A European Defence Union: what is moving forward, what is blocked

(B2) The joint meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers (Monday afternoon) should be an important meeting, marked by many advances towards what we could call the European Defence Union

(credit : EUTM Mali)

It is not the revolution announced by some (1). However, it is an interesting step which allows different projects that have been on the table for a couple of years to progress. In a field as sensitive as defence, where the weight of history, of national interests and the sovereignty instinct are evident, we can say that this progress is noteworthy.

Will we speak of the European Army?

The words will be on everyone’s lips, at the cafeteria certainly, for fun, or in the press comments. But around the table, the subject is not in the agenda. Quite simply because if this terminology has been used both by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, in the last few days (1), they have stayed on words for now, without any detail, nor road map let alone an action plan. Even better, on the French side, they are back-pedalling; the French diplomats are striving to specify that their president did not really want to say a European army, that he was rather thinking about the European Intervention Initiative, and to the European Defence Fund, to the Defence projects ongoing, etc. They use the windfall from the Sorbonne speech to explain that the president is just saying more of the same. In short, they do not assume.

What are the specific advances?

First advance, the military mini-HQ, called in technical terms the MPCC or military planning and conduct capability (the European equivalent of the French CPCO) will be reinforced by 2020, both in terms of personnel and in its functions. Practically, it will now be able to conduct a small size (2500 men) European Union military operation (under UN mandate or EU mandate).

Second advance, the civilian PSDC missions. The 28 Member states agree that they need to be strengthened. These missions (police, justice, customs, Rule of law) that take a long time to be deployed, suffer from a lack of personnel, and often struggle to be efficient. The ’28’ therefore took the engagement of being able to deploy a mission of maximum 200 people in maximum 30 days… « from the moment of the decision » of the launching policy. Let’s hope this engagement (which is not the first one of the sort) will not end in a drawer.

Third advance (and not the least), the European Defence Fund proposed by the European Commission last June is progressing at a steady pace. The ministers adopt their ‘general approach’, what we could now consider as a ‘provisional first reading’. It is up to the MEPs to set their position, which will be done in the next few days. The objective of arriving to an agreement before Spring and the European elections is henceforth possible.

Fourth advance, the permanent structure cooperation in defence matters (PESCO) has not yet showed its first results. But it reinforces and completes itself little by little. After launching a first wave of projects (in March), adopting the rules on the way of verifying everyone’s engagements (in June), the Defence ministers adopt a second wave of projects, which include in particular the European MALE (middle altitude, long endurance) drone, a project led by the PESCO quartet (France, Germany, Spain, Italy).

Here is a first representation, on a map, of the number of projects, country by country (the number between brackets indicate the number of countries coordinate by the leading country). France is, with Italy, the country which participates to the most projects. It is in third position, behind Germany and Italy, for the number of projects led.

Fifth advance, the most tenuous one, on military mobility. On this seemingly easy issue — how to facilitate troops movements and resources in Europe — but complex in reality — because it affects heavy infrastructures… and the deep sovereignty of the States, we have started to advance. A first list (complete – 128 pages) of recommendations has been made. It will be used as a basis to identify the projects that could be financed through the European budget.

Where is it harder? 

A blockage on the Sophia operation. We are in a game of liar’s dice, where everyone is hoping the other will yield. Italy does not want to automatically host all the migrants and wants a specific solution to facilitate the rotation between disembarkation ports, the other countries do not want that solution. And everyone waits. In the mean time, the clock keeps on running, and the ships engaged in the operation become scarce. And the fateful date of 31st December gets closer.

The European Peace Facility, a financial instruments for operations, is still not achieving a full consensus. The difficulties are multiple. And many issues are still to be discussed in order to achieve a compromise. « A little time is still needed » admits a diplomat to B2.

The NATO-EU cooperation. The atmosphere is better between the two organisation. That’s for sure. However, despite a reciprocal auto-celebration, when we look at the details, the atmosphere seems less playful. For example, for military mobility, the priorities of one of them (NATO) do not coincide with the priorities of the other one (European Union).

Defence spending. Despite a certain rise, the defence budgets of the European countries stayed, in 2017, at 2005 levels. The research and technology spending has reached a low ceiling.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. For the first, on the radio Europe1 on 9th November; for the second, at the European Parliament on 15th November. Read : Et si l’armée européenne était un projet d’avenir ?

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Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).