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European defence: where is it heading?

Published Tuesday, January 30, 2018

In light of Brexit, an increasingly assertive Russia and the unpredictable attitude of the current US administration toward European security, there is, at present. a political appetite for progress in the development of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy. Much has been achieved in the last few years and without the UK, which has historically opposed deeper defence integration, Brexit undoubtedly offers opportunities. The question is: how far will the EU at 27 be willing to go?

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Background

The intergovernmental nature of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has meant that its evolution and development has been entirely dependent upon political will and the convergence of competing national interests among the EU Member States, in particular the UK, France and Germany. As such it has been quick to lose impetus in the face of other challenges

Over the years the EU has thus become a notable ‘soft power’ actor, with a focus on civilian crisis management; while greater regulation of the European defence market has been a European Commission priority.

2013 – A fresh impetus for CSDP

This loss of momentum in developing the “hard power” aspects of CSDP led, in 2013, to efforts to inject fresh impetus into the European defence agenda. Consequently it became the main topic of discussion for the European Council Summit in December of that year; the first time in five years that EU leaders had comprehensively discussed EU defence policy.

The Council made a “strong” commitment to the further development of a credible and effective CSDP, focusing specifically on:

  • Increasing the effectiveness, visibility and impact of CSDP
  • Enhancing the development of capabilities
  • Strengthening Europe's defence industry

At a more strategic level, the Council also tasked the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (EUHR) with the role of assessing the future challenges and opportunities for the EU.

The decisions taken at that summit meeting subsequently laid the foundations for the significant developments in EU defence that have taken place over the last four years.

Making progress on CSDP

First and foremost, in June 2016 the EU High Representative published a new EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy, which offered an overarching strategic vision for the EU’s global role in the future and measures for achieving its aims. Security and defence was identified as one of five priorities going forward.

A Security and Defence Implementation Plan (SDIP) was subsequently adopted by EU leaders in December 2016, as part of a broader package of defence and security measures which also focused on increased cooperation between the EU and NATO and the implementation of the European Commission’s Defence Action Plan on the European defence industry. Specific measures of the SDIP included:

  • Establishing a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) to promote transparency and cooperation among Member States
  • Developing the EU battlegroups so that they are more usable and effective
  • Enhancing and coordinating oversight of all EU missions, including the establishment of a new permanent operational planning and conduct capability within the EU Military Staff for non-executive military missions
  • Investigating areas for CSDP cooperation using the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) mechanism
  • Enhancing partnerships with the UN, NATO, African Union and OSCE and adopting a more strategic approach to engaging with third party countries in CSDP matters.

Over the last year significant progress has been made in a number of these areas. In December 2016 EU leaders agreed the establishment of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) for non-executive CSDP missions.

In spring 2017 the Council of Ministers endorsed proposals on the scope, modalities and content of CARD and a trial run involving all EU Member States, including the UK, began in autumn 2017. Full implementation is expected in autumn 2019, although participation of the UK has yet to be determined.

In December 2017 the Council of Ministers also formally adopted a Decision establishing Permanent Structured Cooperation. 25 EU Member States have joined PESCO, with the exception of Denmark, Malta and the UK, and an initial list of 17 capability projects has been identified. Only participating Member States will have decision making rights with regard to PESCO. Those States which remain outside of the mechanism, including the UK, will have no powers or voting rights over current projects or its future strategic direction. Any capabilities developed through the PESCO mechanism will remain under national control and will not be “EU” assets.

EU-NATO cooperation - Recognising that the current strategic environment is one of unprecedented security challenges, in July 2016 the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and the NATO Secretary General signed a Joint Declaration intended to give new impetus and substance to the NATO-EU strategic partnership. That Declaration outlined seven priority areas where cooperation between the two organisations should be enhanced: countering hybrid threats; operational cooperation; cyber security and defence; defence capabilities; defence industry and research; exercises and supporting Eastern and Southern European partner’s capacity-building efforts. 

Subsequently a common set of proposals was endorsed in December 2016.  That list was subsequently extended in December 2017 to include actions in the areas of counter-terrorism, women, peace and security and military mobility.

Defence Action Plan - In November 2016 the European Commission published a Defence Action Plan in order to support more efficient spending on joint defence capabilities by Member States, strengthen security and foster a competitive and innovative European defence industrial base. At its heart are 3 measures: The creation of a European Defence Fund for collaborative research projects; support for SMEs; and ensuring Europe has an open and competitive single market for defence.

The European Defence Fund is the initiative which has received the most attention. It was launched in June 2017 with the intention of supporting investment in joint research and the joint development of defence equipment and technologies.

The fund has two strands: a preparatory ‘research’ strand (the European Defence Research Programme) which will fund collaborative research in innovative defence technologies in EU Member States and Norway, directly from the EU budget (up to €90 million until 2020); and a ‘capability’ strand which will create financial incentives for Member States to cooperate on joint defence equipment projects, in order to reduce their costs. This ‘strand’ will have two elements: the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) (€500 million in 2019-20) which will part-finance the early stages of development for new defensive technologies (prototypes), and a ‘financial toolbox’ to facilitate joint defence acquisition by multiple Member States. However, EDIDP funding will only be available to organisations that are majority owned and controlled either by EU governments or EU nationals, and only collaborative projects will be eligible for EU co-financing.

In the longer term, if it is proven that “added value” comes from the EU budget supporting defence research, the Commission intends to propose a dedicated EU defence research programme post-2020, with a budget of €500 million per year. Beyond 2020 the budget for the EDIDP is also expected to be €1 billion per year. While the Commission will be responsible for the execution and management structure of the EDIDP, any technology and assets developed under it will remain under the ownership of the relevant Member States and would not be ‘EU assets’.

The Brexit effect

While generally supportive of CSDP, successive UK governments have been cautious in their approach to greater European defence integration. They have regarded it as entirely complementary to NATO and essential for strengthening European military capabilities within that alliance, as opposed to the view that the EU should establish an independent military capability outside the NATO framework. To that end, UK involvement in the evolution of CSDP has been significant in that it has allowed the UK to influence and shape its development.

Until 29 March 2019 the UK remains an EU country and as such remains a full participant in the EU’s defence-related activities, including CSDP planning structures, the financing of current initiatives and any EU military operations to which the UK has committed forces. It also retains a veto over any proposals to further CSDP.

However, the UK’s role with respect to European defence post-Brexit is uncertain. While the Government has stated that UK support for European defence and security is unconditional, and that it seeks a “deep and special partnership” that goes beyond any existing third party agreement with the EU, many of the finer details on UK participation in EU defence matters have yet to be negotiated. There are a number of issues which have raised concerns.

  1. The UK has indicated its desire to participate in CSDP operations. However, one of the main sticking points may arguably be the extent to which the UK will be allowed to participate in operational planning and mandate development for CSDP missions. The EU is unlikely to confer decision making rights akin to those held by an EU Member State. But equally, the UK is unlikely to contribute key strategic assets to an EU operation without any say over the operation.
  2. Prior to exiting the EU, and potentially up to 2020 under transitional arrangements, the UK will both contribute to, and have access to the European Defence Fund. In reality, however, questions have been raised over the likely involvement of UK industry in programmes that access such funding, due to the long term nature of such projects. Beyond the transitional period, the ability of UK industry to access EDF funding at all has been raised, given the current governance rules of the EDF.
  3. In the longer term, as a third party state outside of the EU, the UK will also have no decision making rights, and no veto, over how EU defence policy evolves, including in those areas it has historically opposed, such as operational planning, or deeper integration that may one day lead to “EU owned” military assets and capabilities. The UK’s influence will be restricted to what it can achieve within the EU over the next year and, in the longer term, the pressure it can bring to bear through other organisations such as NATO, diplomatic channels and bilateral relationships with other EU Member States.

Towards a common European defence?

Given that the UK has been one of the main driving forces behind the development of CSDP, and has the largest defence budget among EU Member States, it has been suggested that, without the UK’s support, the strategic ambition of a “common European defence” could ultimately falter. However, as the main source of opposition to integrationist proposals thus far, the absence of the UK from CSDP decision making could equally be the opportunity that states, such as Germany, and key figures such as EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, have been looking for to further the EU defence project.

In the last few years support for that goal has gained traction because of Brexit, an increasingly assertive Russia and the unpredictable attitude of US President Donald Trump to the defence and security of Europe. This combination of events has presented an almost “now or never” opportunity to act. Indeed, the speed at which PESCO was launched, after years of inactivity, is indicative of the changing tide in European defence and what can be achieved when political interests converge. The question is, how far would EU member states be willing to go?

There is, at present, a political appetite for progress in European defence. If that is to be capitalised on, post-Brexit, proposals for an independent, permanent operational planning HQ seem inevitable; while proposals have already been put forward by the EU High Representative to create a longer term finance mechanism for CSDP operations. The extension of PESCO into full spectrum capabilities, should it prove successful, is also likely to be on the cards.

And yet, windows of opportunity such as this often prove to be short-lived. National interests must remain in sync amid broader global challenges, and the EU at 27 must all have a unified view on what they want CSDP to be, and to achieve. Without the UK Brexit undoubtedly offers opportunities, but equally national interests will dictate progress and further integration in EU defence matters is not without other sceptical EU Member States. It has taken decades of negotiation to get CSDP this far, achieving a common European Defence Union is, arguably, likely to take decades more with or without the involvement of the UK.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8216

Author: Claire Mills

Topics: Armed forces, Defence policy, EU defence policy, EU external relations, Europe

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