benefits for the states interested in Paris’s offers, than to France, which knows how to “defend itself”, especially that it will remain, after Brexit, the only nuclear power inside EU. Such a remark is not a coincidence at all, but it is following Paris’s old directions, suggesting a possible European role for the French nuclear deterrence capabilities. Additionally, the reference to solidarity, foreseen in Article 42-7 of the Lisbon Treaty and the inclusion of a similar provision in the Elysee Treaty, signed at the beginning of this year by president Macron and chancellor Merkel is proving the importance that Paris gives to this symbolic element for the future of European defence.


PESCO and EDF- updated developments

The good news for Brussels would be that Emmanuel Macron has also underlined, among the measures promoted by France in European defence field, the European Defence Fund (EDF), in fact, the most important initiative within the European defence package launched by Juncker’s Commission in 2016.

The elaboration of EDF brings to the foreground a new approach of the European defence field. Consequently, this initiative has got defence research experts and actors’ attention. EDF was launched in June 2017, aiming at supporting the investments in research and the joint development of the defence technologies and equipment, with a two-phased approach- a “pilot” period in the current 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework, which has a 590 million euro budget, and the elaboration of a Fund for the 2021-2027 period, but a budget worth of 13 million euro.

The new dynamic imposed by the Juncker Commission in defence is based on three main pillars: a component which is based on member states’ political will-PESCO; a coordination tool of the operational tasks represented by the Capabilities Development Plan (CDP), jointly elaborated by EDA and the member states and a program for the joint funding, for the first time, of the future capabilities-EDF. This initiative is currently organized on two “windows”, the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR) and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP).  Starting with 2021, both windows will enter a new EDF programme, which is more consistent and seamless.  By the end of the current Commission’s mandate, we are witnessing a series of ambitious developments for each component, proving that Juncker’s team increasingly active in terms of defence, following the objectives promoted by the Paris and Berlin leaders.

Under PESCO’s aegis, after the previous implementation of 34 projects, within the ministerial reunion held on November 12th, it was approved a new series of 13 projects, among them being included also two projects coordinated by Romania- the Training polygon in CBRN field and the European Network of Divers Centers. PESCO is a cooperation framework for the EU member states which decide to join forces and elaborate projects with national budgets for the development of military capabilities that are defined by CDP as highly important. Some analysts are already expressing some concerns in terms of the quick quantitative reproduction of these projects, which could negatively affect the consistency and credibility of the entire initiative.  

In the press conference held after the reunion mentioned above, the High EU Representative has implicitly admitted the need for the following years to be dedicated to implement the approved projects within the EU Council and the evaluation of their effectiveness through concrete results. Also, there are still unclear the criteria and the participation principles of the third states to PESCO projects, directly affecting the transatlantic relations. The American authorities have repeatedly expressed their concerns on the restrictions related to US’s participation to PESCO, suggesting that they will also put limits to the European actors which are participating to common projects coordinated by the American government. Despite the high number of PESCO projects, the think-tanks are quite sceptic in terms of these projects’ capacity to actually reach EU’s strategic autonomy goal.

As for EDF, we are witnessing important development on both dimension of the current pilot phase- PADR and EDIDP, presented in our previous estimations on this topic.

It is noteworthy mentioning that the logic of defining and adopting the EDIDP Work Programme for 2019 and 2020, the included projects categories and the competitive soliciting processes on these types of projects works following union’s classic governance, as Commission’s proposals must be accepted by the qualified majority of the member states.

Therefore, despite the financial aspect, the member states should cooperate to define and promote common projects by creating consortiums. This is probably the most important element of the new EDIDP/ EDF approach directed towards capabilities, aiming at promoting the change of institutional culture, so that the defence minister from different European countries to start using the union to materialize their own military capabilities modernization programs. A second impulse is pushing the major European integrators of military technique systems to be more open towards SMEs from other European countries, which should also slowly lead to stronger connections between the national defence industries and, implicitly, to bringing together actors from industry and research from states that do not have strong European cooperation tradition, such as the Center and East Europe.

On the other hand, this approach should lead to overcoming the geographic obstacles, which, as we have previously seen in the European projects related to military capabilities development, it could be extremely difficult and counterproductive. As for EDIDP/EDF, the logic works differently, as the states which want to get contracts funded through common funds, must underlie the effectiveness of the proposed projects, evaluated considering the operational impact, the contribution to the European strategic autonomy and the cross-border cooperation capacity. Time will show how EDIDP’s both iterations will manage to convince that the new vision is viable, especially that none of the projects initiated in the first two years within PADR had any important results until now.

From a normative perspective, we must underline that the European Council and Parliament have got to an agreement on EDF, at the end of February 2019, and the former parliament has adopted the EDF regulation on April 18. However, there are some concerns that the new European Parliament will restart the sensitive discussions related to Fund’s regulation, like the coordinator role of the European Commission and the participation criteria and norms of third parts in EDF projects. We can hardly believe that the focus on European preference criteria will come to an end, given that EDF’s main objective is the development of a European common base of defence research and industry, by funding these projects with union’s budget. The financial aspects of the Fund will be subjected to the agreement of EU’s future long-term budget, but the negotiations on this topic may raise a negative influence on the allocation of the 13 billion euro initially promise, especially if the entire topic is regarded following president Macron’s statements.


Despite the self-assumed “clarity” of Emmanuel Macron’s messages, a strategic security analysis cannot be made by using these lens only, even if it has nuclear power casts. Therefore, we should not ignore the critics against the French vision assumed at the highest security and defence political responsibility German level. German chancellor Angela Merkel has stated in a common press conference, supported along the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, that “Macron’s view does not correspond to mine”, and that “NATO is the cornerstone of security for Germany”. Also, the German Foreign Affairs Minister, Heiko Maas, has reiterated “Alliance’s importance led by US” and it also said that “It would be a mistake to undermine NATO”. Moreover, the German Minister of Defence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has “talked in NATO’s defence”, within a conference in Berlin. However, the German officials have also noted the cooperation and coordination shortfall between allies in the last period and have underlined the importance of strengthening the European defence cooperation. Following this logic, Maas has mentioned that “we want a strong and sovereign Europe, but as part of a strong NATO, not Alliance’s alternative”, which is also Angela Merkel’s position.

The opportunity and the current political will to advance and make progresses in terms of European defence has produced results in fields like: the operationalization of the Operations’ planning and conduction military capabilities/ EU’s autonomous military command, PESCO’s promotion and the approach of a large capabilities spectrum, European Commission’s role consolidation in defence by launching EDIDP and EDF and the use of EU’s budget to fund the defence field, for the first time ever in Union’s history. The establishment of a General Directorate for the Defence and Space Industry in the future Commission framework, under the leadership of the commissioner for internal market (the French Thierry Breton), is an important step in that direction.

But these new initiatives are still at an early stage, and the strategic perspectives differences between the EU member states, strengthened by French president’s statements on NATO’s crisis, are not but increasing the skepticism regarding the European defence project’s chances. Given these circumstances, concurrently with keeping NATO the main European security guarantor, we will be witnessing the continuous efforts to increase EU’s ability to act autonomously and consistently in the military field, without questioning the transatlantic connection. However, for this vision to actually become reality, they must continue the allocation focused and coordinated by important resources for the European security, EU’s initiatives in the field being the main engine of the current developments in common defence domain.

Translated by Andreea Soare