The multiple crises that have hit the European Union (EU) have damaged political cohesion within and between member states. Notably after the Brexit vote, there is growing awareness in many capitals that without a renewed investment in the European project, the latter may unravel. With key countries such as France and Germany facing elections in 2017, the prospects for injecting new momentum into European integration are sobering. In this context, the leaders of 27 EU member states meeting in Bratislava in September put internal and external security and defence at the core of their roadmap for further action. However, is there political space to make progress at the EU level in one of the most jealously preserved precincts of national sovereignty, namely defence policy?
At a time of renationalisation of the political discourse and practice in several capitals, this idea seems far-fetched. The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU has been in limbo for years, with inadequate capabilities and decision-making structures mirroring inadequate political will or common ground among member states. As President Obama’s second terms draws to a close, Europe is arguably more strategically dependent on the US for its security than it was when Obama took office in 2009.
Yet a number of factors point to at least some potential for progress in defence matters. Defence is seen as a critical part of the response to both pressing threats spanning borders and a genuine demand for security from European citizens. Europeans are conscious of the fact that any future US administration will demand more from them as security providers and will not be willing or able to resolve major conflicts or crises around Europe on its own. Hence the need to take steps towards ‘strategic autonomy’, as the new EU Global Strategy (EUGS) put it, to both provide for EU security and be better partners in NATO. The Brexit vote has indicated that the UK, long opposed (with others) to deepening many aspects of defence cooperation at the EU level, may no longer be in a position to block it. Besides, while the Eurozone and refugee crises have polarised Europe, there is a relative consensus that more cooperation is required in the security and defence area, as national resources are simply insufficient.
Based on that, the debate has rekindled in Europe about a large security and defence agenda that includes three main inter-related dimensions. These are the implementation of the EUGS on security and defence (with a focus on revamping the CSDP); the elaboration of the Commission’s Defence Action Plan to strengthen the technological and industrial bases of European defence and the follow-up to the EU-NATO Declaration adopted at the NATO summit in Warsaw.
A broad consensus on these priorities does not necessarily amount, however, to convergence on the ways and means to achieve them. The national initiatives of the last few weeks and the informal meeting of defence ministers in Bratislava in late September have exposed enduring differences among member states. For Paris and Berlin, the defence dossier fits respective national priorities and can be a vehicle to add new fuel to the tired Franco-German engine in the EU. For France, the idea of strengthening Europe’s strategic autonomy matches a long-standing national goal. The new German security and defence White Paper acknowledges that the country needs to take more responsibility in security affairs and that NATO and the EU are the main vectors for that. In June 2016, Paris and Berlin produced a ‘European Security Compact’ to reinforce Europe’s internal and external security, followed by a joint paper by their defence ministers in September. Italy has, for its part, produced a set of far-reaching recommendations to strengthen European defence, including the idea of establishing a permanent European Multinational Force.
Despite some differences of tone and substance, the Franco-German and the Italian initiatives shared a considerable amount of common ground. They stressed the need to establish permanent military and civilian planning and conduct capabilities to run CSDP operations, to make rapid reaction forces readily deployable, to boost defence research and to create incentives for defence cooperation among member states, among other points. Both proposals acknowledged that activating the treaty-based mechanism of permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) might be considered for a group of member states to move forward in some of these areas, while recalling that this is an open and inclusive framework. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Mogherini submitted to member states in September initial proposals with a view to implementing the EUGS in the field of defence, with a focus on strengthening planning structures, fostering cooperation on capabilities, and working with partners.
The defence Council in Bratislava showed that the establishment of a full-fledged permanent planning and conduct capability for military operations at the EU level remains contested. Countries like the UK, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands have opposed the idea, whether on the grounds of making the most of current structures or of avoiding any measure that could be seen as questioning the centrality of NATO to European defence. In fact, this controversy dates back to the 2003 Franco-German plans to create EU military headquarters. Even if the context is very different today, these political differences are unlikely to evaporate soon.
This is the background to the letter that France, Germany, Italy and Spain sent to fellow member states on 10 October. Their plan draws on the earlier initiatives of France, Germany and Italy, while toning down or excluding some of their original proposals so as to appeal to other capitals. In particular, the letter reportedly envisages making progress towards a permanent planning and conduct capability over time, recognises the complementarity between the EU and NATO roles, envisages that the EU should be able to launch operations at different levels of intensity in theatres such as Africa, and rules out that the aim is to develop an EU ‘army’. In addition, while saying that they would prefer to proceed with all member states, the four restated that they are prepared to use PESCO to move forward, if need be.
The Council of defence ministers in November and the European Council in December are the next milestones in this debate. In the run-up to them, the picture is mixed. There is a renewed drive to strengthen European defence but national preferences remain hard to align. On one level, considering the many facets of the current EU defence agenda, practical progress can be made in mobilising defence research spending, expanding multinational defence investment, dealing with cyber and hybrid threats (including through EU-NATO cooperation), and building the capacity of partners around Europe. On another level, however, differences in strategic cultures and threat assessments remain a significant hurdle to fixing a higher level of ambition at 28, or 27. Hence, countries willing to engage further should explore the use of the PESCO mechanism to do so, while of course leaving the door open to all others. Many believe that, at a time of multiple crises and waning cohesion, flexibility is the only way to strike a balance between unity and diversity in the EU. Defence might become an interesting laboratory for that at different levels, from PESCO to specific investment projects or engagement in various CSDP operations.