A European Commission push for a common defence strategy has gained momentum since last year’s Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that in general terms Europe could not necessarily rely on US or British support anymore, the Commission was eager to downplay any concerns about the EU-Nato relations that its defence strategy may raise.
“We are not suggesting in any way to substitute, duplicate or compete with Nato,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as she presented the proposals.
“This work is on strengthening the European defence that will increase the security and the defence of European Union citizens […], but it will also help strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance and responsibility sharing across the Atlantic.”
At the same time, the EU was also eager to stress a major evolution in European defence integration, an idea that dates back to the 1950s and that has always met with strong resistance from the UK.
“We have moved more in six months’ time than we have in the past 60 years,” said Jyrki Katainen, Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, listing a number of statements and moves on the part of member states. “This is probably because of a shift in member states’ minds, that we have to do something more, and address security threats in a more united manner than before.”
Could the Franco-German plans reassure the US?
Building upon last year’s “European Defence Union” proposals from Paris and Berlin, the Commission put forward two main areas for a defence fund that could eventually make up some 5.5 billion euros of the EU annual budget.
These include funding for defence research into things like cyber security, robotics and drones; and cost-saving measures by which member states would coordinate joint purchases of helicopters, tanks and other expensive assets.
“The Trump administration says the EU Nato members to spend more, but it is also important to spend better, and in order to spend better, you need to have instruments like the European defence fund,” says Kamil Mazurek, a researcher with the Polish foreign and defence policy think tank The Pulaski Foundation.
“This further integration […] might be helpful to Nato as well as the EU and even the US, and it might be that the Trump administration, after it sees how it works, will stop these words about the European Union spending too little.”
EU integration tied with EU governance
The proposed 5.5 billion euros appears paltry when EU member states collectively spent more than 203 billion euros on defence in 2015, which is itself less than half of what the US tends to spend.
But any question about further EU integration comes with concerns of Brussels’ political leverage over national governments, and these will remain even with Britain out of the picture.
“The main dividing lines today are perhaps in the way member states look at how the CSDP [the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy] might contribute to stronger European political integration in the longer term,” says Andrea Frontini, policy analyst with the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
“Countries like Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Slovakia are all quite sensitive to security and defence matters, but many of these countries rather look at Nato as the best forum to foster cooperation and coordination,” he says.
“We’re seeing today a potential rapprochement between France and Germany on the one hand, and on the other persisting lack of interest or distrust among member states that do not believe that the two processes should be linked more closely.”
The defence fund would need all members’ approval if it is to take effect, and members will have the opportunity to discuss the proposal at the next EU leaders’ summit on 22 June.