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New steps towards a European Defence Union

The situation experienced in recent months, derived from the coronavirus crisis, is leaving some learned lessons in the European Union that extend beyond the health field, such as in the defence, security and industrial sector or in issues related to the strategic environment and crisis management. The need of massive purchase, for example, of sanitary material and supplies produced in China, has been shown as a sign of weakness and dependency that may turn out to be key in future crises. With the current scenario in mind, and with the first steps already taken in recent years through the activation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), on May 29, Germany, France, Italy and Spain sent a proposal to their European counterparts and the European Union High Representative, Josep Borrell, urging them to continue taking steps towards a greater mutual understanding and cooperation in defence and security matters, from the strategic to the industrial sphere, with very specific measures.

The first proposal is related to the European resilience and solidarity. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that armies’ capabilities go beyond conventional conflicts, and that they can develop an important role in supporting civil mechanisms and structures to manage crisis like the one the world is suffering right now. The armies of three of the signatories of the letter, the French, the Italian but mainly the Spanish, have conducted a strong deployment to fight against the propagation of COVID, protect population and transport material and patients. This proposal evidence the need of a more ambitious and wide-ranging crisis management system, as we have seen in early march that the reactions took place too late and too uncoordinated between Member States. In order to face properly future crises, solidarity should be a cornerstone, not only if a member state cope an armed aggression, as Article 42(7) of the TUE says, because risks and threats are shared. Finally, the proposal alludes to a necessary improvement of the communication strategies and network. Russian and Chinese contribution to solve the COVID crisis in Italy, reflect their ability to create a proper narrative to undermine the EU even when the solidarity of other Member States was higher than theirs.

The second part of the letter is concerning PESCO as key framework of defence cooperation. Defence ministers of the Member States are still working on the 2020 Strategic Review in order to identify the achievements and the areas where more attention is needed as the first phase of PESCO is ending. Their statement also warns about the implementation of the twenty more binding commitments, focusing on those linked to the European Defence Technology and Industrial Base (EDTIB), an important asset to guarantee industrial and technological independence. There are currently 47 projects being developed under PESCO framework and is not surprising that the countries signatories are the most participative countries, although Germany’s participation is still modest and Spanish ambition to lead more projects would be desirable. The letter proposes a further synergies in the selection processes between the different mechanism, as CARD or PESCO, and the interest exposed in the short-term output of the projects. Both of them would mean a more ambitious CSDP. Regarding the PESCO framework, this part of the big fours proposition ends with the concern on the Third States’ participation disagreement, something that could be solved soon. Sorting out that issue would benefit PESCO and the joined members, because it would allow other partners, like EU members as Denmark or Malta or maybe UK to participate in some of the projects.

PESCO projects per country. Self-made from PESCO sources

The third point is related to something already displayed before: reducing dependencies and reinforcing the EDTIB. The New Industrial Strategy mentioned in the letter is usually simplified to the Green transition but it implies other sectors, as defence and security ones. During the COVID-19 crisis has arisen the need of an industrial relocation to strength European capabilities and sovereignty. That is why the New Industrial Strategy will be cross-sectional, including an increasing defence industry boosted by PESCO projects, the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Defence Fund (EDF). The EDF, as they say in the letter, is the financing core tool. That is the reason why Germany, France, Italy and Spain, advocate for an ambitious EDF budget. In June 2018, the Commission proposed to allocate €13 billion to the fund for 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), but in one of the latest budget proposals, amid COVID-19 pandemic situation, the €13 billion proposed two years ago, were already reduced to €6 billion. The EU Commission issued its proposal for a recovery fund on May 27, but this will be discuss with Member States in June 19, so the final EDF budget is still unknown, but it will be below those €13 billion expected in 2018. The steps towards a strengthened cooperation and defence industry in Europe is at stake.

The fourth point is related to the development of what is called the Strategic Compass. It is nothing less than put in common the objectives of national interests in the defence and security spheres, the strategy to pursuit those objectives and the threats we will face. This Strategic Compass will lead to a stronger, effective and quicker identification of the EU objectives as a whole. This objectives should be aligned and discussed in a complementary way with NATO. The last proposal of the letter is related, precisely, with the cooperation with NATO and other partners. NATO is, actually, the strongest defence and security alliance, so any step towards a strongest EU defence union should be addressed in cooperation with NATO structures and tools, in order to achieve a complete, effective and efficient cooperation.

Finally, the last two points are linked to the operational commitment and the coherence of the EU tools. On the operational level, EU has nowadays 17 missions, 6 military and 11 civilian ones, mainly in the European neighbourhood and Africa. The signatories of the proposal call for a strengthening of the CSDP and military structure of the EU, as the European Command and Control structures, the EU Military Staff or the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC). They propose a further development of this MPCC, taking responsibilities of planning and conduction of the current and future ongoing operations, both executive and non-executive missions. Another mechanism that should be developed is the European Peace Facility, a shortcut to provide military equipment and materials to EU partners where missions and operations take place, in order to strengthen their capabilities and easily achieve the mission’s objective.

These are the proposals made by Germany, France, Italy and Spain to reach better and coherent EU defence union. They will be obviously discussed with the other Member States and EU Institutions, but the fact that the letter is not only signed by the traditional Paris-Berlin connection, but also with Spain and Italy, the southern ones, is something to highlight. The remarkable participation of other countries like Greece, Poland, Hungary or Rumania in PESCO projects seems to be an idealistic framework to move along the EU defence and security matters. The post pandemic European Union, and the need of a strong investment in the industrial sector is an incredible opportunity to strengthen the European defence sovereignty and capabilities. COVID-19 has shown in many countries that military capabilities are indispensable to get through many kind of crises, like health or environmental ones. Their structures, experience and capacities are complementary to civilian ones. Future challenges will be among all, transnational risks and threats, where cooperation and common response would be not only desirable, but essential. Every step towards a better cohesion would mean a better position to face future.

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Diego Urteaga

Analista freelance de geopolítica, seguridad y defensa ubicado en París

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