Above: The German Leopard II Tank
A year ago, the slightest whispering of anything that could be construed as a “European Army” would have been taboo in Brussels. Yet the combination of Brexit and the resurgence of Russia have dramatically changed the geopolitical stage. The biggest stumbling block to the development of hard power capabilities in the EU is arguably the Atlanticist point of view. Fundamentally, Atlanticists argue that any increase in the structural cooperation between European nations outside of the framework of NATO would be duplicating and even cannibalizing its operational capability. But with the departure of the UK, the Atlanticists, already a relatively disparate group of nations, have lost their leader, and with it, the EU’s main opposition.
That is not to say that such a defence union is now inevitable. To the contrary, the current momentum, along with Macron’s election, (an avowed supporter of the Defence Union idea) will quickly expose the structural and institutional hurdles that must be overcome before an EU with credible military capability exists. Firstly, the decision-making process behind the foreign policy of the EU is notoriously fragmented. Secondly, the procurement and R&D structures in Europe are infamously broken, both in terms of national protectionism and inefficiency. Thirdly, the entire EU still spends less than half of the US’s defence budget for significantly less than half of its capabilities.
Even a few months before Macron’s election, however, signs have emerged that suggest European governments are seeking the tools to fix these structural issues. US election has raised the hitherto unthinkable notion that the US might not help its NATO allies. Taken alongside a resurgent Russia, the last few months have been extremely distressing to most European defence ministers.
The decision-making process, so long a burden of the EU’s system and the dark prospect of another European Treaty amidst a battle for the survival of the European order, turns out to have an excellent work-around. The Treaty of Lisbon’s article 42(6), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), allows member states to effectively create an opt-in Defence Union. PESCO doesn’t require a messy treaty or convoluted opt-out negotiations for individual nations. States that desire a Defence Union may simply join, while those that do not can continue business as usual. In reality, the process is more nuanced, but nonetheless provides a consistent level of progress. As Mr. Macron puts it, “Waiting is the worst thing we can do”.
Procurement and R&D will have to be addressed. The loss of the UK will perhaps prove a serious blow to such efforts, as one of the main supporters towards efficient and free market bidding for European defence contracts. Nevertheless, the drive towards consolidation in the European defence market is likely to continue. The real obstacle will be convincing national governments to forgo their protectionist policies that enable to existence of dozens of duplicate and unnecessary weapons systems that cost more while reducing interoperability between member states.
Reforming both the European Defence Agency (EDA) and Athena will be vital in doing so. A revamped EDA, for so long blocked in its growth by an Atlanticist UK, could potentially be the institution through which the EU creates a defence procurement fund. Such a fund, if sufficiently convincing in a mandate to loan to EU states for the procurement of EU made defence assets, would go a long way towards convincing individual states to replace national industries with European level subsidiaries. With the EU’s military budget overspending due to procurement inefficiencies by over 30%, such improvements could potentially increase efficiency and capability without increasing overall costs. Allowing Athena to provide EU funds to European Council approved operations far beyond its current average levels that range between 10-15% of operational requirements, would provide the structural means for funding such operations entirely within the EU’s current purview.
Finally, despite a total decline of 10% in European defence budgets between 2005-2015, budgets have ceased falling and even reversed the trend. In 2015, the total European defence budget actually increased by 2.6%. Germany, long an unwilling participant in any show of military strength, has used its latest white paper to layout plans to increase its defence budget by 15% over the next four years. While much could be made of the EU’s loss of the UK’s military capability, one should also consider the consistent decline in British defence spending, with the latest 2106 numbers placing them in 7th for defence expenditure worldwide, down from 5th in 2015. Conversely, France has risen from 7th in 2015 to 6th in 2016.
This last point might provide decisive if the Defence Union is to succeed as more than another of the EU’s ambitious aspirations. The loss of Britain allows France to properly balance the German centre of gravity. Such a balance will not address the status of Germany as Europe’s economic powerhouse. It will instead be based on France’s comparative advantages on the global stage, as the EU’s sole voice in the UN Security Council, an active proponent of Liberal ideals in the Francophone sphere, and the most militarily capable European power. These provide France with an opportunity to lead Europe alongside Germany. Not as equals, but as counterweights balanced by their distinctive advantages. The question now is whether or not the rest of Europe will follow.
Felipe Cruvinel is currently working on a research project on Data Analytics in Counterinsurgency as part of a PhD in International Relations at the University of Saint Andrews. He has a Master’s Degree in International Security from the University, obtained after getting a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Queen Mary University of London. His interests include security and foreign policy matters at the global level, applied data analytics in conflict analysis, and Counterinsurgency in particular. This has been reinforced by a life-long interest in History and constant desire to learn more about the long term cycles and trends of political systems. His Twitter is @FCruvi
Photo by U.S. Army, Europe and is Public Domain