European Defence: Can the industrial and strategic elements be brought together around a coherent vision?

  • By Octavian Manea

The European Commission proposed a reflection paper concerning the future of the European Defence in 2025 while advancing an ambitious “defence fund” for boosting the niche industrial sector.

Lately, the EU has become very active in pushing for meaningful steps in the area of security and defence. Last month, the European Commission proposed a reflection paper concerning the future of the European Defence in 2025 while advancing an ambitious “defence fund” for boosting the niche industrial sector. Some of these measures are resonating with the calls projected by Berlin and Paris for “taking our fate into our own hands”, but also with the idea of enhancing EU strategic autonomy, a reality more or less spearheaded by the election of Donald Trump.

Defence Matters debated the potential impact of these measures with Luis Simón, a Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute.

Writing an op-ed in January in Financial Times, Emmanuel Macron concluded that “in the world of yesterday, European security was also America’s business.(…)It is time for Europeans to become sovereign.” How far would go this time the new call for European defense “souveranism”?

For the French, the concept of European defence souveranism is very much associated with industrial and technological questions. And my sense is that we are actually likely to see significant developments on the European defence-industrial front. On 7 June 2017, the European Commission launched a much-awaited European Defence Fund, which is a vehicle that aims to provide financial incentives to member states, with a view to advancing towards a more efficient and competitive European defence industrial base.

The European Defence Fund revolves around two main instruments:

the ‘research window’ contains a fund that aims to stimulate defence-related R&T in collaborative European programs. The Commission plans to spend about EUR 90 million for the next three years and EUR 500 million per year from 2020 onwards. These are not insignificant numbers. With this fund, the Commission will emerge as the fourth largest player in defence-related R&D in Europe, right below the UK, France and Germany, but above a country like Italy.

the so-called ‘capability window’ contains funds that aim to co-finance (up to a ceiling of 20%) the development of European defence capabilities, up to the prototype phase. The Commission’s purpose is to leverage its financial resources to stimulate collaborative research amongst companies from different member states – initially, up to 2020 the European Defence Industrial Development Programme will support projects involving at least three companies from at least two different member states. For this, the Commission intends to spend EUR 500 million for 2019-2020 and, from 2020 onwards, it plans to spend EUR 1 billion per year.

Given the combined resources of the European Defense Fund, more and more European defense companies are likely to look at the Commission as a key interlocutor.

So, when it comes to defense, the Commission does mean business, and it has the resources to put its money where its mouth is. The key question is to what extent are the Commission’s efforts on the defense-industrial front grounded in a common politico-strategic vision about the future of European defense. That is what is not so clear to me, because EU member states continue to have important differences in terms of strategic culture. Indeed, the Commission has been at great pains to say that it has provided the financial incentives, but member states must now come up with capability priorities. And it is not clear to me to what extent they’ll agree around a clear vision on capabilities. This is where differences in strategic culture come in.

France and Germany are the engine at the forefront of the current push for a more coherent European Defence Union. How aligned are their agendas today? Do they have a common mindset on defence issues?

France looks at military force not just through the lens of defence and deterrence, but also as a means of advancing its foreign policy and economic interests. And it makes a proactive use of it. Germany rejects that vision. It sees the military as a last resort defensive instrument. These differences are not just philosophical: they project into virtually any debate on European security cooperation, whether it relates to capability development, new institutional structures, or the launch of E.U. military missions.

The debate over the establishment of a HQ for the planning and conduct of EU military operations is a good thermometer of what I am talking about. The French have traditionally pushed for a fully staffed European Union military HQ geared for planning and conducting expeditionary missions. The Germans have advocated for a more modest civilian-military planning facility focusing on low-intensity, peacekeeping, and stabilization missions. Despite numerous institutional reshuffles in the European Union’s planning and conduct structures, French and German (and British!) red lines have barely moved since the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was launched back in 1999. And this explains why it has taken nearly 20 years for the European Union to establish a so-called “Military Planning and Conduct Capability composed of up to 25 staffers (which is a remarkably modest number), and confined to provide assistance in the planning and conduct of so-called non-executive (i.e. training and assistance) missions.

Having said that, I think both France and Germany understand that something needs to be done on the defense-industrial front. And they both support the current efforts by the European Commission and the European Defense Agency, aimed at moving towards a more competitive European defense technological and industrial base.

Overall, I would say that there are both bright spots and shades in the area of European defense. My main concern here is that there is a risk that the industrial-technological aspects of European defense (which is where we are seeing the most progress) get decoupled from the political-strategic one. This would be a problem. Only if the two are brought together around a clear vision – shared by the Commission and the Member States – will European defense really move forward. At the end of the day, you cannot ask the Member States to give greater support to the Commission’s efforts to “rationalize” the European defense technological industrial base unless there is a clear political and strategic framework.

What are the real world consequences of this strategic culture gap for the future trajectory of EU defence policy? 

Let me address this question from a very practical viewpoint, looking at what is actually going on operationally. And lets bring Britain in, because I don’t think you can have a serious discussion about European defense without the UK.

Britain has been one of the leading advocates of greater military spending in Europe, and of investing in modern capabilities. And it has more often than not joined forces with France in that context, including in the context of the EU. Let us not forget that the launch of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy followed a bilateral Franco-British initiative in 1998 at Saint Malo. In particular, London and Paris agreed on the need to promote a more expeditionary, out-of-area outlook for European defence.

It is true that Britain and France have had their fair share of disagreements in the past, especially on questions related to the EU’s desired level of ‘strategic autonomy’ vis-à-vis NATO and the United States. However, this has changed in recent years, especially after France’s return to the Alliance’s integrated military structure in 2009, and its interest in strengthening its bilateral strategic ties with Britain and the US. In fact, France’s ‘Atlanticist shift’ may be partly explained by its realization that most European countries (Germany included) seem to be attracted by the notion of the EU as a ‘civilian power’, and by the fact this ‘softer’, German-championed vision of security is gaining more and more traction within the EU (at the expense of France's).

Today, I would say that more and more people in France realize that their old idea of a militarily capable, extrovert and autonomous EU might be a rather tall order. This dovetails with an important point: whereas France, Germany and other countries may agree on the need for a stronger Europe in foreign and security policy, they do not necessarily agree on the question of what kind of Europe they want. Think about the Libya or Syria crises, where France has been much closer to the UK and US than to Germany or many other European countries.

To complicate things further, Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe is prompting many in Germany to think harder about defence and deterrence in an eastern flank context – and leading them to argue for German re-engagement within NATO.

Germany is critical to any credible NATO strategy aimed at restoring (conventional) deterrence in Eastern Europe. And this is a process that Britain is very much invested in. Two clear examples of that are London's decision to set up a 7-nation Joint Expeditionary Force (aimed at fostering interoperability between the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic States) and its command of one of the four NATO battalions forwardly deployed in the Baltic (the other three being commanded by the US, Canada and Germany). Britain and Germany are each leading one of the two framework nation initiatives and two of the four battalions aimed at strengthening deterrence in NATO's eastern flank. When it comes to guaranteeing security in Eastern Europe, Britain and Germany are clearly emerging as the two key European powers -- that is the way the Baltic, Poles and Nordics understand it. France is, by and large, detached from this dynamic, bar some token contributions to NATO initiatives.

Britain and Germany converge and cooperate more and more in a NATO context while Britain and France converge and cooperate more and more (bilaterally) in out of area operations in the broader southern European neighbourhood. These developments underscore the centrality of Britain in the European defence architecture, and prompt questions about the future and role of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy.

Two out of the three scenarios that the European Commission advanced recently in its reflection paper on the future of European Defence presume the EU’s ability to conduct high intensity operations, the need to develop collective capabilities (in the area of strategic transport, UAVs, offensive capabilities) and to build up its own command structures. The 3rd scenario in particular proposes cloning NATO’s responsibilities (collective defence), and speaks about high end-operations, contingency planning, pre-positioned forces, rapid movement of military equipment across Europe, etc. Is replicating/mirroring something that already exists at NATO a wise policy course for the EU? Considering that many Central and Eastern European member states don’t really trust the EU when it comes to collective defense, do we not risk seeing greater European fragmentation?

I am not sure it is realistic for the EU to step into the territory of collective defence – and I do not think that is the intention of either the Commission or the Member States, at least not at present.

If you’re talking collective defence, the question of nuclear deterrence immediately comes up. You can only do deterrence – and have a credible defence – if you have escalation dominance or, at least, if you can match your opponent’s (potential) moves at every step alongside the escalation ladder, from hybrid, through conventional warfare to nuclear. It’s not like you can compartmentalise these things. Deterrence requires an integrated response, and an integrated command and control infrastructure.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has put deterrence and defence back in Europe’s security agenda. In addition, Moscow’s ongoing efforts to modernise its nuclear arsenal underscore the renewed importance of nuclear weapons for European security. This means that any serious discussion on European strategic autonomy must square the nuclear circle which leads to a critical and highly uncomfortable question: given widespread reluctance around the idea of a German nuclear deterrent, are Paris and Berlin ready to reach some sort of sharing agreement over the French nuclear deterrent? Most unlikely, I would say. The idea of national strategic autonomy is embedded in France’s political DNA, and an independent nuclear deterrent is the jewel of France’s autonomy crown. Germany, for its part, might have come to terms with its de facto strategic subordination to the United States through NATO. But it is unlikely to sign off on a serious European defense scheme if its role is to be relegated to playing second fiddle to France, let alone Britain.

And as long as a shared nuclear deterrent is off limits, Berlin is unlikely to reject any sort of French or British nuclear umbrella, both for strategic and political reasons.

How do you assess the impact of the new U.S. Administration on the internal dynamic inside EU at a time when there is the emergence of a de facto multi-speed Europe and the potential for cleavages between Old and New Europe is once again running high?

It’s true that the idea that Trump can act as a catalyzer for European strategic autonomy is catching on. Big time. Some people in Europe say that Trump is just too unstable and untrustworthy to look after European interests, or to be entrusted with the defense of the international liberal order. Others argue that his emphasis on greater allied burden-sharing means Europeans need to step up their defense efforts. No matter which of these particular arguments rocks your boat, the conclusion is similar: Europeans have no option but to get their act together. So there’s a dynamic going on there, which is not to be dismissed, and could prove to be politically instrumental in complementing the current push for greater European security cooperation. But we also need to be aware of the limitations of this dynamic.

After all, the notion that an irresponsible or disengaged America forces Europeans to take care of their own security could re-open old divisions on fundamental questions. One such question is nuclear deterrence, which I already discussed. And this underscores America’s ongoing importance to European security. So I think we need to try and distinguish the strategic bit from the politics.

It’s true that Trump is bad politics in much of (Western) Europe. So, for instance, if you look at the German election, as we get closer and closer, the pressure for Merkel to distance herself from Trump and talk tough will only grow. One way to do that is by questioning the indispensability of the United States for European security and by calling for European strategic autonomy. We’ve seen some of that already. But I think that might change after the election, assuming Merkel wins. My sense is that Merkel is well aware that the US played a key role in underpinning German political unity, economic development and socialization within the West. She said as much during her joint press conference with Trump at the White House a couple of months ago.

And Germany is key here. So I would say that, for all the rhetoric about Trump having done more for European defense cooperation than anyone else, once the electoral fog clears in Germany, we should expect key European leaders to re-emphasize the centrality of the United States to Europe’s security and geopolitical architecture, and put their energies on co-opting the United States (mainly through NATO) and re-stating its commitment to European security.


Luis Simón is a Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College).