Europe tests the waters for a stronger defence policy: EU leaders must agree on where threats to the continent originate

Opinion piece (Financial Times)
13 August 2020

For the past four years, the EU has trumpeted its plans to invest in defence. This summer’s budget negotiations were a test of its ambitions. Now that the dust is settling, where is EU defence headed?

Two main defence items have made it into the EU’s upcoming seven-year budget. One is the European defence fund, with €7bn to fund research and co-finance jointly developed military equipment and technology. The other is a €1.5bn military mobility project, with measures to facilitate the movement of equipment across the EU by upgrading infrastructure, such as bridges, and simplifying customs procedures.

However, defence has not emerged unscathed from the traditional EU budget battles, which were aggravated this year by Covid-19 and the loss of the UK’s future contributions. Not all were convinced by the initiatives on the table. Central and eastern European states argued that the European Commission’s ambitions would undermine Nato. Nordic countries with defence industry links to the US charged that the aim was more to help western European companies win market share than to turn the EU into a more capable defence actor.

EU optimists can nonetheless focus on the fact that by spending money at all, and for the first time in its history, the EU is breaking two taboos. It is entering an area, national security, from which many member states have long tried to exclude it. It is also moving from being a purely soft power actor and trying to equip itself to defend its geopolitical interests.

Sceptics lament that, while the new budget has established the EU’s right to be more involved in defence, member states are setting it up to fail. When the commission first calculated how much money it would need to strengthen the EU’s defence industrial base, it hoped for €11.5bn, almost 40 per cent more than it has received. Military mobility, hailed as a symbol of EU-Nato co-operation, suffered an even larger cut from the initial proposal of €5.8bn.

The problem with these interpretations, however, is that they focus on the EU’s internal politics, not its place in the world. Tensions are rising in Europe’s neighbourhood, as seen in France’s decision this week to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean amid a Greek-Turkish stand-off. The US is bucking its role as guarantor of European security. Polling shows citizens are looking to the EU for protection.

A window of opportunity opened in 2016, with the dual shock of the US election and the UK’s Brexit referendum. Around that time Emmanuel Macron, now France’s president, and Ursula von der Leyen, now commission president, declared that this was the era of “strategic autonomy”, of a “superpower EU” ready to defend its citizens and its territory. The vision of strategic autonomy turned out to be too nebulous to unify member states around it. Now governments have launched a so-called “strategic compass” process, to conduct a joint threat analysis and build consensus on what the EU — or, more likely, smaller coalitions of states — should be able to do.

They must find agreement on where threats primarily originate from — the east, the south, Asia, the Arctic, cyber space, outer space? How do these rank in comparison to the threat of, say, climate change or global pandemics? What capabilities are needed to tackle them, and should they be bought abroad or developed in Europe?

What should be the division of labour between Nato and the EU? How should defence and security considerations inform core policies, such as migration, data protection, research funding or the export of (dual use) technologies?

Ideally, the process will force member states to prioritise. The risk is that they will end up prioritising everything. But discussing their defence outlook in a confidential setting should at least help to forge a shared understanding of threats among governments.

A similar effect can already be observed at a lower level. In the past four years, a vocal EU defence community consisting of industry experts, think-tankers, government officials, national legislators and MEPs has formed, under the critical eye of transparency watchdogs.

In the early weeks of coronavirus, this community cautioned against uncoordinated national defence spending cuts, pointing out the security risks of the pandemic. With the establishment of a commission directorate-general for defence industry and space, this community will now have interlocutors in Brussels.

A bit more expertise, some more money, a few more high-level discussions — the EU is moving, slowly. The hope is that it will agree on the direction of travel soon.

Sophia Besch is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.