European Defence Union prospects boosted by recent developments in world politics

Last Sunday, Angela Merkel stunned audiences by declaring that the times in which the EU could “completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over”, adding that her experiences from the NATO and G7 meetings of last week convinced her that “we Europeans truly have to take our fate in our own hands”. Although she has since attenuated her words by reiterating her “deep commitment” to transatlantic relations, the German Chancellor is not known for making reckless statements, and many believe that her strong words may symbolise a new era in the security of the EU.

This has once again brought forward talks about the possibility of integrating the EU Member States’ defence and security capabilities. A frequently recurring proposal, the idea of a common defence union has always been viewed as a very distant possibility, made unlikely by many different political, economic and legal issues. Over the years more ambitious plans have been vetoed by the Member States, especially the United Kingdom, usually arguing that NATO is perfectly capable of providing the security of Europe, and any efforts towards more cooperation in defence and security would just lead to duplication of its role.

Although still unlikely, many important events of the last twelve months have either contributed to a feeling of greater urgency in moving towards European defence integration or eliminated obstacles which were formerly perceived as prohibitive. At the same time, this is only part of a larger issue at stake: the future direction of the European Union post-Brexit.

The problematic case of European defence

The question of whether European defence should rely mainly on NATO or on a strong cooperation of European countries is as old as European Integration itself. In 1950, French Prime Minister René Pleven proposed a plan for a European Defence Community which would have served as an alternative to Germany’s accession to NATO, but which eventually failed to obtain consent in the French Parliament. Subsequent attempts managed to achieve moderate steps towards integration, but differences between Member States’ priorities, stances and capabilities prevented projects of real ambition from materialising.

In June 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that although Europe is mostly a “soft power”, there is a need for more integration in security and defence matters, since “even the strongest soft powers cannot make do in the long run without at least some integrated defence capabilities”. At the time, his words did not leave a lasting impact as resistance towards such proposals was well-known, and NATO was just about to boost its presence in the Baltic states in response to the arrival of an increasing number of Russian troops to the region. There was no sign of the issues to come.

Winds of change

Since then, new developments have propelled the idea of a common European Defence to the forefront once again. First of all, the upsurge in terrorism and migration made it apparent that Member States cannot tackle some issues alone and better cooperation is needed, especially in terms of border control and intelligence. With the lack of internal border controls, it is crucial to share intelligence and immigration data in order to be able to identify potential security risks, but sharing research and technology among Member States could also elevate effectiveness and foster interoperability.

Secondly, the United Kingdom – the EU’s biggest military power, with almost 25% of its total armed forces – decided to leave the bloc. This means a huge loss in military potential (for example, France will be the only remaining power with nuclear weapons), but also creates a new opportunity. The UK’s “special relationship” with the US meant that it objected to any ambitious attempt at closer EU defence cooperation, especially since as the biggest spender it has been fairly reluctant to share military technology with other Member States.

Thirdly, newly elected US President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw NATO support for EU Member States who do not meet the Organisation’s (non-binding) defence spending criterion of 2% of GDP per annum, at the same time raising uncertainty concerning the level of US commitment to defend Europe. The new US Administration has often accused EU States of taking advantage of NATO, and while the Commission defends itself by pointing at the humanitarian and preventive measures the EU and the Member States undertake, some experts have even started to question whether NATO would invoke Article 5 on collective defence if an “underpaying” Member State was to be attacked. In any case, there seems to be a significant reduction in trust between the US and the EU.

Lastly, the emphatic victory of pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron in the French elections has given further boost to integration. Although Macron is a strong supporter of NATO and pledges to spend 2% of the country’s GDP on defence by 2025, he is not against the idea of strengthening EU capabilities as long as they complement NATO’s. Maybe the best indication of his ambition to enhance defence cooperation within the EU is that he named pro-Integration former MEP Sylvie Goulard as Minister of the Armed Forces, whose first message as Minister was that she is “attached to making European defence projects move forward”. A federalist who is completely fluent in German, Goulard had previously been widely tipped to take over the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, but is now understood to have become a key player in Macron’s plans of creating a much closer cooperation in the EU in the areas of defence and security.

New impetus

Combined, the aforementioned factors have led to a situation where European leaders have started to talk, cautiously but openly, about taking steps in the direction of stronger cooperation and integration. In June 2016, just days before the Brexit vote, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini presented her Global Strategy, which included an EU-wide integrated security community to tackle instability on Europe’s doorstep, calling for efforts to make European defence and security more effective. According to Mogherini, although the EU spends on defence around half of what the US does, its output is closer to 15% of its transatlantic ally. As Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elmar Brok said, America is “a decade ahead of us [the EU] in terms of equipment”.

At last September’s summit in Bratislava, with the UK’s decision already at the back of their minds, the 27 Member States showed commitment to further cooperate on defence, which materialised in the Council’s conclusions on the Global Strategy in November. This put emphasis on six areas, including setting up a military planning and conduct capability (MPCC) unit and generally “deepening European defence cooperation”. MPCC will first take over three small and non-executive (mostly advisory, without real mandate for action) training missions in Africa (Somalia, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo), but many expect its tasks to be broadened later, for example to missions against human traffickers in the Mediterranean.

In November, the Commission joined the efforts by proposing a “European Defence Action Plan”, which contained, among others, an idea for a European Defence Fund for joint research into military technologies, more EU co-financing of defence investment projects (especially for SMEs), and strengthening the Single Market for defence in order to reduce equipment prices. On 24 May, as part of the general discussion about the future direction of the EU, the Commission held an orientation debate on the path European Defence cooperation should take in the next few years. The purpose of these talks was in part to determine the amount of willingness the remaining 27 Member States have to accelerate integration in the area of security and defence.

Changing the treaties?

Albeit interesting, establishing a headquarters or allocating funds for joint military research are still very modest steps towards a fully integrated European defence. At the same time, there is not much more Member States can do without changing the treaties – an idea which was dismissed as “unrealistic” by influential German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble. Yet, when meeting in Berlin for the new French President’s first foreign trip, both Merkel and Macron denied that a treaty change would be “taboo”, instead emphasising that they are open-minded towards solutions that could secure the long-term future of European integration.

It’s important to add that the Reflection paper due to be published on 7 June on the future of European Defence is the second in a line of similar documents released within the broader framework of the White Paper on the future of Europe, with one on the Economic and Monetary Union published on Wednesday and another on EU finances due to be published later in June. This consultation will have a significant impact on the future direction of the European Union; therefore it is interesting to note that several of the proposals in the first paper may not be possible without treaty change – even though the Commission would never openly suggest such a scenario.

In parallel, other ideas being circulated (such as abolishing the Parliamentary seat in Strasbourg or a change in the Council’s voting structure) would also require changes in the treaties, while there will surely be many hitherto unforeseen Brexit-related legal issues to deal with. This leads to an ever-increasing suspicion that if the current forces at play hold for the next few years, a change in the treaties will not only become a possibility, but an outright necessity.

Next steps

This week the Council’s Working Party of Foreign Relations Counsellors (RELEX) agreed on the text establishing the Military Planning and Conduct Capabilities unit; it will be signed by the Member States on 8 June, one day after the launch of the European Defence Fund, as announced in the Defence Action Plan. In parallel and within the framework of the White Paper on the Future of Europe, a reflection paper will be published on the future of European Defence, which will shed more light on the current level of ambition of the Commission and the Member States to build an integrated European defence capability.