05 May 2020

The European military mobility, blocked by COVID-19

Niculae Iancu

The negotiations to complete the EU 2021-2027 multiannual budget seem to be extremely complicated, due to the continuous worsening of coronavirus pandemic’s effects over the European economy. The priorities of the German EU Council presidency, from the second half of this year, will be the economic revival, making flexible the financial tools and the consolidation of the medical environment, all strongly impacting the long and medium term budgets. The defence and security fields seem to be the most affected by the financial cuts and reallocations. In fact, the most recent work plan of the Commission shows important cuts in the money dedicated to new European initiatives in the common defence field. However, due to the current security paradigm changes, it seems that security expressed in power terms will be increasingly important in establishing a global power balance, and the new ambition level announced by the European Commission lately foresees a place at the elitist table of big powers. A new European security dilemma.

Image source: U.S. Army Europe

Divergences between North and South in terms of financial priorities

The main priority of union’s leaders is minimizing as much as possible the negative impact of COVID-19 over the European economy, given the increased divergences between Union’s North and South. States in the North, Netherlands and Germany particularly, refuse the idea of assuming a common budget deficit, which raises questions on the semantic synonymy of solidarity and unity in the political language of each state. Countries in South of the continent, the most affected by the pandemic, are asking for more flexibility when it comes to distributing the money between the European budget chapters and also the adaptation of financial measures, to an unseen level for the management of epidemic’s devastating effects.

Such disputes are putting a lot of pressure on the final negotiations of the following multiannual financial framework, which should get to a common denominator, during the German presidency of the EU Council, to start on July 1st. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, already said she is supporting the use of the following multiannual budget as a base for the European economy’s revival, when stating that she will include “a stimulus package that will guarantee the Union's cohesion through solidarity and responsibility”. Furthermore, von der Leyen stated, in a speech held in front of the European Parliament, that “we will need massive investments to revive our economies. We need a Marshall Plan for Europe’s recovery, which must start immediately. We have only one tool accepted by all member states for that. And that is the European budget. The European budget will be the flagship of our recovery”.

Moreover, the Commissions’ President asked for “Italy’s sincere apologies for not being there at the beginning of this crisis”. This is a light consolidation for Rome’s government and the entire south Europe, hit by the pandemic. In fact, given that Spain became the most affected European country, the Spanish prime-minister, Pedro Sanchez, also talked about the necessity of a Marshall Plan and asked “Europe to establish a wartime economy and put in place measures for the defense, the reconstruction and the economic recovery of Europe”, stating that “if the virus knows no borders, the financing mechanisms mustn't either”.

On the other hand, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that the German presidency will focus on diminishing the social and economic effects of the pandemic. Equally, Berlin will want for the future European budget to include consistent measures for environment’s protection, accordingly with the European Green Deal, as well as important amounts of money for the development of a joint European health system.

Given the financial construction, anticipated to be somewhere between 5 and 10% of member states’ economies’ GDP and the social, ecologic and health priorities that are extremely expensive of the future European common defence, it is unclear which will be the financial impact on the common defence.

The European military mobility stays a Euro-Atlantic priority?

The European media published some information in the most recent version of the European Commission’s plan on the future multiannual budget, which suggests that funding the common defence portfolio’s initiatives meets a free fall. For example, the civil-military dual transport infrastructure’s funding budget within the military mobility program decreased from the €6,5 billion, the initial amount, to “€2.5 billion under the Finnish presidency negotiating box, to €1.5 billion under Council president Charles Michel’s proposal, to potentially zero funding in the Commission’s latest technical document”. The 6,5  billion € represented only the co-funding quota, 50% of the foreseen ratio, which would have reached around €13 billion only for some investments in the dual use infrastructure, for the 2021-2017 period.

The military mobility program wants to simplify and normalize the transit procedures through borders of the railway, highway and air or maritime military transports, to provide free circulation of the military personnel and equipment inside Union’s borders. In other words, program’s purpose would be the establishment of a “Military Schengen”, as called by many interested in this project. The military mobility is not only EU’s objective, but also a NATO and US priority, given the many transport issues the European allied forces faced during the military exercises or the start of some common missions inside the union’s space. Hereof, the freedom of movement of military equipment and personnel inside the EU was integrated in the 2017 Global Strategy for Foreign Policy and Security. When program’s Action Plan was launched, in March 2018, the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, was saying that providing military mobility “will make us able to prevent crises, be more effective in our missions and quicker in our response to challenges. It will be a new step for our cooperation within EU and with our partners, firstly with NATO”.

Given the existence of a complete package of political stimulants – strategic relevance, PESC and PESA action priority, common interest with NATO and pressure from the US – the union’s financial component of military mobility was placed by the Commission in the financial tool “Connecting Europe Facility” (CEF), where it should compete with all programs dedicated to developing a joint trans-European network in transport, energy and digital services fields. Here is also where there are the funds for the completion of an Energy Union or for the ambitious objectives of Europe’s climatic neutrality, with huge political stakes, wherefore the Commission must offer substantial resources, regardless of the circumstances. Bear in mind that the total CEF budget for the 2014-2020 period is over 30 billion euro, wherefrom more than 34 billion are dedicated to transport.

On the other hand, the military mobility program is based on the voluntary financial contribution of the 23 member states, including Romania, which agreed to fund from their national budgets the consolidation of project’s objectives. Their technical coordination is provided by the European Defence Agency, which supports the common effort with experts, offers analysis reports and reorganize events.

The European military mobility was pulled over

“Europe’s armed forces are rightfully being applauded for their efforts in limiting the disastrous effects of COVID-19, but the test of whether European militaries are truly valued will be measured over the next few years as pressure on defence budgets mount”, are stating some European security and defence policy analysts. The possible underfunding or even cancellation of common funds’ co-funding of military mobility will pressure even more the national defence budgets, if the 23 participant states will still want to continue the project.

The possible decrease or freezing of the program will firstly affect the states in the former communist bloc, whose transport infrastructures is still under the Western standards, but which could be the first to be surcharged if the security situation on the eastern border of EU and NATO will get worse. The premises are all the more pessimistic as the defence costs will be seriously affected by crisis’s effects, at least in absolute budgetary values, even if the 2% of GDP objectives will be accomplished within NATO. The NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, asked the member states to maintain the defence costs’ level, despite pandemic’s shock, underlining the important role of military capabilities in major non-military crises management. Undoubtedly such a message was extremely necessary, but will it be enough given the new European economic context?

Eurostat data shows that, in 2018, the total defence costs of the EU-27 member states was 1,2% of a €15 billion GDP, following the COFOG model. The Industries Commissioner of the European Commission, Thierry Breton, was recently stating that there will be another 5-10% contraction of the European economy, which could mean a 7,5% recession, leading to a EU states’ defence budget decrease with around €21 billion. But only if a new pandemic wave will not emerge until the end of this year, as most forecasts show.

Who will pay for pandemic’s reimbursement?

The numbers are all the more worrying as the international security tensions from the last 5 to 10 years are increasing. These are highly alarming as most of the crisis focal points are just near the European space, and the consensus is harder to get in Brussels, both at EU and NATO’s headquarters. When the big European chancelleries were getting used to the idea of costs’ increase within the Alliance, as previously agreed, especially under White House’s current Administration’s pressure, now they have to rethink their priorities for the post-coronavirus period. There were already announced serious structural reform intentions of large socio-economic fields and sectors, and then the reforms are done perfectly, solutions ask for a lot of money.

Therefore, we can hardly predict if the military mobility will continue to be a European defence priority, just as it is difficult to say what is going to happen with the PESCO’s 46 projects or the projects from the European Defence Fund program, wherefore the Commission was promising a least €1 billion euro per year for the following multiannual financial framework.

English version by Andreea Soare