Since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, demands for a European Defence Union have grown louder. Europe now understands that it needs to take more responsibility for its own security. Numerous initiatives and strategy papers have been published, and tomorrow (28 June 2018) the issue will come before the European Council. We spoke with Reinhard Bütikofer MEP, co-chair of the European Green Party, about the new European Defence Fund, Macron’s military intervention force, Merkel’s European Security Council and the new security course – a departure from civilian crisis prevention – which is currently being pursued by the EU.

Green European Journal: US president Trump has sharply criticised the EU for insufficient investment in defence and for failing to meet NATO’s two per cent target. Now the European Commission has adopted a billion-euro defence fund. Is that in response to Trump?

Reinhard Bütikofer: The idea that all Member States must spend at least two per cent of their gross domestic product on armaments was not invented by Donald Trump. I can’t remember a single US secretary of defence from the past 20 years who didn’t make that claim. But Trump has brought a new tone to the transatlantic debate. He has brought the reliability of the US as a NATO partner into question and has openly cast doubt on the principle of collective defence as enshrined in Article 5.

This has led to a reassessment of European defence. During the German Bundestag election campaign in 2017, Chancellor Merkel said in her ‘beer tent speech’[1] that Europe had to take responsibility for its own security as the USA could no longer be completely relied upon. And indeed, some practical steps were taken in 2017. Aside from the ‘Trump shock’, this was also because the Brexit decision removed a major obstacle to European defence policy.

However, short-sightedness dominates the debate on European defence policy. The primary problem is not a lack of military spending, but that the total armaments expenditure of all EU countries, about three times that of Russia, is spent so inefficiently that their military capabilities fall short. EU taxpayers’ money is being squandered on defence procurement. Instead of coordination, we have fragmentation. Where the Americans have 30 different weapons systems, the EU has 178. Increasing defence spending will feed the armaments lobby but will not help to resolve the real issues. Which is why we Greens say that Europe needs to do more for common security, but above all it has to focus on efficiency.

But isn’t that the core concern of the Defence Fund: promoting joint, efficient procurement?

That’s the official line, but I see a whole load of problems with the Fund. The European treaties explicitly prohibit the financing of armaments through the European budget. To circumvent this provision, the EU Commission is justifying its actions by arguing that this relates to industrial policy and the promotion of a competitive European defence industry. If the EU Commission really wanted to consolidate arms procurement, it would impel Member States to do so from their own arms budgets rather than using the already tightly stretched EU budget for a little more cooperation on armaments research and procurement. By reducing duplication in procurement, 25 to 100 billion euros could be saved each year. Instead, the Commission wants to spend another 10 to 20 billion euros!

EU taxpayers’ money is being squandered on defence procurement

Furthermore, it is unfortunately the case that the European Parliament has absolutely no control over these EU funds. The European Parliament, going against the Greens, came to an agreement with the European Council according to which the EP would have no involvement in the operational programmes of the Defence Fund. Incidentally, civil society is not involved either. And the so-called independent experts mentioned in the regulation are expected to be under the control of the respective national defence ministers.

Lastly, on top of everything else, a parliamentary majority made up of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Liberals has let itself be persuaded that money from this Fund can also be used for killer drones – tearing up standards that the European Parliament used to defend!

And what about the European Defence Agency (EDA)? Wasn’t this set up for the purpose of joint arms procurement and coordination?

The EDA should be abolished. It has proved that it is unable to fulfil the task for which it was supposedly created. We just need to accept that the EDA was a half-baked solution and that nothing good has come out of it.

How should the Defence Fund be financed – with additional funds, or simply from the existing budget?

The major part should be taken from the budget, with a smaller proportion covered by additional funds. This means that there will be huge battles over the allocation of funding. The danger that important research projects will suffer because of that cannot be dismissed. In addition, spending on civil conflict prevention will also be cut. While the European Commission plans to spend a total of 20 billion euros on arms research, procurement and infrastructure in the period up to 2027, the budget for civil conflict resolution is to be reduced from the current 2.3 billion to around 1 billion over the same period.

But simply handing out money doesn’t constitute a strategy. Do you see a clear direction for defence policy? Numerous papers have been published and initiatives launched over the last two years. Has a strategy emerged from this?

No, I still don’t see any evidence of a strategy, although in fact a lot has happened over the last year. There have been major movements in defence policy in three areas. Firstly, research and procurement through the European Defence Fund. Secondly, the development of defence cooperation within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO); a number of projects have already been agreed upon by various Member States. Deeper cooperation under PESCO has technically been possible for the past ten years thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, but has only been able to get off the ground recently now the British are no longer blocking it because of Brexit. However, the French consider Permanent Structured Cooperation to be too hesitant. Paris would much rather form a small ‘coalition of the willing’ which doesn’t have to take other Member States’ views into account to quite the same extent. And that is why French President Macron – and this is the third point – has put forward the European Intervention Initiative.

Which Merkel also welcomed.

Which she apparently welcomed, while implicitly signalling her support for a different course of action. Macron wants to establish this initiative outside of the usual military cooperation structures. Merkel says in turn that it must be embedded within the existing structures. There are good reasons for this. After all, we already have many operational units that have simply never been used – two Battle Groups, for example. We have the Franco-German Brigade, and ten years ago there was an agreement on an EU stabilisation unit of 60 000 soldiers, but nothing came of it. Now, simply suggesting that we stack something totally new on top of it doesn’t really make sense. Unfortunately Merkel seems to have given in to Macron on this.

We just need to accept that the European Defence Agency was a half-baked solution and that nothing good has come out of it

And incidentally, the eastern Europeans raise another issue in relation to a Defence Union: what role should actually be played by the EU in relation to national defence? Joint armaments initiatives, joint arms research, joint armaments procurement… none of these offers a response to their question, not by a long way. PESCO does equally little. Everyone is dodging the question and, in practice, they are just relying upon NATO for an answer.

Wouldn’t Macron’s initiative be an answer to the question of national defence? France is traditionally less strongly connected to NATO.

The scope of the European Intervention Initiative would include cases such as Mali. If an EU defence coalition was set up in addition to NATO, there would certainly be structural duplication involved. Of course, there have always been people in the EU who insist on conjuring up the concept of the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’. I find myself fighting this again and again. This concept is completely out of touch with reality. If you take it seriously, then the EU should aim to have a capability to conduct war independent of the US and NATO. This would probably also involve a nuclear element. This is a totally half-baked idea and absolutely incomprehensible from a ‘peacebuilding’ perspective. This concept of strategic autonomy would only contribute to more insecurity. But there are definitely also people in Brussels, Mrs Mogherini included, who see Europe as a superpower. Let’s say that they are not being entirely realistic.

In the debate on defence policy, Chancellor Merkel proposed a European Security Council. Is this a good idea in your opinion?

What exactly should be the role of this Security Council? It seems to me to be one of those headlines that are invented on the spot and then you create commission after commission to think about what it actually might have meant. A national security council makes basic decisions on security policy. But as long as security policy in the EU is a national competence, I really ask myself what the role of an EU Security Council should be. I think it’s quite unlikely, for the next few years at least, that individual EU states would be willing to accept orders from a European Security Council.

Conclusion: the EU has no coherent defence strategy but rather a pick and mix of various initiatives. What would be a Green defence strategy?

I don’t want to suggest that we have a clear agreement on this at a European level, but at the very heart of the matter is the understanding that security is an aspect of the human condition in a comprehensive sense. Security cannot be achieved by military power alone; it should not simply be delegated to the military. A Green security strategy does not take the military dimension as its starting point. Climate change, fair and free trade, equitable global development, and the guarantee of human rights – all of these have security implications, long before any mention is made of the military dimension. In the past, the EU, with its emphasis on peace, human rights, and civil conflict management, placed great emphasis on this broader security horizon. In the current budget, the funds available for civil conflict prevention about equal the budget for common security and defence policy. But we are turning away from this. For example, key instruments such as the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace are being abolished. The EU is in the process of taking a big step backwards in security policy terms. A security policy that spends more on armaments, fails to focus on efficiency, and is unambitious on the civilian aspect of security is on the wrong track.


[1] Refers to a key speech on Europe, defence, the US, and Brexit given by Angela Merkel at a political rally hosted by the CSU, the CDU’s sister party, in eastern Munich on 28 May 2017.

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