26 August 2020

The European defence is melting in summer’s swelter

Niculae Iancu

Four years ago, the European Commission’s president at that time, Jean-Claude Juncker, was highlighting the importance of adopting a package of unprecedented measures to consolidate the common defence. The strategic anchor was given by the great vision of a “global actor” Europe, to have an “authentic” attitude. The Europeans had to understand that it was time to get out of the deadlock of small-stake international security games. Brussels’ concern on the security developments nearby, focusing on the inside of strategic interest space was starting to become ineffective given the leaders’ ambitions for their candidatures to enter the global powers league. An extremely elitist league, yet not enough contoured, wherefore the qualification is given realistically, as it happened during the almost two centuries when drawing the power balance before the Iron Curtain collapsed. However, now, this European security complexity is intensified by the new realities revealed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Above all, today, we also have the coronavirus crisis and the hot summers of the global warming era.

Image source: Profimedia

A new ambition level for the European Commission in the common defence field

Each time we went from one international order to another, we have experienced a shock, as these transitions, which took place following the industrial revolutions rhythm, cannot be dissociated from reshaping the power architecture, firstly inside the “Great Europe” and, then, globally.

Each of the modern power congeries, starting with the “European concert”, founded after the Wien Congress, in 1815, up to the disappearance of the bipolar world, sanctioned by the Soviet Union’s collapse, at the end of 1992, revived the need to optimize the European security model and got to the current solution written in the Common Security and Defence Policy/ CSDP.

Juncker’s vision, announced in 2016, expresses a high ambition level, symbolically placed under the aegis of getting back the strategic autonomy of a still unprepared Union to truly face the international system’s challenges.

This vision was described in the Global Strategic for Foreign and Security Policy of EU, presented by the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, in front of the Commission, in June, 2016. Mogherini, when talking in behalf of all Europeans, was stating that “most of our citizens understand that we must collectively take responsibility for our role in the world. Wherever I travel, Europe’s partners expect for the Union to have a major position, including as a global security provider. Furthermore, she was placing the “security and defence” field in the “first line” of “collective actions” necessary to provide “Union’s security”. Meanwhile NATO is defending its members from foreign attacks, Europeans must be better equipped, trained and organized to provide a decisive contribution to collective efforts and to autonomously act if and when necessary. It is important to assume new adequate level of ambition and a strategic autonomy for Europe to be, eventually, able to impose peace and to safeguard the security inside and outside its borders”.

For many Europeans, it was opened, thus, the path towards creating the European Union of Defence. It seemed like the opportunity window to take the decisive step from the intergovernmental system to the community one in organizing the common defence and security was largely opening. If we accept the idea that a vision has power if built on a melting pot of values, we can better understand why the Brussels leaders started to promote, along with the traditional humanist values, which were the foundation of the Union, the necessity of supporting, through a unitary voice, the new EU international profile, in a world thought to be more and more unfriendly.

Photo: Profimedia

The European common defence package should have been better explained to the North-Atlantic Alliance

To make the global strategy objectives happen, the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission have presented, on November 14th 2016, the Implementation Plan in the security and defence field, wherefrom the EU Council issued a set of conclusions and recommendations. It comes out that to make such an ambition level a reality, the European External Action Service, the European Defence Agency and the member states must create “concrete measures” to identify the development priorities of the capabilities, mostly through: reviewing the Capabilities Development Plan from 2014; deepening the cooperation in the defence field and commonly provide necessary capabilities, including by making common operational demands, developing research-development activities and a technical-military cooperation to be more structured; reforming the EU situational awareness structures, planning and leadership and the quick response tools within the CSDP operations and missions; increasing the solidarity and financial flexibility in supporting the implementation measures; revitalizing PESCO and extending the CSDP partnerships.

Given this context, in 2017, the European initiatives package in the defence field has come to life, some of them being older, other revived. The most important initiative is the European Defence Fond package, by which the Commission wanted to prove that the common defence spending from the EU budget can become a reality. An unprecedented measure, even if initially funds are only allotted to develop future common military capabilities, were, thus, covered more by a purely technological and industrial tendency, and less by the operational one. The expected budget for the EDF, when the program was launched, was 13 billion euro for the future 2021-2027 European financial framework. Furthermore, 590 million euros have been already allotted to test the viability of the program, between 2017 and 2020. Together with EDF, the common defence package enabled the Permanent Structured Cooperation, by which funding common defence projects is supported by the will of the member states to voluntarily get involved in making common defence capabilities. PESCO is a tool created within the CSDP through the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which was, however, inactive until the new defence package was launched. Together with the two initiatives, it was also introduced a tool for the coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) by which the Commission wants to periodically control the progress of the EDF and PESCO results by reference to CDP.

Equally, it is also important the integration process of the European defence was circumspectly seen among the people interested on the European defence and security policy, who saw in creating new tools a danger to the North-Atlantic Alliance’s solidity.  That happened especially because the strategic autonomy, present in the political documents of the Commission seemed a response method to the US reductionist tendencies, emerged during the Obama Administration and transformed as preferred when negotiating Trump’s Administration strategic interests. Hereof one of the possible reasons for the Brussels leaders of the two organizations, given the implementation of the new European defence and security initiatives, to adopt more EU-NATO cooperation statements. In the Brussels July 2018 NATO Summit preview, a reunion was about to be intense due to the misunderstandings related to the Alliance’s members military spending, it was signed a common statement by which it was established “the coordinated EU-NATO action method on the common security threats”. In declaration’s text it is mentioned that the signatory parts “welcome EU efforts to bolster European security and defence to better protect the Union and its citizens and to contribute to peace and stability in the neighborhood and beyond. The Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund contribute to these objectives”. Also, to clear any doubt, the statement is punctually noting that “PESCO and EDF are contributing to making these objective happen”.

Tensions between Washington and Brussels due to the common European defence initiatives

Despite these statements, tensions burst forth between Washington and Brussels over the usefulness and implementation of common defense initiatives, considered too protectionist by Americans, who expected to enjoy a privileged status and easy access to European consortia, and , in particular, to the budget allocated by the Commission for the financing of the cooperation projects themselves. From the point of view of the US Government, such a statute would be absolutely justified, given the role of the United States as the main guarantor of European security and, in particular, the huge expenditures made for this purpose by successive administrations in the White House for the last three quarters of a century.

In fact, in May last year, senior officials in the Washington administration sent a letter to the European Commission demanding, in terms considered too "firm" by Europeans, "a ban on US access to the European defense market" and , in particular, blocking access to intellectual property embedded in the new military technologies that will be realized through EDF. Such fears have probably been intensified by the multitude of interpretations present in the public sphere regarding the meanings of the term autonomy used by the Commission in policy documents, including that of technological autonomy, which would want to reduce the gap and dependence on military technologies compared to those of the great ally overseas.

European officials responded to Washington by assuring them that the EU respects all the commitments and transparency principles to which its economy relates, that the Union will not deviate from the liberal principles of the functioning of European markets, including in the field of military technology, and that Brussels is entitled to have their own interests, as the United States naturally has.

Photo: Profimedia

A new European Commission, the same security and defence vision

The European elections and the installation of a new European Commission in 2019 have not altered the EU's strategic vision of security and defense. On the contrary, the new President of the Commission, the German Ursula von der Leyen, announced, through her European agenda, the need to take "bold steps towards a genuine European Defense Union". She also said it would "strengthen the European Defense Fund to support research and development of new capabilities". Moreover, "von der Leyen assumed a more pronounced geopolitical character for his own team, while maintaining the Juncker line on raising the Union's global profile and the need to shape" a strong and much more united [EU] voice in the world" and announced that "she will promote qualified majority voting as a rule in the field of CSDP". In a similar note, the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, Josep Borrell, told the European Parliament that "if we do not act together, Europe will become irrelevant" and called for "higher defense spending and greater determination in the deployment of EU battlegroups”.

The stimulus given to the member states by the new commission could also be seen in the volume and complexity of the projects submitted and accepted for financing under the auspices of EDF, as well as the PESCO projects launched by the end of last year. In fact, this year, the last in the period of testing the viability of working tools, everyone expected the emphasis in the management of common defense initiatives to move from quantity to quality. In this way, the latest procedural adjustments could have been made and best practices identified in view of the large funding that would have come with the new multiannual financial year 2021-2027.

Covid-19, the game changer which kneeled the European Defence

Despite all the plans, 2020 began with an unprecedented health crisis, which devastated the entire European continent. The European Union has been shaken by the isolationist and protectionist measures taken by the Member States. The borders were reactivated, solidarity disappeared, there was no common voice in the face of the plague. The first wave of the pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities of the European crisis response mechanisms. The Commission's priorities have changed overnight. After the first shock, keeping the plague under control became the first emergency. All resources have been reoriented, in the short term, towards providing medical and health support to member states, and in the medium term, to support the transition of economies over the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Amid these disruption and uncertainties, Germany took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, in early July. "Difficult negotiations at very difficult times for all Europeans" immediately followed, according to Charles Michel, President of the European Council, at the end of a tour led by the Heads of State and Government on 17-21 July. "A successful marathon for all 27 Member States, but especially for citizens", said Michel, announcing the adoption of a "comprehensive package of EUR 1 824.3 billion, combining the multiannual financial framework (MFF) [EUR 1 074.3 billion] and an extraordinary recovery effort under the Next Generation EU tool”, worth of EUR 750 billion. The latter is "the main tool for implementing the recovery package to deal with the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic".

In this whole new context created by the pandemic, the MFF foresees a total of only 13.2 billion euros for "resilience, security and defense", with EDF being included, but also the much more established Internal Security Fund (ISF) and all other initiatives in the fields of security and defence, which will benefit from funding from the Community budget. Public data show that EDF's budget has dropped by almost half, from the previously announced 13 billion to just seven billion in the current budget structure, which will fund future "cross-border" research and development projects for new equipment and military technologies.

However, if we balance all the contextual data, it seems that the agreed budget is a success, rather than a failure, to continue implementing common defence initiatives, even if it will be done after a harder path than estimated on the background of initial enthusiasm. Over the last four years, the position of the Member States on how to implement the vision of a global Union has been extremely diverse, as has been seen in the degree of capital involvement in supporting or participating in the implementation of the common defense package tools, including through contributions to missions and operations carried out under the EU standard. The states of the former communist bloc, especially those on the eastern border of the Union, fear that advancing the integration of European defense may jeopardize NATO's solidity, the only viable security guarantee in the face of the region's dangers, especially given the increasing Russian threat. At the same time, these states, along with the Nordic countries more closely connected to the US military technology and industrial market, have some suspicions about the real purpose of European technological cooperation initiatives, which would in fact seek to facilitate sales made by the big French and German companies, wherewith the Italian and Spanish producers are very close, the four countries being, by far, the main beneficiaries of funds under the current EDF. And to make the equation even more complicated, states with Euro-skeptic regimes, such as Hungary, which invariably take a stand against any initiative to deepen integration, may also be brought to attention.

Photo: Profimedia

The path towards the European Union of Defence must go on

Despite the swelter and the coronavirus fever heat, pro-Europeanism must continue to bring optimism at the debate table over the future of a united Europe. Times are complicated, not only in Europe, but especially internationally. Threats diversify and amplify every day. The causes are multiple and complex. It manifests itself in all conventional and unconventional directions of operation of the international system. The global post-Cold War order is facing unprecedented challenges. More and more signs indicate the entry into a new paradigm of international security, whose stakes and rules have not yet been clearly defined, but the players are gathering at the starting line. At such a time, the EU's soft profile is no longer enough. The proof was given by the quasi-non-existence of the Union in the conflicts management in Syria or Ukraine, as well as by the much more recent incident caused by Turkey's arrogant ignorance of French forces under the EU flag in the Eastern Mediterranean or unprecedented tensions between Turkey, still a member state candidate, and Greece, a member state with full rights.

If there are common strategic interests for the whole area of the Union, then their promotion and protection requires geopolitical scope and credible military capabilities. Getting power cannot be achieved overnight, without sustained efforts and in lacking the honest will and contribution of all stakeholders. Gaining international relevance involves overcoming the last frontier facing the completion of the European Defense Union, by delegating responsibility for defense at Union’s level. Global player status implies the existence of a European strategic culture, a new type of security and defense policy, a new institutional architecture for planning and conducting military operations, a European army model, as well as new cross-border research chains, development and production of European defense capabilities.

The integration of European defence and security must continues wisely, and the final step should be a true NATO European defence pillar, able to deter and defend globally, projected following the fair distribution among partners on both Atlantic’s coasts of the Euro-Atlantic security responsibility.

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Translated by Andreea Soare