Barnier urges Europeans to build their own drones

  

In proposals aimed at relaunching cooperation on defence production, to be unveiled today (24 July), the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, Michel Barnier, urges Europe to shake off its dependency on Israel and the United States for pilotless military aircraft known as drones.

The European Commission will publish a policy document setting out proposals to foster cooperation among EU countries on defence matters.

Barnier said the lesson that Europe could draw from the recent US espionage scandal, Prism, was “to become sovereign, independent, in strategic matters.”

“In this paper, we make an original proposal concerning European defence capabilities,” said Michel Barnier, EU commissioner for the internal market.

“Why would Europe not have a programme on drones?” Barnier told a small group of French Brussels-based journalists last week.

The commissioner said such a programme would help Europe to “earn its sovereignty and not be forced to go buy equipment outside of Europe,” citing Israel and the United States as the only two countries in the world from which Europeans could buy drones.

Cuts in defence spending have encouraged European industrialists to support a joint drone programme. In June, France's Dassault Aviation, European aerospace giant EADS and Italy's Finmeccanica said a joint programme would "support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimising the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding.”

In a joint statement the three companies said they were prepared to work together on the creation of a European MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) drone, which allows surveillance of vast areas over 24 hours.

Dassault held a first successful test flight of its Neuron prototype in December 2012. Together with BAE Systems, the company signed a deal with the British and French governments in mid-2012 to propose a joint plan to demonstrate technology and operational aspects of a future unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

Standards

Although defence matters remain chiefly the competence of individual EU countries, Barnier said the Commission could help coordinate a European drone programme by promoting research and harmonising legislation on airspace, which are different in every member state.

Europe's defence industry have been hit by austerity-driven cuts in government spending and Barnier believes there could be renewed political momentum to re-launch cooperation in this area by pooling resources.

He cited hospital ships, aircraft carriers, maritime surveillance drones, cybersecurity facilities and laboratories related to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defence (CBRN) as equipment “that could be jointly acquired and used if necessary”.

France's former defence minister, Hervé Morin, warned in 2010 that, with declining investment in defence, Europe risked becoming a “protectorate” of the United States within 50 years.

While Europe has no real competence on military matters, there are areas where EU regulations could help foster cooperation.  The Commission communication aims at fostering innovation and growth by supporting small defence firms and encouraging synergies between military and civilian research.

Barnier said there were “seven areas” where the European Commission could offer assistance and expertise, “within the limits of the treaties”, citing certification, standardisation, public procurement, space, research, commerce and energy.

More generally, the Commission wants to make it easier for defence firms to export by creating standard procedures across Europe for certifying that products meet requirements rather than requiring each product to undergo costly testing in every country, an EU source said.

The communication will be discussed by the EU’s 28 heads of states and governments for possible endorsement at a European summit in December.

Timeline: 
  • 24 July: European Commission presents Communication on a comprehensive strategy to strengthen Europe's defence sector
  • 26 Sept.: EU defence ministers meeting to debate Commission communication on defence industries
  • 19 Nov. Defence ministers meeting
  • 19-20 Dec.: EU summit to discuss and possibly endorse Commission communication
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