The debate around closer European defence cooperation has strongly re-emerged in the past year. Its return to the European agenda is part of a wider conversation about security prompted by terror and cyber-attacks. But what are the prospects for deeper European integration on defence issues? And to what end are these efforts really being pursued? We spoke to two experts in the field to get their take on developments.
Green European Journal: How would you describe the current state of the debate around European security and defence in light of these developments, and why has defence in particular become so central?
Nicoletta Pirozzi: The current debate within the EU concerning security and defence is very lively, compared to in the past. This makes it the right moment to take a step forward in this direction. The latest developments such as terrorism and cyber-attacks are crucial to bringing this topic to light. Citizens feel increasingly insecure and there is a quest for security within the EU in a way which is not comparable to what we had several years ago. Furthermore, changes in the geo-political context, such as the alleged disengagement of the US administration towards European security, add to this.
So there is a push from both inside the EU from citizens, but also from outside, for decision-makers and institutions to take the initiative in this sector. The institutions and decision-makers have reacted positively to this push and a number of proposals are now on the table. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech highlighted the need to build a European Defence Union by 2025 and political initiatives have been taken France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. These should be the basis for the next concrete initiatives that the EU will take in security and defence.
Kristine Berzina: There are four particular trigger points from the last few years that explain why it is so important to be talking about this today. First, the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. This was followed by the terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 in Paris and Brussels, which were tied to the southern risks and the situation in Syria. Then there was the Brexit vote, which struck at the heart of the question of what Europe is or might be – is the EU itself at risk? Brexit helped trigger the internal sources of the security debate. Finally, there was the US election in 2016 with the victory of Donald Trump, and the impact of the anti-European, anti-NATO remarks he made in the lead-up to the election. These factors created a greater need for Brussels and EU Member States to take responsibility for security issues. When you look at the timeline of these factors, then at Juncker’s speech and French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements on European defence, you see greater rapport developing in the Franco-German relationship.
At the same time, we still need to protect ourselves from the newest forms of attack, which are of a hybrid nature. Cybersecurity risks, electronic warfare – it is not only viruses; attackers can now disable critical infrastructures, a threat governments will have to address. Governments must consider the capacity to handle new risks such as these in the same way as they prepare for tanks at the border – it represents a very big challenge.
When you put all this together and you see the amount of resources available to tackle both traditional and new threats from border regions and regions with historical links to Europe, it is a heavy lift for the EU and for any individual Member State. I would not say that is political opportunism, it is more that politicians like to be able to set out a positive narrative about building something. It isn’t coming out of nowhere. The difference between the resources we have and what we dedicate to security and defence is not balanced.
If there is both a political and societal will to address the security and defence issues the EU faces, how do you think this will develop and what could be the main obstacles in building a successful European defence?
Kristine Berzina: There are several initiatives on the table right now. The EU is moving forward towards a permanent structure for defence cooperation, which means that a group of countries within a larger block can come together to create capacity, an initiative based on commitments from all those who take part, and provide funding for an operational outcome. Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO for short, is the name for this optional initiative for EU Member States. It is a way of avoiding past problems where a single member could refuse and prevent all Member States from taking part. There are also individual Member States who want to take an even greater role in security and defence.
In Macron’s speech, he specifically alluded to PESCO having European Commission funds for defence capacity, a European defence fund. As well as this, France is also interested in European intervention initiatives to which, like PESCO, Member States can contribute in order to improve EU defence. There is also talk of an exchange programme – or ‘Erasmus Militaire’ – to build a common strategic understanding among Europeans. Those are French initiatives; there are wider European initiatives. In addition, there are also NATO initiatives that involve leadership by individual European states, which Germany for example is very fond of. There is a great variety of ways that European actors can build greater defence capacities, both within the context of the EU using EU funding, or in other more ad hoc arrangements, or in the context of NATO arrangements.
Of course, this makes the situation very complicated, and some of the obstacles that arise concern institution building – are we, in Europe, making new entities, or are we aiming to achieve an outcome? One problem that any of these efforts can run into is that they all draw on individual Member States’ defence resources. Whose armed forces will have to be involved? But if we spend so much time wondering what we call things, and not enough time thinking about what needs to be done, and how best to do it in an outcome-orientated fashion, we risk wasting time and money on something that doesn’t move the needle on making Europe safer, and not solving the big range of risks that we have to address.
Nicoletta Pirozzi: Yes, I agree. In fact, as Kristine says, at the moment we have two different visions about the future of European defence, but also about the future of Europe. One vision is the Juncker way, and the other one is the Macron way, let’s say. The Juncker way is to see the European Union become really united towards a horizon of increased integration across 27 Member States, including in the field of defence. The idea of a European Defence Union is telling of this kind of vision of Europe. The Macron way is more about differentiation and flexibility within the EU, including regarding defence, aiming at enhanced cooperation among those Member States that are willing and capable of going forward.
These are two options, which are of course very useful for the future of European defence because we need both. On one side, the role of the European Commission, and generally of the EU institutions, is crucial to guarantee that the projects undertaken by Member States in the field of defence align with European objectives and end goals, including the development of capabilities for the EU to work in a more effective way. On the other side, we need the commitment from those Member States that are more willing and able at this moment in time to take greater responsibility for the EU in the field of security and defence.
As I see it at the moment on the basis of the fragmented landscape we have in Europe and the increased fickleness we have experienced in the past few years when trying to find common agreement or have united positions on security threats, I think that the option of our more differentiated and flexible union is the most suitable one, and also the one that can achieve success in this particular field. The implementation in the next few months of the PESCO project, as useful as it is for the EU as a whole, will face a number of challenges which still need to be tackled, including its governance, coordination among the different initiatives taken at the national level, and coherence with the other EU projects and instruments. All these issues need to be clarified before we go ahead.
Exploring further how these scenarios can look in the future, what would the EU’s real place be, and how autonomous could it be, on a global level? For example, how would this kind of EU fit into the existing framework, such as NATO? Could it be a game-changer on a global level?
Nicoletta Pirozzi: It could be a game-changer because if this process goes in the right direction, we will have a more effective EU that is ready to take on responsibilities in terms of defence at both a regional and international level. Of course, the EU will not become completely independent from, first of all, its Member States, because in the end we are talking about an intergovernmental process, even if with a substantial role of the EU institutions, where the capabilities remain in the hands of the Member States. Also, in relation to other security actors, in particular the US in the framework of NATO, I see these as processes towards greater autonomy for the EU, but not independence.
Autonomy in this case means that the EU will probably be able to carry out a number of tasks and responsibilities which currently cannot be performed by the EU without the strong support of the US, or outside the NATO framework. Here I’m referring to high-end military commitments abroad, but also territorial defence within the EU. Furthermore, I refer to the lack of capabilities such as strategic transport, which along with many other areas we have been lacking in our recent interventions, such as Libya. I see this landscape as an opportunity to acquire autonomous capabilities, but it is clear that the trans-Atlantic relation will be crucial for the EU, even in the current state of affairs with the Trump administration. I do not see an EU which is completely detached and independent from its current allies.
Kristine Berzina: The debate about autonomy for the EU comes from the idea of seeking greater effectiveness – it is a way to build better capacity and to be able, under the right circumstances, to fulfil a task effectively and completely – not needing to pick up the phone and call a friend across the Atlantic to get it done. There is a careful step here however, between having autonomy and developing an antagonistic relationship. I know there is lot of worry on the other side of the Atlantic about the word ‘autonomy’ for Europe. Instead we talk about complementarity, which rings better within the NATO context.
What is very interesting is, if in the past NATO and the EU had a slightly antagonistic relationship on the topic of defence because there is a lot of fear about duplication – especially in command and those ‘at the top’ – that relationship is different today. If at NATO in the past you couldn’t talk about the EU very much, now we have a formal programme of cooperation between the EU and NATO on these defence tasks. This comes from the fact that a lot of these new risks that we face are not simply about tanks or cruise missiles – these risks involve civil capacities both within the core NATO responsibilities but also encompassing more EU-orientated tasks. Because of this, you can see Europe developing much higher capacities, you can see the fact that everyone within the EU, both those that are more European in the concept of defence as well as those who are more ‘Atlanticist’, can be on board with this new European defence landscape and with these new structures. And because these new structures are opt-in, there is less reason to block them.
Do I consider these European structures to be sufficient to go out and fix all of the world is problems on their own? I don’t think so. This is a way of being better, it is a way of filling the gaps to make Europe more able to look at its neighbours, and also perhaps more expeditionary ways, and solve problems that would be core to the interests of the EU Member States. It isn’t about breaking ties across the Atlantic, or functional autonomy on all aspects of defence at all – it is about filling gaps that are there and that we see growing.
Nicoletta Pirozzi: These are issues and questions that need to be tackled also by European decision-makers in order to better explain to citizens what it means to have greater cooperation and to put additional resources in the defence and security field. We’re not talking about militarising the EU or the European budget, we’re not talking about betraying the role of the EU as a comprehensive security actor – meaning an actor that is focused on the prevention of conflict, on the diplomatic approach to international crises, to multilateralism.
The idea is really, as Kristine was saying, to fill a gap. In order to do it, we have to make sure to devote the right resources. Therefore, it is important to think about the final objective of what we want to achieve on the basis of the needs we have at the moment, to develop scenarios and understand clearly which capabilities we lack, and which resources are needed to achieve these capabilities. Then we need to make an effort to make these resources available at the EU level. This means that we have to think about a higher share of common expenditure on security and defence, which can be an incentive for a Member State to spend in a better way, a more cooperative way. I believe this is the best way to do it and the only thing we can do at the moment to do better in this particular field.