European defence initiatives

European defence initiatives

Bright future or dark clouds ahead?

11/2018  | Reading time: 8 minutes

The phenomenon of ever-decreasing European defence budgets has been one of the key features of the region’s security policy since the end of Cold War, but it has to disappear because of two particular reasons. On the one hand, the security architecture has changed with the re-emergence of Russia, which means a direct threat to Eastern Europe. On the other hand, it is difficult to preserve the great transatlantic partnership if the US is the single power that is willing to contribute to NATO’s defence budget in a significant extent. Overall, the main reason for the intention to increase European defence budgets is the change in the strategic environment. It would be a mistake to presume that Donald Trump’s comments on defence spending would be the reason for the change alone. There is nothing new in his insistence – all President Trump did was to use previous arguments in a rather direct way. It is also important to acknowledge that the double challenge of Russian territorial expansion and out-of-area missions are also not entirely satisfactory explanations for the new European defence projects. Russia’s unfriendly activities mainly mobilise the states in its neighbourhood, and the burden of out-of-area missions lays on the US primarily and only in a lesser extent on the European member states.

Donald J. Trump and Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Brussels Summit.
Source: Flickr

The only exemption from spending a significant amount of money on out-of-area military capabilities is Great Britain. Its global power projection ambitions are easy to identify. For example, the 65,000-tonne carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which has been launched from Portsmouth in 2017. However, there is still a question of how to use this modern naval project combined with American jet fighters. The original concept of having the same flight deck/landing strip as the Charles de Gaulle class sister-ship would have made it possible to use the same type of F-35s in the French and British air force. That way, the combined Franco–British fleet of carriers could take part in NATO missions (e. g. at the shores of Syria to support sea-based airstrikes).

In terms of British–American relations, burden-sharing efforts are of key importance to preserve the traditional ‘special relationship’. Furthermore, the army modernization could also help in terms of London’s position in Brexit negotiations vis-à-vis the European Union. Theresa May directly referred to this in her letter activating Article 50 of the TEU, arguing that the lack of a good Brexit deal could weaken the European cooperation in fight against terrorism. Thus, Brexit casts a shadow on the bright future of having a common European army considering the possibility that one of the most advanced European armies will not support EU military operations.

HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving the port of Portsmouth
Source: Shutterstock

In order to brush off these dim clouds from the European sky, Federica Mogherini reminded that Brexit is more like an opportunity than a threat for common EU defence, highlighting that it was largely the United Kingdom that was responsible for obstructing earlier common projects. Their leave could haste up the process of integrations. This statement implicitly contains the presumption that such an ‘EU army’ can be more effective than the armies of individual nation-states working together in an ad hoc coalition. One shall remain at least a bit cautious with this presumption, especially if you will not have the British capacities in your possession in the short run. The recently invigorated Permanent Structure Cooperation (PESCO) is to be seen differently by the two major camps of EU member-states. Of those led by the Netherlands support an inclusive approach to have more and more countries on board, while France opposes to let small and insignificant player sitting at the table of regional powers, so the French supports a quadrennial cooperation of France, Germany, Spain and Italy to make robust projects in defence industry. There are no significant obstacles for EU countries of taking part in PESCO projects, but there is a heated debate on potential American and British contribution.  It is hardly surprising if we consider the potential vitalizing effects of PESCO projects on national military industries. The major European industrial consortiums in the possession of German and French shareholders would not like to compete with British and American companies for EU funds.

Concerning the development of EU defence initiatives, national implementation plans (NIP) are to be presented at the Foreign Affairs Council. Hungary takes part in 3 projects (military mobility, logistics and cyber) out of 17 and has an observatory role in another 3 projects. Within the framework of CARD (Coordinate Annual Review on Defence) the countries make evaluation reports on national defence planning in every second year. The CARD name might be misleading, because in reality it works on a biannual basis. It is still unclear though, whether the numbers proposed for the MFF negotiations will be accepted or not. The proposal as we know it, is to spend at least 500 million euros on R&D and 1 + 4 billion euros on capacity building. The first 1 billion comes from the EU budget allocated by a new defence agency, and the 4 billion euros are from the budget of the member-states. Shareholders are allowed to apply for EU grants if they can make up a consortium consisting of companies from 4 different EU member-states at least. Mid-size companies from CEE region are hardly able to profit from these without the support of at least on big European partner e.g. from Germany.

Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference.
Source: Flickr

The future of the EU defence projects is dim because there is a lack of clear EU strategy on the new security policy environment. EU Global Strategy 2016 has been published before the Brexit referendum, and it has put EU in a position of a soft power. The document is afraid to mention Russia as a security threat. That understanding of the world is obsolete and as Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission highlighted, without the adequate hard power capabilities it is hard to accomplish anything and the EU member-states need to change their position on common European defence. Now, there is some chance to make substantive results, if we look at the growing tendency of defence budgets. European NATO members increased their spending by 10% in the last 6 years (to reach 47 billion dollars) and this increase will continue eventually. What is even more promising is that R&D component of the defence budgets is around 19.7%, almost reaching the 20% NATO requirements. Germany’s defence budget increase to 2% of GDP can be the most important factor of the future of EU defence after Brexit, consisting of an increase of 35 billion euros alone. Ursula van der Leyen referred to an investment package of 130 billion euros for defence industry, but it cannot be expected as a serious promise without the political support of coalition parties like the SPD. The German military spending today hardly reaches the 1% of the annual GDP and is to be expected to reach 2% in 2024.

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