European defence: More smoke, but will there be fire?

There are plenty of ways Europe can improve defence co-ordination – if its leaders truly want to move down this path. The determining factor will be political will in national capitals.

“Europe needs to toughen up. Nowhere is this truer than in our defence policy.” This rallying cry from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in his annual State of the European Union address earlier today, was hardly unexpected. Recent weeks have seen a series of similar interventions from European leaders – notably French, German and Italian, as well as the EU’s own foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. But why now? What is being proposed? And do these new billows of smoke signify any real fire?

“Why now?” is the easiest question. What with terrorism, migration, the continuing chaos across the Middle East and the menace of a hostile Russia, it is no surprise that defence and security should be major preoccupations for Europe’s leaders. The institutional conjunction is propitious, too: after its July Warsaw summit, NATO is keener than ever to see the European defence ‘project’ taken forward as a complement to its own efforts; and a process is already planned for the autumn to develop an EU defence ‘action plan’ (as a follow-up to the EU Global Strategy agreed in June).

And then there is the political context: increasing pressure from the US for Europeans to pull their weight in defence (including Donald Trump’s threats to disown NATO unless Europeans shape up to his satisfaction); and, of course, the UK’s Brexit vote. Progress by the ‘remaining 27’ on defence would be a powerful signal that the EU remains resilient despite the Brexit shock; and, given the way the Brits have obstructed EU defence policy in recent years, the prospect of their departure constitutes, at least in theory, a new opportunity to press ahead.

Progress by the ‘remaining 27’ on defence would be a powerful signal that the EU remains resilient despite the Brexit shock.

What is being proposed is less clear – though evidently, despite the attachment of Britain’s Eurosceptic press to the label, it is not a ‘European Army’. Given that no European state will countenance its armed forces being deployed on the say-so of some EU authority, that should not surprise; the label, though catchy (and in the Brexit context, damaging) is essentially meaningless. True, some European politicians (Juncker amongst them) have occasionally used the term as a sloppy shorthand for closer defence cooperation and integration – but recent weeks have shown a greater level of discipline, with Juncker eschewing the term this morning, and Mogherini a few days back contrasting the notion (“not something that is going to happen any time soon”) with the “real stuff” that now needs to be addressed.

But what is this real stuff – what steps to closer defence cooperation and integration are contemplated? The core aims are to get more out of national defence budgets by greater pooling of efforts, resources, and capabilities; and to actually use European militaries where they can contribute, for example in peace-keeping roles and to crisis-management, especially on Europe’s troubled periphery. All sensible enough, and formerly championed by UK governments – until ‘Europe’ became a politically toxic word, and Britain slammed on the brakes.

So, looking for concrete measures to advance these aims, it is no surprise that Juncker should have headed his menu with one particular item that the Brits have been blocking in the face of unanimous support from all other member states — the setting-up of a small civil/military operational HQ in Brussels. This is a long story. But the essence is that though the UK had grounds for vetoing the original 2003 proposal – for a big HQ to rival NATO structures – as duplicative and divisive, today’s much more modest plan is badly needed to bring coherence to EU operational structures and processes, and to ensure that if European leaders truly want to contribute more to international security then they get some sensible, thought-through options to consider.

Of course, that is only an appetiser. But there are plenty more ideas doing the rounds. The Juncker menu also included a ‘European Defence Fund’ – incorporating the proposal for a chunky contribution from the EU budget to defence research (an excellent idea); and ‘permanent structured cooperation’, ie a small group of ‘pioneer’ member states going further than others on cooperation (maybe – the problem, possibly insoluble, is to decide who is in and who is out). And in recent days Franco-German suggestions have been floated for more pooling and sharing of medical, transport and reconnaissance assets, as well as training. 

If that is insufficient inspiration, then there is always the raft of options identified by the December 2013 European summit, still awaiting effective follow-up – including joint efforts to repair European capability gaps on drones, air tanking, cyber, and communications. 

The removal of the British foot from the brake gives them the opportunity – but also removes what, for some at least, has been a convenient alibi.

So there are plenty of ideas – if Europe’s leaders truly want to move down this path. The removal of the British foot from the brake gives them the opportunity – but also removes what, for some at least, has been a convenient alibi. Short-term electoral advantage is seldom secured by sending troops on operations, or by spending national defence budgets on real military needs rather than according to the dictates of pork-barrel national politics.

So, as ever, the determining factor will be political will in national capitals. France has been very active militarily in recent years – but with an unhelpful tendency to act unilaterally first and then appeal to partners to come in and support afterwards. German ministers are clearly pushing for their military to take on a role more commensurate with Germany’s economic size – but have deep-seated domestic reluctance to overcome. The Italians seem enthused, but are looking for various financial breaks to help them spend more on their military without worsening their current fiscal problems. Even the Visegrad group of east European countries have suddenly discovered an appetite for a ‘European army’ – but probably with nothing more in mind than getting others’ help to secure their borders against Russians and/or migrants.

So the auguries are mixed at best. Expect a lot more European defence smoke this autumn, possibly as early as Friday’s Brit-less European summit in Bratislava. But wait to see if anything actually catches fire.  

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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