The European Defence Agency published its annual report in March, laying out the way forward for a plethora of defence initiatives: CARD, PESCO, EDF. One question arising is whether the EU remains on track for an independent defence and security identity, of the kind the UK would object to as long as London’s opinion had a bearing. Another question is whether there is a European defense identity over and beyond the Euro-Atlantic partnership.
Where do we stand today?
The debate on European strategic autonomy began with US criticism of military spending within the Alliance. The traditional role of Washington as a Security Provider and EU member states as “security consumers” will no longer suffice. But if Europe is to spend more on security, political leaders will probably have to tell the taxpayer where this money is being spent and to what end, contributing to a kind of strategic autonomy that was irrelevant in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The debate is ongoing but there seems to be a perceived cleavage among EU member states, with a French-led South making the case for autonomous military capability and a more complex “Northern” preference for Euro-Atlantic co-development within NATO.
The political dilemma is far bigger than just questioning the role of the EU member states in-and-out of NATO. One view is that a European and a Euro-Atlantic Alliance can work shoulder-to-shoulder through division of labour, such as the distinction between hard military security (air, land, sea, space) and home affairs (terrorism, cybersecurity). In this context, the US and the UK will favour status quo maintenance, with the EU jumping in to assist in emergencies, such as the deployment of Russian troops inside Ukrainian borders.
The unknown factor here is political leadership. Because the European Council of Ministers was founded largely on a consensus-driven process, leadership matters. What is not an unknown factor is funding, as the EU has already bolstered its financial commitment which is, in turn, shaping defence market expectations. Pan-European consortia and value chains are already being formed.
The EU is a much weaker player on security policy than on economic policy, which makes strategic autonomy an ambitious if at all realistic objective. Meanwhile, there is a resurgence of “big outsiders” that could push towards renewed bonds of strategic solidarity between time-tested Euro-Atlantic partners, especially vis-à-vis China and Russia. But the main challenge at hand remains the same: if Europe spends more than Washington will see its leadership checked, if not questioned.
Produce local, sell global
Today, defense industries shift from national value chains to global production lines. Military performance is increasingly dependent on complex defense systems and dual-purpose technologies.
There are major companies such as BAE Systems, Airbus, Leonardo, and Thales that put their weight behind the European defence sector. At the same time, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of Europe's labour market, production, and innovation. Even the top players in the region tend to include SMEs to achieve higher productivity or design excellence. That approach also boosts corporate profiles and meets EU standards. These SMEs are mostly concentrated in five EU member states: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.
What is the biggest asset of these companies is that member states can take the initiative to organise co-operation between individual nations or groups of nations? If or when a European defence identity comes to life, SMEs will bring greater benefits to national economies, adding value and employment that is highly prized by public opinion and politicians. After all, the liberalisation of the defence market is only held back in member states where the process is seen as a threat to state-owned companies.
Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Warfare Future Technologies
Another big stakeholder is universities.
For decades, the increasing competitiveness between European industrial clusters has been driven by research. Seven new defence research projects were selected in 2020 for funding under Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR), for a total of €19 million. All seven projects deal with technologies that have highly disruptive potential in the defence sector such as AI and quantum technologies. Others focus on established but still nascent sectors such as electronic warfare and military unmanned systems.
The prizes awarded by the European Defence Agency to companies and other research agencies are trend-setting: SWarm Advanced Detection And Tracking (Italy) and ‘Full-Duplex Radio Technology for Enhanced Defence Capabilities Against Drone Swarms’ (Estonia-Finland) suggests a focus on cutting edge technologies. Incidentally, the UK is no longer at the forefront of European defence.
Planning ahead, the EU is seeking international cooperation through the MARSUR network project that builds on the European Union Satellite Centre (EU SatCen), which is a clear indication of Brussels emerging as a security provider. The EDA also promotes the use of its Geospatial Information Hub (GeohuB) by the Member States, together with EU SatCen. The Cyber Situation Awareness (CySAP) project focuses on cyber education to conduct defensive cyber operations.
It’s all about Politics
Harmonization of policymaking in defense does not necessarily mean a single command structure and military headquarters. But it does mean autonomy in planning EU missions and operations worldwide. Decisions of these types are taken by a Council of Defense Ministers, which is consensus-driven and, once made, decisions on procurement and budgeting are hard to challenge.
Political pluralism is the Union’s strength and weakness. In the post-WWII period, Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its history: in Western Europe at least. EU integration is a peace-building process, but it is not a peace-building plan with a clear trajectory.
According to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations (see figure 1), EU public opinion prioritises peace and deeper engagement with the European Neighbourhood and there is considerable support for some functions of the union as a security provider. The capacity to fulfill this aspiration is a process without a blueprint. The main question is whether that trajectory will bring Euro-Atlantic partners together, in a new balance of political power, or drive them apart. To this question, the answer is also a process without a blueprint. But that process no longer includes the UK.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/PH3 Alta I. Cutler – A rare occurrence of a 5-country multinational fleet, during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Oman Sea. In four descending columns, from left to right: ITS Maestrale (F 570), FS De Grasse (D 612); USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), FS Charles De Gaulle (R 91), FS Surcouf (F 711); USS Port Royal (CG-73), HMS Ocean(L 12), USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), HNLMS Van Amstel (F 831); and ITS Luigi Durand de la Penne (D 560).