European defence: advances were made, but where are they headed?

, by Edouard Simon, Translated by Lorène Weber

European defence: advances were made, but where are they headed?
Jean-Claude Juncker addressing the European Parliament for his 2018 State of the European Union speech. © European Union 2018 - European Parliament

Since 2016, the European Union has changed its paradigm in the field of defence. But how can we give body and life to this Security and Defence Union? Only a true European defence project may ensure an overall coherence, and this will be the mission of the next Commission.

After decades of immobility, subdued advances, real climbdowns and other sidesteps, European defence issues are finally advancing. And one has to acknowledge the progress made in such a short time (of one mandate): when Jean-Claude Juncker took office at the European Commission in 2014, evoking the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) would have been imprudent. Yet, it was launched with great pomp in December 2017 by 25 (!) member states.

It would also have been imprudent to only evoke the possibility for the European budget to finance its research or defence development activities. Yet, five years later, a dedicated fund is about to be created, with a substantial budget of 13 billion euros for the next annual programming (and this amount is the only one on which the Commission engaged its political responsibility). The world has changed, and so has the European paradigm regarding defence… and quickly.

However, these advances must hide neither the long road ahead of us nor the questions, yet crucial, that are still to be solved. In the first place, the question of the system’s overall coherence will be the most urgent, and the first test will be decisive for this Security and Defence Union, still in gestation. The tools were created, but the way they will work together still remains uncertain. Yet, it is essential that they work in synergy and reinforce each other. Beyond the central role that the Commission will have to play, it has neither the capacity nor the legitimacy to set the overall vision.

Giving a common perspective

Because, as is often the case, tools were created at the European level, but the direction is still to be defined. And this direction can only be the one of a European defence: what is PESCO’s purpose if it is only a framework for interstate cooperation, whatever it may be (just like NATO, OCCAR [1], etc.)? What is the European added value if these instruments do not enable the emergence of common goods, going beyond the sole geographic scope of the concerned cooperation?

Today, it is certain that we must leave the constructive ambiguity which has been prevailing for numerous years. European strategic autonomy, despite being a major element of the EU Global Strategy “welcomed” by the European Council in 2016, is not defined and has trouble producing full effect. With no direction, there can be no salvation, in particular in the field of defence. This is the main advantage of a project of a European army, supported in particular by France, Germany and Spain: giving a common perspective, and mapping the way forward to ensure overall coherence.

Because, from now on, this is the issue: moving from a logic responding to purely national needs, at best aggregated, to the one of a common political project answering common needs. In other words, achieving unity in diversity.

This article was originally published in French on 17 April 2019 in La Revue, the quarterly journal of the think thank Confrontations Europe.

Confrontations Europe’s Proposals for Defence

1/ To adopt as fast as possible the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the European Defence Fund and its budget of 13 billion euros, for it to enter into force on 1st January 2021. The fund’s rules must especially guarantee that it enables delivering the military and industrial capacities that Europe needs to become strategically autonomous, and not only the ones that the member states need in their national approaches.

2/ To assure the highest levels of coherence between the different initiatives launched by the EU since 2016 and of engagement from the member states and the industrialists to reach the EU strategic autonomy objective. This will especially imply the creation, within the European Commission, of a Directorate General (DG) gathering the politicies impacting defence and the sectors presenting a strategic aspect (space, aeronautics, cyber).

3/ To launch a process of defence planification (“White Paper”) in order to enable the development of a common European defence approach, in terms of ambitions, methods and means. In this framework, the political project of the creation of a European army gives a logical, desirable and credible horizon.


[1OCCAR is the acronym for the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation, an international organisation gathering six countries since 2011: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium and Spain.

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