The Need for a European Defence Policy

Where we stand, and what our future aims should be

, by Davide Emanuele Iannace, translated by Zoe Goodhead

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

The Need for a European Defence Policy
Eurocorps parade in Strasbourg (January 2013). [Source: Claude TRUONG-NGOC / Wikimedia Commons-Z]

Eurobull has previously discussed the subject of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). It is one which comes up time and time again in federalist discourse, as a commonly stated key element of a federal state. A federal state is unimaginable without a body controlling foreign and defence policy independently from its member nations. It would be incomplete; a broken, stumbling behemoth.

There has always been a variety of approaches to the European project in general. There are those who favour a bottom-up approach; stemming from collaborative activity on a national level, which generates more stable forms of support and union, which can in turn then be exported and solidified through European treaties and laws. On the other hand, there are those who lean more towards a top-down approach, whereby European institutions create collaborative projects, which encourage nations to interact amongst themselves. This is the case with the PESCO agreements (which we have discussed previously, for example here and here), which aim, through monetary power alone, to encourage nations towards greater cooperation on a voluntary. Nations are unlikely to refuse an opportunity to receive funding for defence, making it very worthwhile, from a political perspective, to join PESCO.

There are, however, problems with bottom-up methods: as research has shown, "this kind of cooperation can be more successful in the presence of certain conditions, such as for instance trust, solidarity, realism, clarity, seriousness of intentions, and low/null costs” [2]. In other words, they are only successful in the presence of conditions which could be described as politically and economically favourable for trade, and in the absence of any possible problems (such as sovereignty) or internal political opposition. These kinds of efforts are made more successful by keeping a low profile, taking one step at a time, and trying to secure resources wherever possible without drawing too much attention. All this while running projects which - if labelled successful - continue to expand. Despite progress, particularly concerning the cooperation in designing and producing means and technologies for defence, this strategy (at least regarding defence) works to fight back against those large industrial associations which individual European nations could certainly not take on alone.

The FREMM (European multi-purpose frigate) model is an example of this. Born out of a French and Italian collaborative effort, it has proved to be a successful model for obtaining important purchases from foreign powers such as the USA, including Eurofighter, FREMM, and the future European corvettes (who returned to PESCO itself). These cases clearly demonstrate that, on an industrial level, collaborative (improvised) projects exist, and can be solidified even further. The only thing missing, in fact, is a political directive.

Fabio Liberti has already highlighted the ways in which Intra-European collaboration can have systematic advantages, particularly from an economic perspective. Now, especially in light of the recent pandemic, we need to begin seriously thinking about the problematic nature of politics, and the possibility of implementing a real, practical unification of defence directives across the 27 member states.

The question of defence is closely linked to the Union’s common foreign policy. We have already discussed what it means for Europeans to take different courses of action in a particular area - for example, the Mediterranean - without a common strategy. France and Italy took their rivalry to Libya, which effectively prevented a Europe-wide solution to the problem from the moment it arose, back in the days of the Arab Spring. If Libya is now divided between the GNA and the LNA, and between foreign supporters such as UAE, Turkey or Russia, it is due to the lack of a federal foreign policy, which has prevented the European bloc from presenting a unified movement and intervening in the situation in North Africa. The same problem occurred in Syria, and it is happening again in the Cyprus area, where European interests should also be acting in a unified way, rather than being divided, in the face of Turkey’s bullying.

It is useless to call for a common defence policy or a common foreign policy. It is only helpful to consider them as one. There cannot be one without the other, as it is impossible to separate them - and above all, it is crucial to carry out political action to shape them simultaneously, on platforms which must sooner or later intersect. Today, if you look at the operations undertaken in foreign territories by the European Union or by its individual nations, you can identify some moderate (often useless) excesses, for example. An example is the case of Sahel, where there are three operations happening, at the same time, on behalf of Europe (EUCAP Sahel Niger, EUCAP Sahel Mali, EUTM Mali) [3]; and MINUSMA on behalf of the United Nations, which works in parallel with France’s Operation Barkhane. Of course, there are geo-political explanations for this plethora of military and civil actions (in particular, nobody could reject the French intervention in the region). However, this certainly does not excuse the lack of a clear common intervention policy.

Sahel is just the most recent of many examples. The lack of a coherent foreign policy leads to disastrous consequences when action is taken. Libya has collapsed into chaos and even the Sahel region could not be described as peaceful. To be specific: the EU cannot be the police officers of the world, much less can it wave a magic wand to end conflict wherever it goes. There is much that could be said on the subject of international operations and their role — too much in fact — and this is neither the time nor the place to do so. Likewise, there is a lack of coordination and a presence of troops in the field with parallel but never identical objectives. They are under different commands and divided, yet on the very same soil and with the assistance of the very same local political players. This clearly creates that necessary institutional and organisational chaos which makes them, if not counter-productive, certainly useless. The presence of local political players who then have their own varied interests, who might rely on one power one day and another the next (as was the case in Libya), simply generates greater insecurity and reinforces the idea of a divided Europe.

Political battles are also battles of symbols and images. This is another consequence that must be taken into account, beyond all the economic, political and defence motives. Today, Europe has a significant share in the war industry sector (including Rheinmtall, Leonardo and BAE System, for instance). These are companies which have often been at their best when working together. MBDA is an obvious example of this, as it was born out of a consortium of multiple European companies and is now a world leader in missile production. It is obvious that, as others have stated, the industrial-economic alliance is a significant, but above all, practical form of immediate collaboration which clearly has a net positive effect; firstly, the direct economic impact; secondly, because those same products often lead to budget savings, sales to third countries, and consequently a unique diplomacy when the product is a result of this cooperation. Yet, most importantly, they lead to a strengthening of the idea that, united, we can do more and do better.

One example of this is the future sixth-generation fighter aircraft, which is one step back from future progress. Producing a unique European fighter aircraft, such as the Eurofighter, means combining R&D resources not only at the beginning of the project, but also then combining the resources of the production sector itself during the construction phase. The objective is to create something that would be impossible if we were divided. The division between the Franco-German project and the British Tempest project (which Leonardo will take part in) demonstrates that there is still a lack of a joint vision pushing for standardisation amongst European forces when it comes to new equipment.

This will be impossible if our political choices do not strive towards greater collaboration and a united purpose. Collaboration and unity will, of course, mean less freedom for individual nations, as well as a transfer of power to a federal level. However, there is very little doubt that this level cannot be the European Commission nor the European Council. There can and must be only one institution which has control over defence equipment, and that must be the European Parliament: the Union’s only democratically elected institution. The defence sector cannot be beyond the scrutiny of a democratic chamber. And although the Parliament plays a role in defence, said involvement is still very limited, as is reduced to fulfilling a purely advisory function. As a matter of fact, the European Parliament’s Subcommittee for Security and Defence (which aims to assist the Committee on Foreign Affairs) has significantly extended its powers in this area.

The movement towards European defence cooperation must not become an opportunity to abandon the extremely difficult (but still all too limited) transparency of the armed forces in their own countries. This happened when the American armed forces moved from a state-centric model to a semi-corporate model. In the American model, a large number of contractors within the structure allow for grey areas when it comes to executive power. This cannot - and must not - happen in a future European Federation.

Additionally, there have been certain people who in the past have proposed the creation of an EU Security Council in order to improve Defence and Security strategy. Is this a valid proposal? Would it add to the already excessive institutional pluralism? Would it be better to rely on the institutions which already exist rather than creating new ones? There is a tendency to think that the European institutions are more than enough to cover the vast range of activities that, even now, the EU tries to manage. As previously mentioned, a Security Council would only be possible if it were controlled by (or in collaboration with) the singular elected institution, that is, the European Parliament, whose role in this scenario must be strengthened.

Creating institutions from scratch presents significant advantages. There are significant advantages of creating institutions from scratch. Whether it is created or not, however, will depend on the idea and design of a real strategy, and not just political pragmatism improvised in the heat of the moment. The EU has proved in other sectors that collaboration is a winning strategy for survival in increasingly complex, hyper-connected and globalised environments. Defence and foreign policy, under the right governance and in a democratic environment, might be necessary steps towards the European Federation, and not only a consequence of it.

There are many nations whose interests clash with the loss of sovereignty which would be absolutely necessary in order to ascend to a new level of collaboration between European populations. These interests are expressed through trade in weapons and through an often aggressive and competitive diplomacy, where nations prefer to compete as single players rather than as a team. While many have called for these sectors to be unified post-Federation, it is considered that, in fact, the opposite of this is needed today. European battalions, joint projects, PESCO, unified control commands and all those activities and operations carried out by European nations together are small steps in the right direction. However, they are still drenched in a sense of national division.

However, there is an urgent need to take significant steps forward. Many are related to the economic sector, as many of the linked articles have highlighted: from more convincing forms of collaboration and European control of mega-consortiums, to the standardisation of war equipment and methods. On the other hand, the subsequent use of these must also be under the control of a democratic body, the Parliament, and common policy which obviously cannot disregard the federal structure of the state. In the presence of aggressive players in the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe for example, realising that collaboration is the only way to ensure victory is even more urgent. European national interests have been sunk by the actions of Turkey and Russia more times than nationalists can or want to admit. This has, in fact, had a dangerous influence on the authority of the EU itself (the EU’s reaction to the migrant crisis has earned a place in the history books of European defeats).

Cyprus is perhaps the next political battlefield, where only a Greco-Franco-Italian common purpose could bring those absolutely necessary resources under European control. Likewise, the situation in Libya, and the current developments of the conflict in favour of the GNA, shows that the involvement of foreign players is still relevant in these conflicts which tend to be local. The fact that Turkey has changed the direction of the conflict through its forceful intervention - in precisely what both France and Italy are claiming as their operational area - is a major disaster. This should put pressure on Europeans to rethink their own foreign policy from a collaborative and non-competitive EU perspective.

What is certain is that it will not be easy to overcome the resistance of the nation states in these areas; they are inclined to collaborate only when collaboration is done at their pace and under their own protection. This is clear in France’s case regarding their European Intervention Initiative (E11/E12), just as the presence of NATO offers many nations a protective shield against any European initiative which requires more than just a simple coordination. This resistance will need to be overcome if we are to provide a solid basis for moving from a unionist policy to a federal policy.

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