Thoughts on the future of EU defence

Integration must move to the next phase

In ages past, security and defence were thought about in terms of one nation’s army versus another’s. National borders delineated what could be understood as spheres of security and control. The construct of the nation state provided the political legitimacy and sense of belonging to that lifeworld.

In the modern era, such a symmetric view of security and defence can only hold true if considered part of a greater picture. State versus state is no longer the norm. Asymmetric warfare, such as 9/11 or the recent Islamic State attacks in European cities, point to the diffusion of the dichotomy between internal and external scopes of security and defence.

The lines are blurred even further by the growing importance—indeed the ubiquity—of cyber space. Hacker groups, be they state sponsored or not, can exploit weaknesses in critical infrastructure and put lives at risk, such as with the recent ransomware offensive against computers running on vulnerable and outdated Microsoft software. In digital space the dividing line between internal and external is purely arbitrary, if not fictitious. As is the distinction between private and public in so far as critical infrastructure is concerned.

More often than not, present threats come in various hybrid forms that involve traditional as well as contemporary methods. From information warfare, to outright cyber denials of service, ‘lone wolf’ operations against civilians, and concerted attempts at the erosion of democratic institutions by the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and fake news.

Security and defence thus attain a more complex, multi-faceted character. They may not be couched in pure military terms as the protection of national borders. Rather, their scope encompasses many areas of quotidian life that were once considered purely civilian affairs, such as the regulation—indeed the health—of the Internet, or the safeguarding of democracy from foreign propaganda, systematic online ‘trolling’, and other ‘unconventional’ offensives. The changing face of security and defence is intimately linked to the wider phenomenon of globalisation and the need for regional cooperation: areas where the EU becomes ever more relevant.1

The EU can do much more

A common European defence policy is one of the oldest ideas in the history of the integration process. It was originally conceived shortly after WWII and could have been enacted by the 1950s. For several reasons that did not happen. To this day, security and defence at the European level remain largely underdeveloped. However, the Treaties provide sufficient scope for greatly expanding the relevant capabilities.2

The EU has the potential to do much more within the given legal framework. The Treaty on European Union under section 2 about the Provisions on the Common Security and Defence Policy offers Member States the possibility to cooperate with each other and to organise joint missions under EU law. Complementary provisions are enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, such as the ‘solidarity clause’ (Ar. 222 TFEU).

The Treaties allow Member States to engage in differentiated integration (“two-speed” Europe) by means of the so-called “permanent structured cooperation” framework. In practice, this means that a group of states can further integrate its defence and security policies without the need for universal intergovernmental consensus.

This is a persistent theme in the integration process, at least since the Treaty of Maastricht in the early 1990s. The euro was conceived as a de facto coalition of the willing, while current reflections about the future of the EU often concern potential reforms that would only involve one group of Member States, such as a euro area parliament and/or budget.

Common policy does not mean a single army

It is a mistake to identify EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) with the notion of a European army. What is currently being referred to is the capacity of the supranational level to provide added value to the joint efforts of Member States.

The EU has the resources to do research that benefits nations and helps make spending more efficient. Europe can foster synergies and promote efforts at the minimisation of duplicate work. In short, the EU has the power to align national policies, and thus to make things work better across borders.

This role of interlocutor and coordinator is not something new. It actually is at the heart of Europe’s most emblematic reform of the post 2007 economic crisis: the governance of the Economic and Monetary Union. The EU is not conducting a system-wide macroeconomic policy, but rather coordinates the efforts of national governments. Security and defence would be no different: a shared competence between the Union and its Member States.

Such are the ideas that are fleshed out in the European Defence Action Plan, which was adopted on November 30, 2016.3 Whether governments agree to deepen their cooperation and try to achieve economies of scale in the areas of security and defence remains to be determined. There seems to be growing momentum though, while Brexit will actually facilitate the process, given the UK’s staunch refusal to the realisation of an independent EU defence capacity.

End of 2017 is when things really start

In 2016, the EU set in motion a number of initiatives to expand upon security and defence policy. First among which is the EU Global Strategy that was published in June and was thus overshadowed by the Brexit events.4 Next is the Specific Plan on Security and Defence of November 14, 2016,5 which feeds into the European Defence Action Plan of November 30, 2016. These are complementary to the EU-NATO Joint Declaration that was signed in the Warsaw Summit in July 2016.6

Details may vary, but the key idea is to set in motion something akin to the European Semester (economic governance) for matters of security and defence. The plan is formally referred to as “Coordinated Annual Review on Defence”, which will involve information sharing and greater transparency on spending, with a view to help the EU coordinate efforts and engender synergies. It will start as a voluntary process of cooperation, led by the European Defence Agency, yet one can expect it to become standard procedure as things move forward.

This is quite likely given that there is ambition for establishing a centre for operational planning and for drawing linkages between civilian and military means in the context of CSDP. Furthermore, the European Common Defence Plan envisages the creation of a European Defence Fund (EDF) as well as support for a technological and industrial base to underpin further integration.

The EDF will help finance research on defence issues, as well as identify areas where the pooling of national resources is possible, such as public procurement. National governments are incentivised to participate by having their contributions exempt from the fiscal rules of economic governance (contributions will not count against the budget deficit). A clever and effective trick one may add.

While all this sounds promising, everything hinges on the political ambition to act. With the French presidential elections delivering a positive result for Europe, there is growing optimism that much can be done on the political front. Given the option for differentiated integration—the permanent structured cooperation—chances are high that within the next five years or so Europe will have in place something like the framework on EMU economic governance for the implementation and deepening of CSDP.

EU reform must be holistic

Current commentary on European affairs places much emphasis on the future of the European Union. We are at a point in the integration process where important decisions will have to be adopted. The EMU needs to be thoroughly reformed, the EU’s social dimension has to be substantially reinforced, while the Common Defence and Security Policy must finally be able to deliver concrete results that answer the challenges of the modern world. National defence structures that do not talk to each other is a relic of the distant past.

While Brexit represents a major setback, at least on the symbolic front, it does allow Member States to operate in a more consensual spirit. Optimism is indeed justified, but it would be a mistake to assume that integration will advance at an accelerated pace. Europe does things slowly. The process of reforming the EU is multi-pronged and deliberative, involving national governments and parliaments, as well as EU institutions.

What is more likely to happen is a series of incremental reforms, whose cumulative effect will be the holistic refashioning of the EU architecture. The features of this gradual yet drastic change depend on the mode of integration. Whether Member States will opt for doing more together or whether coalitions of the willing will emerge to spearhead integration in various areas of policy. The latter scenario must be considered the most likely one, given the recent history of the EU and the importance being placed on either euro-specific measures or, in the case of CSDP, the instrument of permanent structured cooperation.

Ideally, all of the EU27 will work together towards a common objective, so that no one country or group thereof is effectively cut off. However, the pragmatic approach is to address pressing issues and to improve EU processes over the short to medium term with all those willing to act, while encouraging the rest to join in at a later stage.

Differentiated integration is a matter of pragmatism. Expecting the EU27 to deliver everything at once is a fool’s gambit: a recipe for failing to do anything meaningful. Once this election year is over, we will have a better understanding of the coalitions of states that will emerge and whether the EU 27 can indeed do anything ambitious as a unified whole or just agree on the need for differentiated integration. At any rate, far-reaching concerted action on the supranational front is pretty much a given for 2017 and 2018.

  1. For analysis and opinion on the EU’s reflection paper about globalisation, see my May 11, 2017 article: On the EU reflection paper about globalisation^

  2. On May 18, 2017, the EU published a highly informative Handbook on CSDP (pdf). I personally learned a lot from it and highly recommend it for further reading. ^

  3. Press release about the European Defence Action Plan. Published on November 30, 2016. ^

  4. Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. EU Global Strategy (pdf). Published in June 2016. ^

  5. For the Specific Plan on Security and Defence, it is better to refer to the Council Conclusions on the EU Global Strategy (pdf). Published on November 14, 2016. ^

  6. EU-NATO Joint Declaration. Signed on July 8, 2016. ^