At last, the stars are aligned for European defence

It is beginning to look as though the concept of ring-fencing or reserving a portion of national budgets to be spent collaboratively might finally get airborne.

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The happy couple looked, if not radiant, then at least relieved and relaxed as they emerged to face the cameras. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, meeting in Berlin on 15 May the day after the latter’s inauguration, may not have tied the knot. But everything they said confirmed their new joint hopes: that the tide of destructive nationalism in Europe is finally on the ebb; that the Union is ready to move forward again; and that each will find in the other the partner needed to re-start the indispensable Franco-German motor.

Defence and security got only a brief reference – and, of course, everything depends on the couple’s ability to strike a key economic bargain, one in which French reform is matched by greater German flexibility. But restarting the European defence ‘project’ will nonetheless be an early shared priority. For, as then-candidate Macron affirmed in his speech at Humboldt University back in January, the present geopolitical conditions offer a “unique opportunity” for decisive progress.

The first of these conditions is the overall recovery of defence spending in Europe since its nadir in 2014. Second, not unconnected, is the deterioration of Europe’s security environment to the east and south and, indeed, in the heart of its cities. Third is Brexit – the departure of the obstructive British will release a brake on defence co-operation, and remove an alibi. And fourth is the advent of President Trump, with his demands for Europeans to raise their game on defence; if Europeans want to evade the crude and unrealistic pressure for everyone to spend 2% of GDP on defence, then they had better show some quick results on getting more bang for their euros – that is, on delivering the European defence agenda.  

If the geopolitical environment looks helpful to getting something done on defence, then so too does the state of debate in Brussels. When it comes to defence, the money, power and decision-making authority rests in national capitals. But Brussels can help to set the stage for progress – and has done so over the past couple of years by coming up first with a European ‘global strategy’, and then with ideas to give it substance on the defence side.

Defence establishments are inherently conservative – after all, their raison d’etre is to defend the status quo.

Actually, there were two sets of ideas – one from foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and one from the Commission, both published last autumn. Mogherini’s work helpfully puts the concept of ‘pioneer groups’ back on the agenda. To judge from the recent four-nation ‘Versailles summit’, Italy and Spain will be ready to pitch in if France and Germany can come up with a joint plan for greater pooling of their defence efforts and resources.

The Commission’s ideas are more innovative, but also more controversial. The proposal that it should start investing significant sums from the EU budget in defence research (some half a billion euros a year) has so far been widely welcomed. But then free money usually is – and member states’ tunes may change when it becomes clearer which other European programmes will have to be cut in response.  The second idea – that member states should lodge with the Commission a slice of national defence budgets to be spent on shared investments – is offered with two added sweeteners. The first is that such sums would be left out of the reckoning when the Commission is trying to discipline member states for running excessive national budget deficits. The second is that such pooled investment funds could be complemented by debt finance, whether from other European institutions or the markets.

In Berlin, Macron enthusiastically endorsed this proposal. But as a Frenchman he would, wouldn’t he? Whereas the Germans, being Germans, cannot enthuse about a scheme to benefit defence at the expense of national fiscal discipline. So there will be tough talking to be done if a joint Franco-German approach to this proposal is to be achieved. Fortunately, the European Defence Agency has just come up with a well-received alternative scheme for managing shared investment funds without the debt financing.

Either way, it is beginning to look as though the concept of ring-fencing or reserving a portion of national budgets to be spent collaboratively might finally get airborne. If so, this will represent an important shift in the long stalemate between the irresistible force of logic and political rhetoric supporting European defence integration, and the immovable object of reluctance on the part of national defence establishments.

It is this reluctance which primarily accounts for the meagre progress of the European defence project over the two decades since its inception. After all, the intellectual argument in favour of more defence integration – the security and efficiency gains to be had, the need to arrest the erosion of a key part of Europe’s technological and industrial base – was won long ago. Nor is there any mystery about what, specifically, needs doing – the long and detailed agenda agreed by the European Council in December 2013 was only one of numerous recapitulations of what should be done. The underlying problem has been the failure of national leaders to tackle, perhaps even to understand, the power of resistance and inertia in the machine.

The weight of this ‘immovable object’ has two constituents: vested interest, and culture. The first point scarcely needs elaboration; wasteful and duplicative national structures are essential to so many individual career prospects and profit margins across the continent. And of course political leaders make their own contribution too, often treating the national defence budget less as a resource to protect the security of citizens than as a pork-barrel from which to buy their votes.

The cultural point is maybe harder to appreciate, but perhaps even more important. Defence establishments are inherently conservative – after all, their raison d’etre is to defend the status quo. They are profoundly risk-averse, and always alert to any new development that might constitute a threat. They cannot help themselves addressing any suggestion for doing things differently by listing all the conceivable problems and down-sides, and concluding that, at the most daring, further study is essential. It is in their nature.

In other words, it is not enough to set the machinery in motion. As with an exercise bike, inertia and resistance will bring it promptly to a stand-still again unless the rider keeps pedalling. It is not enough for politicians to ‘direct staff to study the options’ for x or y. They need to demand specific and detailed blue-prints, to be put together on the assumption that x or y is to happen. They need to set deadlines; and they need to review progress, aggressively. Otherwise the best programme of action, most cogently presented, will simply end up like the December 2013 European Council agenda – filed and forgotten.

Macron is right; Europe, with France and Germany up front, stands before a “unique opportunity” to make a real breakthrough on European defence. His own arrival in the Elysee completes a propitious alignment of the stars which has not occurred for many years. But declaring new policies will not be enough: delivering real change will require persistent pedalling. It was good to hear him and Chancellor Merkel standing together and talking about trust; it was even better to hear them speak of timetables and deadlines. They need to gear themselves for a tough management challenge.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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