European Defence: This time, could they really mean it?

A joint European defence budget won’t happen, but smaller steps in the direction of pooling European defence resources could and should be taken.

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It certainly comes to something when Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, floats the idea of a joint European defence budget. It won’t happen, of course; and it would probably be a bad idea if it did. But smaller steps in the direction of pooling European defence resources could and should be taken. And as an indicator of how the mood is shifting in Berlin, Schäuble's intervention is remarkable.

German support for the idea of closer European defence integration has, of course, long been a given. But not when it comes to money. Germans have tended to believe that only they are truly prudent with public finances, and that talk of common funding is just manoeuvring by feckless southerners to tap into German funds, or a ploy by France to get its wealthy neighbour to pay for military adventures in Africa. So when it came to common funding of EU crisis-management operations, for example, the Germans kept their foot on the brake.

Podcast: European Defence

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The first harbinger of change appeared in the joint paper by the French and German foreign ministers calling for a new European security compact, which appeared just after the UK’s vote for Brexit. This was followed by a series of other indications, from Brussels, Rome and elsewhere, that European defence is firmly back on the continent’s agenda. The Steinmeyer/Ayrault paper signalled a German softening on common funding of operations, which has now become Schäuble's position.

It won’t happen (in my lifetime, at any rate) because no EU member state is going to be prepared to hand over parts of the national defence budget to a supranational authority in Brussels. That authority might indeed make good decisions in Europe’s collective interest. But that would be beside the point when domestic industrial contractors lose out on a key defence contract as a result and threaten the national government with an end to political funding.

Because of this proble, member states would demand such extensive veto rights over how a joint defence budget was spent as to make the system unworkable. Equally, all national governments would regard anything actually bought from a common defence budget – a fleet of air tankers, for example – as in some sense ‘theirs’. Each would insist on a veto on its deployment, so it would never go anywhere or do anything, as has happened with the Eurocorps, a multinational European land force that has existed for many years but few have heard, on account of its never having gone anywhere or done anything.

But, if joint defence budgeting in Europe at the wholesale level is an idea well ahead of its time, joint funding at the ‘retail’ level is full of possibilities. More common funding for operations, to begin with. And common funding of defence research (there are models for doing this, under the supervision of a board of the relevant national representatives with votes weighted according to size of contribution, which have worked well.) And of course there are endless possibilities for small groupings of member states to jointly fund ‘ad hoc’ projects – the bread-and-butter of the European Defence Agency’s role.

Can we at last expect the coming months to see the irresistible force of the logic of greater European defence cooperation make progress against the immovable object of vested interest and conservatism? France and Germany have now been joined by Italy and Spain in urging new steps. In their joint statement, the four defence ministers wisely disavowed any idea of a ‘European army’, and urged the UK ‘to accompany us as closely as possible’ – a statesmanlike response to the UK defence secretary’s recent churlish and self-defeating vow to continue obstructing closer integration among the EU 27.

So Herr Austerity’s remarkable suggestion of a European defence budget need not be taken too literally to be regarded as nonetheless a significant contribution to the building mood-music. Or perhaps a better metaphor wold be the volume of clucking in the hen house. Because, of course, everything depends on whether at the end of the day an egg or two is laid.

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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