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Still on the defensive: European military integration in 2015

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In his contribution to the Jahresvorschau 2015 of the Austrian Ministry of Defence Sven Biscop looks forward to what 2015 might bring in terms of defence cooperation between Europeans.

Published in Sicher. Und Morgen?, Sicherheitspolitische Analysen, December 2014, pp. 117-121.

(Photo credit: rockcohen, Flickr)


Still on the Defensive: European Military Integration in 2015

One thing is certain not to happen, not in 2015 and not in ten years: with a very few exceptions, European nations will not return to defence spending levels of 2% of GDP. Focusing on this fetish, as the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014 did, is unlikely to produce real results. Europeans will not double or triple their defence budgets. Indeed, it may be undermining the message of those who argue for a limited but steady and realistic increase in defence spending, to ensure that some countries do not fall below the threshold under which they can no longer field deployable forces at all. The public knows fully well that today large parts of our defence budgets are being wasted because of the fragmentation of Europe’s defence effort. Convincing them to spend significantly more will remain difficult as long as that is not rectified. As important as ensuring defence spending at a responsible and realistic level therefore is to make more effective use of existing budgets, by far-reaching pooling and specialization.

Military cooperation, and definitely military integration, does demand investment before it can yield results. It is crucial therefore that first of all the trend of declining defence budgets is reversed. Some governments have actually announced yet further cuts, while others are planning a certain increase. Overall 2015 may see at least a stabilisation of European defence spending. Thanks to Mr Putin’s incursions in Ukraine and the video footage posted on-line by the so-called Islamic State, defence cuts have become somewhat counter-intuitive, certainly in Eastern Europe but even beyond.

The key is to use this likely stabilisation to further cooperation and integration rather than pursuing national aims only. Otherwise fragmentation will never be overcome. Cooperation and integration can lay the foundations to justify a realistic increase in defence spending, especially when there are industrial benefits to be had as well. Two distinct but interrelated levels must be addressed.

The most difficult to achieve progress on is that of the European-level projects to develop Europe’s own strategic enablers. Work is in progress in four key areas, coordinated by the European Defence Agency (EDA): air-to-air refuelling, drones, satellite communication, and cyber security. But the critical mass required to make these projects economically viable is such that more member states need to participate and they need to invest more if the aim is to design and build our own platforms. Furthermore, these are four key areas, but there are several more key shortfalls qua strategic enablers. The process is on-going, but for lack of investment a major leap seems unlikely before the June 2015 European Council, where defence will once again be on the agenda. Unless, that is, it becomes acceptable for the European Commission, whose involvement not just in R&T but also in capability development is tentatively being discussed, to really play a part. If e.g. a dozen member states were to come together and build an observation drone, could not the Commission, which shares this capability need (for FRONTEX, ECHO, and even environmental purposes), contribute as if it were another member state, paying its share and receiving its share of the capability?

The other level is that of the various overlapping regional clusters in which countries participate. There currently is a strong dynamic to step up cooperation in these clusters, which will continue into 2015. Anglo-French, German-Dutch, Benelux and Visegrad cooperation are but some examples of multinational configurations that are being deepened. The question is how far they will go, and whether some of the other existing or new frameworks will also move from talking about to actually implementing cooperation. The real added value of these clusters is not only common capability development, but also permanent cooperation after capabilities have been acquired, by pooling capabilities into permanent multinational units and/or specialisation (notably in the fields of logistics, maintenance and training) between the members of a cluster. Three new clusters are being formed in the context of NATO’s Framework Nation Concept, endorsed in Wales. Can it be expected that these effectively go as far in cooperating as the initial German proposal seemed to envisage, i.e. that in the areas in which participants decide to cooperate they regard their capabilities as constituting a single force?

Finally, there is the matter of strategy. In view of the crises on our doorstep and the ever more visible American restraint in dealing with security issues in Europe’s broad neighbourhood, Europeans have yet to clearly answer the question which responsibilities they seek to assume themselves. When and where are we willing to take the lead, politically? Then comes the military question: What do Europeans, i.e. the European allies and partners / the EU member states, want to be capable of in the military field autonomously, i.e. without the US if necessary? The political question can only be answered by the EU, for this is a matter of foreign policy. The new High representative will take the initiative to update Europe’s strategic priorities – this hard security dimension ought to be a prominent part of the exercise. Answering the political question would constitute the basis to update the level of autonomous military ambition for the EU / European pillar of NATO, which again is a task for the EU, to be introduced into the NATO Defence Planning Process.

Some progress on all of these fronts can certainly be expected in 2015. Will it be sufficient progress to leave the defensive and provide Europeans with the self-confidence to resolutely engage in external action, by all necessary means – diplomacy, development, trade and the military?

Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop