European defence and the new Commission

A new directorate-general for defence and space has a chance to make a difference, but only if it plays nice in the sandbox 

The planned progression of confirmation hearings for the European Union’s designated new commissioners has been interrupted by the unexpected rejection – by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee – of the Romanian and Hungarian candidates. This will be a worry for Sylvie Goulard, the commissioner-designate for the internal market, given the investigation into payments for assistants that still hangs over her from her time as an MEP – and which occasioned her resignation as France’s defence minister in 2017.

Fortunately for her, Goulard is widely known and respected, and eminently well-qualified for her designated job (as well as being a long-serving member of the ECFR’s Council!). So, it is to be hoped that her hearing will also be forward-looking, and will focus in particular on what she plans to do with her portfolio’s new responsibilities for the defence and space industries – in which she will be supported by a brand new directorate-general.

President Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission pushed hard to insert itself into the business of defence, traditionally the preserve of national governments. The Commission’s main beachhead was the establishment of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which is designed to stimulate research and development with 13 billion euros of subsidies from the EU budget. Juncker’s soon-to-be successor, Ursula von der Leyen, sent a mission letter to Goulard – from one former defence minister to another, it should be noted – that makes plain her intention to carry that process forward, and to make the Commission increasingly central to what von der Leyen likes to call a “European Defence Union”.

And what is not to like? After all, the need for closer European defence integration (the pooling of national efforts and resources) has been received wisdom for literally decades, but with disappointingly little to show for it. The case for “more Europe” in this area – whether based on industrial imperatives, on military need, or just on avoiding the waste of taxpayers’ money – is overwhelming and now, of course, reinforced by a deteriorating international security environment and the diminishing credibility of the US security guarantee. Yet national governments have shown themselves to be devotees of St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, make me virtuous – but not just yet”. They have consistently preferred to defer to national vested interests, and to serve their own domestic political purposes by spending defence funds as much or more for economic and social purposes as for maximising bang for their euros (or, indeed, pounds). So, should we not welcome a “geopolitical” Commission’s readiness to take on a more prominent role?

Well, maybe. But there is a real risk that the new Commission will overestimate its firepower – or, to change the metaphor, the efficacy of the sticks and carrots at its disposal. Certainly, its 2009 attempt to break down protected national markets through regulation has proved a failure; national governments have simply relied on the “national security” exceptions in the Treaties to carry on placing their defence contracts with national suppliers. Significantly, the move was counterproductive, since it put paid to a promising earlier scheme to persuade ministries of defence to engage in more reciprocal cross-border procurement not because of legal compulsion but because it benefited them to do so. As for the new carrots, governments and industry will, of course, queue up for free money from the EDF – but will they use it for anything other than what they planned to do anyway?

The new Commission’s push into defence also carries the risk that the whole European defence effort can be portrayed as less to do with real defence concerns and more to do with the Commission’s traditional preoccupations with the economy and industry. We have already seen this in US President Donald Trump’s recent blasts at European defence protectionism. Europeans should reduce their defence dependence on the United States as rapidly as possible. But there is no point in antagonising the man in the White House unnecessarily when they remain incapable of standing on their own feet.

National governments have shown themselves to be devotees of St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, make me virtuous – but not just yet.”

An enthusiasm for turf warfare is the Commission’s original sin (and, in fairness, the original sin of pretty much any Brussels institution). But, in the present case, the hard fact is that only a cooperative and inclusive approach that involves all the different stakeholders – governments, industry, and institutions – will stand a chance of delivering the desired end-state: a flourishing European defence technological and industrial base.

That phrase does not appear in Goulard’s mission letter. But this is the logic – and it is a good one – of placing the new directorate-general for the defence industry and space under the command of the internal market commissioner. After all, von der Leyen’s prioritisation in her letter of “an open and competitive European defence equipment market” is presumably motivated not so much by any free-market ideology as by the understanding that market forces have an important role to play in moving Europe towards what it needs: a base that operates on a truly continental scale; migration from wasteful duplication towards specialisation and centres of excellence; consolidation on both the demand and supply sides of the market; and the protection of strategic sovereignty.

This is not a new ambition (even if some of the specifics are new: the mission letter foreshadows an enhanced and welcome role for the Commission in undercooked areas such as artificial intelligence and cyber). The necessary strategy was endorsed by national defence ministers a dozen years ago. But it has made so little progress because it is intensely political, and no one with the necessary political clout has made it their business to drive it forward. The great consolidations in the US defence and aerospace industries did not take place without an ultimatum from the US defence secretary. Similarly, the creation of a European defence industry that works as well as the automotive sector will not happen without some top-level understanding of how the benefits (and the near-term pain of rationalisation) will be spread around.

In short, Goulard has an opportunity to make a major contribution to a key part of the European defence agenda. But she will not get there just by bullying or bribing, whatever her advisers tell her: the task involves too many other powerful stakeholders, beginning with national governments. At the top of this “geopolitical Commission”, she will be better placed than anyone has been in a long time to make real progress in an area both complex and intensely political. The stuff of an interesting hearing, I hope.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.