Security and defence as the (unlikely) saviours of the integration project?

Simon Duke

6 October 2016


The EU desperately needs a compelling narrative to rekindle enthusiasm for European integration within the EU and interest beyond it. Rather surprisingly, given the history of Europe’s post-war integration, the political momentum has been converging on security and defence. The last weeks have seen a flurry of initiatives and proposals. To name but a few: the French and German Foreign Ministers advocate a ‘European Security Compact’; the Italian Foreign and Defence Ministers called for a joint permanent multinational military force following their earlier proposal for a ‘Schengen of defence’; and the EPP is calling for a European Defence Union. Before this, Jean-Claude Juncker famously advocated the formation of an ‘EU army’ and, more recently in his State of the Union address, he announced a European defence fund to ‘turbo boost’ research and innovation, whilst also advocating moving towards common EU military assets. The EU’s Defence Ministers met informally in Bratislava on 26-27 September to discuss implementation of the Global Strategy, with security and defence to the fore, with the aim of developing the ‘strategic autonomy’ of the EU.

Such initiatives at the political level are an understandable response to the general feelings of insecurity held by many EU citizens as well as a reaction to what the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, described as a more ‘contested’ world. It is also a world where the support of the U.S. cannot be taken for granted following its strategic pivot towards Asia, especially under a potential Trump Presidency. But, just as importantly, the flurry of initiatives also results from what Mogherini called a ‘window of political opportunity’ in a speech to the EEAS Heads of Delegation on 5 September. This can be taken as an implicit reference to the removal of the British foot from the CSDP brake – thus unleashing a veritable cacophony on issues that were hitherto taboo, such as the creation of a permanent headquarters for EU civilian and military crisis management operations, enhancing the role (and budget) of the European Defence Agency (EDA), common defence research and joint procurement, reviving the Battlegroup concept and enhancing the development of shared resources.

Grand declarations are, however, the easy part. Converting the desiderata above into a meaningful boost to European integration and to the Union’s international standing will face three stiff challenges.

First, the issue of capabilities will be central to the implementation of the Global Strategy, as well as to the other schemes above. The various political pronouncements above will eventually have to be boiled down into some form of ‘White Paper’ on security and defence. This will not be easy, but the more challenging part will be agreeing upon a revised Capability Development Plan, as will the necessary incentives to encourage cooperation. There are also pragmatic calls, notably by the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to revisit some hitherto moribund articles of the Lisbon Treaty, such as Articles 42 and 46 addressing Permanent Structured Cooperation, based on the understanding that moving ahead will most likely involve different speeds and geometry between the Member States. This will inevitably raise the question of who should contribute to what and risks exacerbating the EU’s internal burden-sharing tensions. It also hints at Mogherini’s preference to enhance cooperation through the existing treaties due to uncertainties surrounding the support for some of the more headline-grabbing proposals.

The European Defence Industrial and Technological Base (EDTIB) will also have to be strengthened considerably, especially in light of any forthcoming Brexit. If the EU is serious about strategic autonomy (that is cooperating with, but not relying upon, the U.S.) serious thought will have to be given to how to provide for the necessary ‘strategic enablers’, such as large transport aircraft or helicopters or refuelling aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) and certain kinds of intelligence. Although some progress has been made, the capabilities shortfall catalogue has changed remarkably little since 2006 – the last time the catalogue was made available to the public.

Few of NATO’s members (most of whom are EU members) meet the 2% of GDP pledge adopted at NATO’s 2014 Wales summit (Estonia, Greece, Poland and the UK) and even fewer (five EU-NATO members) spend 20% of defence expenditures on procurement and R&D. Ascertaining the achievement of any such targets is undoubtedly subject to misinterpretation and manipulation, but they remain a widely used gauge of progress. Given the difficulty of meeting such nominal targets, the idea of sharing assets and specialisation should appeal to economic rationale, as the European Defence Agency has been tirelessly advocating since 2004. Yet, it is surprising how such entreaties are routinely sacrificed on the altars of national defence.  If the bid for strategic autonomy is to be taken seriously, not only must more be done with the same but more must be done with more.

Second, the flurry of elite level initiatives, many of which rekindle the language of the 1950s, are in part a reaction to Brexit. It is, however, an unfair assumption that it is full speed ahead now that the British foot is in the process of being released from the brake. Reservations are likely to surface, especially based on discussions about defence (as opposed to general security). The Global Strategy notes that, ‘Full spectrum defence capabilities are necessary to respond to external crises, build our partners’ capacities, and to guarantee Europe’s safety’. In a pamphlet published by the EPP, they endorse making the full use of the treaties, including Article 42 (the so-called mutual defence clause). Objections from staunch Atlanticists, like Denmark, or the concerns of the six neutral or non-aligned EU members are predictable. The Baltic States are also reticent, for fear of upsetting recent NATO pledges to step-up military assistance and America’s military footprint as a deterrent against possible Russian military adventurism. The core of any such autonomous EU defence guarantee would, presumably, rest primarily upon Franco-German guarantees. It remains to be seen how credible this is.

The role of a post-Brexit UK may still be critical to the EU’s security and defence and association with CSDP should be encouraged wherever possible. This may be especially pertinent in the context of EDTIB where the size of the UK’s defence industrial sector, as well as its role in a number of multinational companies, will make divorce difficult. The UK will inevitably be wary of any EU-led initiatives that appear to challenge or weaken NATO. Taking the (British) foot off the brake may be good for the EU, but if it is done on an incline there is no guarantee that any subsequent motion will be forwards.

Finally, it can be asked whether security and defence is the appropriate vehicle for reviving the flailing integration project. It is unclear that this is the grand gesture that the EU’s citizens want or need when their main concerns lie with immigration, terrorism and the economic situation (see Standard Eurobarometer 85, Spring 2016). Suggestions for a compact, a Schengen for defence, or a European Defence Union, could of course have a positive impact on concerns about immigration and terrorism but the response to the main public concerns has more to do with intelligence sharing, careful analysis, police cooperation, political dialogue, disruption of financial networks, anti-radicalisation programmes and various training programmes, than it does with military headquarters or a multinational standing force. As political vehicles for reviving the integration project, each initiative  represent a high-stakes gamble. Since security and defence are also at the core of the EU Global Strategy, any failure to make demonstrable progress in this area may also undermine the credibility of the strategy in other areas. Strengthening the EU as a security community, even without the UK, will be a formidable task and one that will say much about the EU’s credibility. The political dice have been rolled.


About the Author

Simon Duke

Simon Duke is a Professor at the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA), Maastricht, Netherlands.

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