Re-energising Europe’s Security and Defence Policy

European governments cannot afford to move at the speed of the slowest, argues Nick Witney, and should push for a ‘multi-speed’ Europe on ESDP


The Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty has cast doubt over institutional reform within the European Union, but the author of a new policy paper published by ECFR argues that EU governments cannot afford to move at the speed of the slowest on defence, and should push for a “multi-speed Europe”. Author Nick Witney, who is a Senior Policy fellow at ECFR and former Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, issues a stark warning about the state of European defence, arguing that “inertia and resistance in the defence machinery” are thwarting the European Union's declared aim to make a real contribution to global security.

There is a chronic capabilities gap in Europe, as defence budgets are squandered on Cold-War style militaries. Europe keeps almost 2 million men and women in uniform (half a million more than the US), yet 70% of land forces are unable to operate outside national territory.

The total number of troops deployed today in ESDP operations, around 6,000, constitutes a paltry 0.3% of European military manpower. The failure to reform outdated militaries means that much of the annual 200 billion euro that EU governments spend on defence is “simply wasted”, the report says.

Witney says the the haphazard nature of joint operations has been shocking. “Javier Solana has often been reduced to phoning Defence Ministers in person to secure a single transport plane or field surgeon. In Aceh, the operation was initially financed on the personal credit cards of mission personnel along with a loan from the entertainment allowance of the British ambassador in Jakarta.”

Duplication within the defence industry (5 ground-to-air missile programmes, 3 combat aircraft programmes, 6 attack submarine programmes, and more than 20 armoured vehicle programmes) has led to a massive waste of resources and inflated prices – making companies vulnerable to takeovers from US rivals.

Nick Witney argues that Europeans will punch their weight – and be worthwhile partners for the US – only if they pool their resources and cooperate more closely. Reviewing the widely differing performances of the Member States (on defence spending, investment per soldier, participation record in operations), the report urges the formation of “pioneer groups” of the most willing and able.

The idea could be operationalised within the European Defence Agency through the creation of a number of overlapping pioneer groups, which each specialize in areas such as research and technology, armaments cooperation, defence industry cooperation, and the pooling of civilian and military capabilities.

The countries most active in various pioneer groups would constitute a European “core group” on defence – similarly to the “permanent structured cooperation” mechanism, envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty. Countries that do not meet some basic qualifying criteria (such as a minimum 1% of GDP spending on defence, and a 1% minimum level of personnel deployments in operations) should either commit to catch up, or leave the Agency altogether.

Witney's report identifies seven EU Member States in particular – Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta – as needing either to raise their game, or to allow others to proceed without them.

The report also proposes a number of key steps to equip Europe's armed forces with the right tools – including a new political effort to re-start the consolidation of European defence industries. To cut down on the waste of duplicative programmes, it urges governments to pool a larger proportion of their defence budgets together.

On operations, amongst the report's recommendations is the creation of an EU headquarters in Brussels, which would integrate civilian assets for crisis management (such as police) with the military. The report also urges the creation of a civilian reserve corps, to ensure the right personnel are available.

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

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.