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[Analysis] Europe still plays in the second division in defense. Paradoxical in a troubled context

(B2) Despite a very active exterior, Defense Europe, aka the European Defense Union, still cannot manage to take the additional strategic step. Despite the tools available today, it is struggling to make its revolution. Satisfied with a few advances, it seems incapable of accomplishing its geopolitical transformation. Worrying in these troubled times. Detail review.

(Photo: Bundeswehr DE)

In just a few years, the European Union has acquired several major tools: Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), European Peace Facility (EFF), European Defense Fund (EDEF), military mission command structure (MPCC) and strengthening the Civil Mission Command (CPCC), a defense industry directorate (DG DEFI) at the European Commission. All equipped with a doctrine (the strategic compass) and supported by a European diplomatic service (EEAS), which has found its cruising speed.

It would be logical to be satisfied with this progression. But to claim victory would be daring. Most of these advances date from the years 2010 - 2019. However, at the same time, the world has evolved more abruptly and more quickly. The conflicts are multiple, harsher, and above all closer to Europe (Syria, Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine). Key states not far away are failing (Libya, Lebanon, Sudan) not to mention military coups (in the Sahel) which can contribute to this instability. And this phase does not seem to be over. Actors on the world stage, and not just the biggest ones, no longer hesitate to apply the play of force rather than the role of law, the fait accompli rather than negotiation.

In this context, the meeting of Defense Ministers this Tuesday (November 14) appears to be yet another anachronism with an agenda as short as possible (a breakfast, two-three hour meeting and a lunch) and poor results. to wait despite numerous challenges (read: [Confidential] On the agenda of the double Foreign Affairs and Defense meeting (November 13 and 14).

Crisis management bogged down by the heaviness of the past

Crisis management of the CSDP, which was previously the most active operational side, is going through a rough patch.

A third of inactive or ineffective missions

Certain missions, previously at the forefront such as in the Sahel (Mali, Niger, Central Africa, etc.), are in active agony. The sluggish missions (EUBAM Libya, EUAM Iraq, etc.) are unable to revitalize themselves. This has been proposed. But each time, the Member States have a good reason to refuse to open the debate and move on to the box: closure. Result: the missions continue without effectiveness, but consuming community money. Of the approximately €330 million budget dedicated to civilian missions, this represents almost a third (€115 million) according to our estimates, which can be saved or redeployed.

Between Potemkin missions

The example of the Rafah border point management mission (EUBAM Rafah) between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is symbolic of this dichotomy between display and reality. This mission has been slow for years. No report, no public information allows us to know what she achieved. I asked the question and got a sort of administrative bulgiboulga poorly hiding this inefficiency. With the outbreak of the conflict in the Middle East, we should have witnessed a new dynamic, urgently. Because the EU has one of its oldest missions in Palestine (EUPOL Copps) which has good knowledge of the field. Nothing... on the contrary.

...and good neighborly missions

The only "effective" missions are the good old mission-operations in the Balkans, or in the Eastern neighborhood (training of the Ukrainians, observation in Georgia or Armenia, rule of law in Kosovo). Tensions oblige. But also because its operational missions are based on precise, timed objectives, and often an “executive” or “semi-executive” operational framework (1). Unfortunately, discretion also remains essential (2). Despite all the talk about the importance of strategic communication, of countering disinformation, the European Union still remains completely incapable of simply informing about what it is doing.

The sluggish rapid crisis response

In terms of rapid reaction to seizures, the encephalogram is flat. Certainly a lick of paint has been given to the good old people battle groups (never used and never usable) by developing a Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC in English acronym). Laudable intention. But nothing revolutionary. It is neither more nor less the theoretical strength of the two battle groups of permanence. And this Capacity will only be operational in 2025. In other words, a century behind the current global upheavals!

Re-examine scenarios so as not to act?

Will this device ever be able to be used? The doubt persists. The main hazards of the past remain there: necessary unanimity of decision, uncertain political will, financial costs generally borne by the intervening countries (3). Even on a consensual subject like the evacuation of European citizens, this new Capacity remained at the quay, for example during the evacuation of the Sudan orIsrael recently. However, the evacuation of national (or European) citizens is a subject that is perfectly known and defined by European armies, and even by the European Union. The first exercise (on table) and the first European concept - which I have in the archives - dates from spring 2006! Almost 20 years! We can wonder concretely what the EU general staff (headed today by a Dutch general, Mr. Van de Laan) and with 200 personnel, is doing. (Also read: Rapid Reaction Force. An idea, far from being revolutionary. A little boldness please)

Industrial financing that raises questions

Clear progress

In terms of the defense industry, Europe has also made clear progress. The European Defense Fund aka FEDef has been operating for almost two years, well endowed (€1 billion per year) for two functions: research & technology (R&T) and research & development (R&D). An additional envelope has been put in place to develop the munitions industry in Europe and an additional €300 million. But to go further, it stalls.

The upper floor blocked

The desire of European Commissioner Thierry Breton to step up the pressure and obtain a fund for joint acquisitions in Europe came up against a double Niet. The Member States are in fact not too keen on increasing their contribution (4). The internal message can be summed up as follows: “Great idea, Thierry... but find the money in your budget. Not in my pocket.” In other words: not a kopeck more for the defense. A difficulty which adds to a certain feeling among the most Europhiles of the inability to achieve the dreamed strategic objective.

A strategic objective about to be missed

The hope of seeing the creation of a European defense industry capable of competing with those of the USA or China (the strategic objective of the FEDef) is “faded” to say the least. These funds have thus become the territory of “grant hunters”. And this sometimes looks more like financial opportunism than a vector of strategic change. The dynamic of consumption of funds rather leads to a revitalization of the fabric of SMEs and “small” or “medium” States which all want to have their project and their industry. What is logical and legitimate at the national level turns out to be a strategic error at the European level.

The lack

Despite some strengthening, the European Union still does not have this defense agency, autonomous, equipped with necessary financing, capable of awarding contracts directly, and thus precisely orienting industrial priorities. This agency, planned at the 2003 European Council, was set up 20 years ago now. But, despite a certain strengthening - a few million euros more this year, (read: [Confidential] Budget increasing for the European Defense Agency), ambition remains too measured in the face of challenges. Member States are once again reluctant to delegate certain powers.

The taboo question of public utility

To this will be added a question: what is the use of spending public money on an industry which has roughly a single problem — too many requests, not enough staff (5) — and reap significant profits? This question, taboo today in defense circles, touches on the speckled debate which began between Member States on the revision of the multiannual budgetary framework (in December for the revision, in 2025-2026 for the next framework). It could be expressed more brutally in the European electoral campaign (by June 2024) or during a report from the Court of Auditors. Real question.

A defense policy still far from being common

As a result, whether at the operational or industrial level, the ambition to have a common defense policy today seems an insurmountable step, even in a context of intense crisis.

A compass that loses North?

At the political level, the famous strategic compass supposed to set a course for the coming years reveals itself to be faithful to the faults of its predecessors (Mogherini's global strategy, Ashton's integrated strategy): a beautiful reflection document, an honest overview of the problems, a profusion of priorities but a stunning shattering of reality at the slightest incident. States continue to have their political line, their interests, and the communities of vision on this subject remain limited. The divisions over the war between Israel and the Palestinians prove this. The divisions, more discreet on Africa (to stay or not to stay in Niger), underline unresolved fault lines. The strong unity of Europeans in the face of the Russian war in Ukraine should not give rise to illusions; it is the consequence of two elements: a feeling of immediate threat and (above all) strong American pressure demanding that Europe maintain its position.

A Breathless Facility

The only tangible progress made by the European Union is on the financial level: with the European Peace Facility. It's undeniable. To finance operations and the supply of military equipment, the Facility is working hard. But the device reaches its limits. Or rather, the success is such (with the war in Ukraine) that its financial ceiling has already had to be increased twice (+ €3,5 billion over the period). And that a new increase (+5 billion per year and +20 billion over the period 2024-2027) has been put on the table. Except that the Member States, in particular those which finance the most (Germany, France, etc.) are starting to cough. In particular their Finance Ministries who had not planned to find around a billion euros more for defense! (read : [Decryption] A 20 billion military facility for Ukraine. It is complicated !).

PESCO between two waters

La permanent structured cooperation which was supposed to be the political level of European defense, cannot break through. Six years after its establishment, it has settled into a certain monotony, usual in the European Union, with a multiplication of projects (a real Christmas tree), a weak strategic line, hazardous results (read [Confidential] Boosted by the Russian war in Ukraine, PESCO still has many weaknesses). But it is above all the political level which is largely absent. Logically, the second Russian war in Ukraine (2022), Nagorno-Karabakh or the war between Israel should have triggered an emergency meeting, a reaction... Nothing.

The EU trailing NATO

In the end, while NATO, despite its initial heaviness, was able to adapt quite quickly to the new situation of the high-intensity conflict in Ukraine - it even found a second youth there, deploying forces in the East of its borders, overhauling its processes, its concepts, rather quickly, the European Union has remained behind. It did not dare to revolutionize its processes, its structure, its way of thinking, in keeping with current developments (6)Today, in concrete terms, the sharing of tasks (dreamed of by some, refused by others) between a military NATO on major commitments and a civilian EU responsible for questions of economic sovereignty or "small" crisis management missions, is clearly the norm.

Comment: The European Defense Union is dead?

Will the European Defense Union see the light of day one day? Not sure. If events like February 24, 2022 (the Russian offensive on Ukraine), September 19, 2023 (the Azerbaijani offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh), October 7, 2023 (the Hamas offensive in Israel and its Israeli response on Gaza) do not spark a revolution, what event could spark it? The European Union confines itself, voluntarily, to its favorite position: being a financier (the policy of the checkbook), a legislator (on the industrial and economic aspect, but not military) and a provider of humanitarian aid. Overall the triptych of the years 1990-2000. But it cannot reach the next level, strategic and geopolitical. Despite all the words and real commitments from Paris, Brussels or Berlin. Everyone seems to have forgotten the Trump episode (which is not a parenthesis of history) and has buried their heads in the sand. Quite paradoxically, we could even say that defense Europe (just like the European pillar of the Alliance) was seriously damaged on February 24, 2022.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read also:

  1. By the term semi-executive, we consider missions not formally endowed with an executive mandate but which have a strong observation or assistance function (often within the framework of a bilateral or multilateral agreement).
  2. No more press briefings are organized with the heads of missions during their visit to the European level or to Brussels.
  3. Some improvement exists thanks to the European Peace Facility, but discussions on common costs have still not been concluded.
  4. Some large net contributors are wondering why they are going to subsidize the creation or strengthening of their competitor's industry. An official from a country beyond any suspicion of not being Europhile (Finland) confided to me his question: why communitize defense spending when it remains national?
  5. This difficulty can very well be resolved by existing funds, such as the European Social Fund which subsidizes efforts at retraining, training, restructuring, etc.
  6. The institutional bickering remains: there is still no full training of defense ministers (who still meet once a semester!), Parliament is still considering establishing a defense commission, the defense agency remains well separated from the DG Challenges of the European Commission and from OCCAR, the High Representative struggles to exercise his authority over the other defense commissioners, etc.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

2 thoughts on “[Analysis] Europe still plays in the second division in defense. Paradoxical in a troubled context"

  • Excellent analysis of B2: defense Europe is not taking off.

    In this context, Ukraine's accession to the EU will not provide it with strong military guarantees. Despite the wording of art. 42§7 TEU, NATO (art.4) seems better equipped to react on the ground.

  • bertrand de montluc

    magnificent synthesis which allows us to get away from the wooden language


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