Is European defence revived for good?

Nicole Gnesotto is professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM), holder of the Chair on the European Union. She is the Chairperson of the National Institute of Advanced Defense Studies (IHEDN).

Is European defence revived for good?

The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which was dormant since the beginning of the decade, has regained the priority on the agenda of European leaders. One of the latest notable initiatives is the launch of a European defence fund, theoretically endowed with 5 billion euros per year after 2020. But is this just another straw fire, or have we started a new, fruitful and sustainable security and defence dynamic ?  

The factors leading to a revival of the ESDP are strong, starting with the continued deterioration of the strategic environment: the Union is indeed confronted with sustainable, multiple crises, with no obvious or rapid solution. The threats come from the traditional balance of power, with Russia seeking to perpetuate a grey area of conflict and insecurity between itself and the Union. They also come from countries of the South, in the Middle East as well as in the Sahel region, which are plagued by violent civil wars and state decomposition. The continuum between internal and external security adds another challenge: terrorism is indeed the manifestation in Europe of unresolved conflicts outside Europe. All European countries are equally vulnerable to anonymous and destructive cyber attacks. Finally, for the past three years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the wars in the South to seek refuge on the continent, feeding xenophobic and populist movements that could call into question the very foundations of democracy. 

In addition to these alarming strategic developments, there is also the series of political earthquakes in 2006: the Brexit was both a shock and a trigger for voluntarism among the 27, aware of the need for a general relaunch of European integration. As far as defence policy is concerned, the Brexit creates, de facto, a more favourable context, since it abolishes the British veto, which has been virtually systematic since 2003. The election of Donald Trump marks the beginning of an era of Euro-American mistrust, which, without calling NATO into question, confirms the urgent need for Europeans to ensure greater strategic autonomy. The rise of Europhobia in public opinion is forcing governments to take the demands of European citizens very seriously: they are now making security a political priority and demanding visible results on border protection, the fight against terrorism and Europe's role in the international arena. The economic crisis, which has plagued public budgets since 2010, is on the way to being resolved, once again authorising defence investments. Finally, Emmanuel Macron’s France has regained its traditional role of advocating for a credible and effective European defence.  

All these factors have unlocked a series of new initiatives: creation of a military capacity for the planning and conduct of certain crisis management operations (a sort of mini European HQ); creation of a corps of border guards and coast guards to combat smugglers and help rescue refugees at sea (Frontex); creation of the European Defence Fund and implementation of a programme to support the development of military capabilities from 2019; adoption by 23 of the 27 Member States of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PSC or PESCO) which allows the creation of hard cores and circumvention of the defence veto, creation of a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) to strengthen the possibilities for capability cooperation between States; a system of common financing of capabilities, particularly for the Battle Groups; finally, in all European texts, the long-neglected notion of "strategic autonomy" has become commonplace. Thus, this has been a great effort, undeniable, convincing, all in just over a year.

However, some cautionary reflections are needed at this stage.

  • We cannot relaunch European defence by focusing initiatives and funding on the market and the defence industry. Only 7 or 8 countries have a significant military industry and it is therefore to be feared that this funding will be considered as unequal, because it favours only a small number of countries.  Moreover, the relaunch by industry is an old European idea, which has been tested several times since the 70s and has never been followed by any effects. No cooperation between industrialists can in fact replace the political will of governments: in 2012, an agreement between EADS and British Aerospace was concluded between manufacturers, but was scuppered by the German government's negative decision. 
  • The revitalising of European defence by the European Commission is a contradictory step. Since the Treaty has not given it competence in this area, the Commission's initiatives are always double-edged: necessary because they are decisive in terms of funding, delicate because they are likely to break the rule of intergovernmental control over defence matters. If it appeared that the CSDP was being “communitised”, a number of states would certainly oppose it. 

  • On a technical level, success may also be an obstacle.... It is good to introduce flexibility into CSDP through permanent structured cooperation. But will a core of 23 be more effective than a council of 27?…
  • Politically, citizens are not particularly fond of capabilities or competitive defence industries. What they want is immediate security and secure borders, a real anti-terrorist cooperation. What they expect is an effective role for Europe in pacifying the crises of the South which fuel terrorism and refugee flows. Not in 2020, but as soon as possible. 
  • In other words, at the strategic level, the great risk would be to maintain European defence as a technical, military, industrial and capability policy, decoupled from diplomatic initiatives for a lasting solution to crises affecting the EU. The urgent question must remain the finality of all these efforts: à common defence to do what? For what solution to the Levant, what stabilization of the Sahel? How can we develop a common strategic culture, a common vision of the world and of the EU's role in the crises of this world? These preliminary questions, as well as the technical aspects, should urgently be on the agenda of European Heads of State and Government.