Noteworthy developments have recently materialised in the languishing process of European defence cooperation, catalysing high-level politics in Brussels and national capitals, mobilising the expert community, and providing a potential lease of life to the struggling Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
In line with the political drama of EU’s present struggle for survival, this sudden momentum in European ‘hard power’ comes with a preamble, several entr’actes … and an open ending.
The traumatising outcome of the referendum over the United Kingdom’s EU membership on 23 June is arguably depriving Brussels of a valuable security ‘heavyweight’ and challenging the military and civilian capabilities of CSDP. However, London’s decision to (gradually) abandon the EU is opening up new possibilities for improving CSDP tools, structures and decision-making, given the mid-term evaporation of UK’s opposition to enhancing the EU’s defence profile.
In a quite hazardous synchrony with the ‘Brexit earthquake’, on 29 June the High Representative Federica Mogherini unveiled the “EU Global Strategy for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” (EUGS) to the Heads of State or Government, rushed to Brussels to ponder over the unknown future of an EU ‘à 27’.
The EUGS provides a realistic but aspiring assessment of CSDP and sets out an overarching vision for its future role in EU’s external action. Acknowledging the enduring but not exclusive importance of ‘hard power’ in the international security landscape, the EUGS calls again for Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ and envisages a more rapid and effective CSDP at capability, operational and institutional level, building on closer linkages between external and internal security, complementarity with NATO, and a strong(er) European defence industrial base.
Encouraging EU Member States to move to defence cooperation “as the norm” across the whole policy spectrum, from ‘uphill’ military spending all the way to deployability and interoperability in CSDP operations and missions, the EUGS ultimately insists on a pragmatic empowerment of CSDP. This should translate into workable recommendations, as part of a wider ‘implementation plan’ of the EUGS. According to the EUGS and Mogherini’s recent statements, such proposals might include, among others, the revitalisation of EU Battlegroups, the creation of a permanent EU Headquarter (HQ) for planning and conducting CSDP missions and operations, the use of ‘dormant clauses’ of the Lisbon Treaty like the possibility for CSDP to be implemented by smaller groups of ‘able and willing’ Member States (Article 44 TEU) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO, Article 46 TEU), devoting EU funding to defence research, and some mechanism for closer Member State coordination in defence planning.
Following EUGS’s balanced reflection over the future(s) of European defence, proposals have been put forth by various Member States, nimbly exploiting the heightened political visibility of defence matters that stems from Europe’s growing insecurity at home and in its periphery. Indeed, several initiatives emerged in the past few weeks, with varying degrees of political visibility and practical accuracy.
To start with, the ‘Višegrad Group/V4’ including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, have been discussing options to strengthen European security. In late August, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn and his Czech counterpart, Bohuslav Sobotka, proposed the set-up of an “EU army” with a strong focus on securing European borders and fighting terrorism, during a meeting between the ‘V4’ and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the overall vagueness of the idea, along with its strong (anti-)migration focus, prevented a serious follow-up at European level.
Roughly at the same time, Italy’s Foreign and Defence Ministers, Paolo Gentiloni and Roberta Pinotti, tabled the idea of a “Defence Schengen”, based on two parallel tracks: the activation of Articles 44 and 46 TEU, and the creation of an embryonic “European Defence Union’ among a ‘core’ of EU Member States. The latter would be based on commonly agreed mission and tasks, shared command, and joint decision-making and budgetary mechanisms. It could be put to the service of the EU, NATO and the United Nations, opened up to further Member State accessions, and incorporated in a later revision of EU Treaties.
Lastly, on 11 September the French and German Defence Ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Ursula Von der Leyen, circulated a restricted six-page paper on “Revitalising the CSDP”. The joint suggestions, many of which overlap with the early proposals made by Mogherini in either the EUGS or earlier official documents, reportedly focus on the mid-term establishment of a permanent CSDP HQ, reinforced synergies between CSDP and the ‘mini-lateral’ EUROCORPS, revision of the ‘ATHENA’ mechanism for funding CSDP military operations, and creation of both a European command for medical assistance and a logistical hub for land, aerial and maritime strategic transport assets. They also called for the implementation of PESCO, the re-launch of EU Battlegroups, greater sharing of satellite imagery, a more structured system of EU-wide military education and training, a fully-fledged EU research programme on defence, and stronger security assistance to EU’s partners in Africa. The strengthening of the European defence industry was also evoked, including by means of EU-coordinated fiscal incentives for collaborative procurement programmes, and a ‘European Defence Semester’ to encourage greater transparency and coordination among national defence systems.
The open ending
Shortly preceded by Commission President Juncker’s passionate call for a stronger EU defence policy in his ‘State of the Union’ speech, last Friday’s Bratislava Summit, gathering the 27 political masters of the ‘EU minus one’, featured defence in its (long) list of ‘post-Brexit’ issues.
Admittedly, the Summit prioritised more alarming dossiers such as the economy and migration, and the following ‘Bratislava Roadmap’ deferred further concrete decisions on CSDP to the (regular) December European Summit. Persistently different views among Member States might have also pushed for this rather ‘diluted’ resolution, whereas UK’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, (unconstructively) hurried up to re-claim London’s veto power over the idea of a permanent CSDP HQ.
Still, the (more or less) concrete proposals recently tabled by EU institutions and Member States, along with established working agendas featuring the EUGS’s follow-up process and a ‘Defence Action Plan’ by the European Commission, could provide a potential ‘play script’ for the EU leadership to seize the current window of opportunity for a progressive, pragmatic but tangible improvement of European cooperation in military matters.
The next few months will thus be crucial to prove whether the current catharsis in CSDP can truly translate in a decisive breakthrough, or pass on history as another fatuous episode in the endless saga of European defence integration.
Andrea Frontini is Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World Programme of the European Policy Centre (EPC).