Authors: Sophia Besch, Senior Reserach Fellow and Luigi Scazzieri, Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform

Europeans need to focus on becoming more capable defense actors, whether through the EU, NATO or other formats. To do so theu should:

1) Focus on improving Europe(s capacity to act rather than on abstract debates.

They should avoid getting booged down with unhelpful rhetoric, starting with references to setting up a European Army, something that not even most of its proponents actually want. The whole debate surrounding European strategic autonomy in security and defence has also been divisive and risks distracting.Europeans from the more concrete task of how to improve their ability to act. For some member-states, this may not be a problem: as long as Europeans are discussing abstract concepts, they can avoid investing political and financial capital in defense. Proponents of strategic autonomy should shift their emphasis to advancing a more concrete debate about threats and capabilities. This would help persuade both European sceptics of strategy autonomy and the US of the merits of a stronger EU in security and defense. A starting point to convince sceptics could be investing seriously in aligining NATO and EU defense effortsn, notably in ensuring that NATO's planning process and the EU's new co-ordinated annual defense review are fully joined.

2) Ensure that EU initiatives deliver

The economic shock of the pandemic means that national defence spending may fall in many member-states. While budgets have slowly recovered in recent years, capability gaps remain. If they had sufficient resources, PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), the EDF (European Defense Fund) and CARD (Coordinated Annual Review on Defense) could contribute to preventing a similar dynamic today, safeguarding European capabilities, technologies and skills. But the funding for these initiatives has been reduced substantially in the EU’s 2021-2027 budget, compared to the European Commission’s original proposals, calling into question their potential to change European defence. By not allocating enough money, member-states are setting PESCO and the EDF up to underperform. 

In November 2020, the EU published its first CARD report and PESCO review. They assess the performance of the EU’s defence initiatives and how they fit in with member-states’ defense efforts. They paint a grim picture: the CARD report points out that the EU’s initiatives “have yet to produce a significant and positive impact on the European defence landscape”. Looking specifically at capabilities, it shows that national approaches to capability development continue to prevail and the outlook for defense research and technology spending continues to be bleak. Meanwhile, the PESCO review shows that member-states have often used the framework to get financial support for pre-existing multinational projects rather than launching new projects to fill identified capability gaps. The review is also pessimistic on the question of whether member-states are willing to deploy military forces, finding that they only contribute small numbers of troops to EU operations.

To ensure the success of EU defense initiatives, member-states will have to give them a greater sense of direction. Take PESCO: some governments joined largely in order to ensure that it did not undermine NATO, or fearing exclusion from a close-knit core group of EU member-states. The CARD review identified six areas as priorities for the joint development of new capabilities: main battle tanks; individual protection and awareness systems for soldiers; patrol ships; countering aerial threats; military mobility; and space-based assets. These projects do not address Europe’s main capability shortfalls and even if implemented, they would not be a game-changer. But at least if member-states agree to prioritise them, the EU can add some value. In general, it will be difficult for the Union to break into the field of defence planning. Member-states prefer pursuing big capability projects in small intergovernmental groupings. And their defence spending plans for the next five years have been decided: the EU can only hope to influence capability planning after 2025. 

The hope is that by that time, the Strategic Compass can provide guidance, both for joint capability development and joint EU military operations. The EU should work closely with NATO, to align the process of writing the Compass with the process of writing NATO’s new strategic concept, which is going on in parallel. This is a unique opportunity to work out a concrete burden sharing agreement between the two organisations. Otherwise, the risk is that the Compass will become yet another well-meaning reframing of European defence ambitions, with member-states agreeing to do more on paper but failing to take action. 

Europeans should also recognise that they face a trade-off between greater defense industrial autonomy and more developed capabilities. If they want to be less reliant on US firms and strengthen their own defense base, to avoid being affected by US export restrictions or depending on American companies for critical spare parts, they will find it harder to build up their capabilities to intervene swiftly and decisively when required. Building up the European defense industrial base will not be easy, because developing new kit takes time to design and manufacture. Conversely, if Europeans emphasise access to capabilities at the expense of autonomy, they may find that they end up buying more high-end equipment from US firms, and their defene base will atrophy. 

3) Focus on improving readiness and willingness to act. 

EU defense initiatives can contribute to generating the military capabilities that Europeans need, and can also help them agree on a shared assessment of the threats facing the EU and how to counter them together. However, ensuring the success of European defence initiatives is only one part of what Europe has to do to take on more responsibility for its own security. Europeans will have to invest more in the readiness of their armed forces, and their ability to move. Many of these efforts will happen through NATO. Beyond investing in conventional defense capabilities, Europeans will also have to invest more into emerging civilian technologies with military applications, such as quantum computing or artificial intelligence, not least to assure that their military forces remain fully interoperable with the US military. Europeans will also have to increase their preparedness to counter ‘hybrid’ challenges such as disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia and China, and cyber threats by government-sponsored hackers and other groups.

Improved capabilities alone will not make Europe a more effective security actor. If they actually plan to deploy troops together, Europeans will have to continue to focus on developing a common strategic culture and streamlining decision-making. Initiatives like the Strategic Compass, the French-led EI2 and possibly a ‘European Security Council’ can all help member-states to agree more easily on how to address foreign policy challenges. The EI2 and a European Security Council could also help to keep the UK plugged into some of the thinking around European foreign and security policy. In addition, in order to reduce obstacles to deploying together in the EU, member-states could activate treaty provisions that permit the Council to task a group of member-states with implementing a military operation on the EU’s behalf.

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