Europe must seize opportunity for stronger defence cooperation, says EDA chief

EDA Chief Executive Jiří Šedivý [European Defence Agency]

With the pressure in the EU’s strategic environment mounting, the bloc should not miss the opportunity of starting to use all the tools at hand to increase its defence cooperation, Jiří Šedivý, chief executive of the European Defence Agency (EDA) told EURACTIV in an interview.

Last week, the EU’s first-ever defence review, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), painted a gloomy picture for the bloc’s ability to achieve ‘strategic autonomy. The report assessed national defence planning and capability development efforts of 26 member states, minus Denmark, which has opted out of EU defence initiatives.

“European defence suffers from fragmentation, duplication and insufficient operational engagement,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell acknowledged.

Speaking to EURACTIV, Šedivý said Europe has “a really deteriorating strategic environment around us in our neighbourhood. It’s clear COVID-19 has on the one hand taken a lot of energy and political attention from us, and some feared it had undermined our overall unity,” he said.

“This is yet another wake-up call,” Šedivý said, adding “that like with any big crisis in the EU, this, in the end, it will galvanise us towards more cooperation, also in defence.”

According to him, the bottom line of the review is that “capability development is fragmented, there is a lot of duplication due to individual national approaches, and that due to this fragmentation and duplication, we are losing efficiency and interoperability.”

Šedivý stressed the report was for the first time focused on detailed consultations with all participating member states in the EEA except for Denmark.

“The results are not new, but it is the method that is new with which we arrived at those conclusions,” he said.

As part of an EU strategy to develop self-standing military capacity over the next decade, the reviews had urged EU governments to focus on “six next-generation capabilities” of weaponry and end costly national duplication.

This includes focusing on a new battle tank (MBT), patrol vessels, defence in space, soldier systems, counter-drone technology (C-UAS), area denial weapons (A2/AD), and enhanced military mobility.

Asked whether the priorities were set right in the areas where experts said the EU is not doing enough to address major capability shortfalls, Šedivý pointed out that member states agreed on them as the “most favourable from their perspective” and there would be an “intersection of the stated interests and needs for the future”.

EU lacks defence capabilities to meet 'strategic autonomy' goals

The EU’s first-ever defence review painted a gloomy picture for the bloc’s ability to achieve  ‘strategic autonomy. Experts also believe the EU is not doing enough to address major shortfalls.

“They are complementary to what is being developed by member states in various other formats or frameworks,” he said, acknowledging that most member states would put European priorities in third place, after national and NATO interests, in addition to the multi-national activities.

“Our proposal does not have the ambition to cover everything, it is part of the wider picture,” the EDA chief added, stressing that the six focus areas are already supported or are being worked on existing EU defence frameworks like PESCO or the European Defence Fund.

“What is important is that in all those frameworks, we are more or less keeping the same direction and continuity and coherence is being kept throughout,” he said.

However, as member states current spending plans are already set for the next few years, the priorities will only influence the member states’ next planning cycle, after 2025.

Asked whether this would be too late, Šedivý said that EU defence ministers had already indicated last week having concrete areas or concrete plans for addressing the proposals, he expects that next June, his agency will present them with more concrete commitments in the respective areas from member states.

The first working program for the 7€ billion European Defence Fund, intended to foster cooperation on research and development of military technology and equipment, is expected in March, alongside with more joint PESCO projects that will likely focus on the six earmarked priorities.

Asked if the COVID-19 pandemic will influence those priorities, Šedivý said there would be “no need to change the bottom line” but as there will be pressure on defence budgets due to the expected economic downturn after the pandemic, more cooperation would be the “rational choice”.

Among the 26 PESCO projects earmarked to deliver results before 2025, there would be EU medical commands linked to the proposal of an EU military hospital or a project of a multi-functional transport tanker aircraft, which could be repurposed for medical evacuation.

“We heard from ministers that participate in this project, that as a reaction to COVID-19, there is the aim to strengthen the biological warfare unit part of that hospital”, Šedivý said, adding that CBRN protections are part of the considerations.

“Next year will be absolutely crucial because it will be only the next year when all those tools and processes will meet. It will be the year of coherence,” he said.

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“The EU’s future Strategic Compass will make sure member states really meet their commitments and invest more together in a collaborative manner in defence,” Šedivý said.

With the new strategy document, the EU aims to draw up a military doctrine by 2022 and define future threats and ambition, amid a growing debate over whether Europe should aim to enhance its military might independently from the US.

It will cover crisis management, resilience, capability developments, and partnerships, EU senior officials have confirmed, and is seen as an attempt to “fix the doctrine of the EU”.

However, the EU’s search for an overarching common military strategy has so far been unsuccessful due to the widening gap between member states’ security priorities.

Even under the new US administration, which will still be focusing more and more inevitably towards the Asia-Pacific region, it will be expected from us to be more autonomous, be stronger, and therefore more credible in NATO,” Šedivý said, echoing what EU officials have been repeating for a long time.

“This is a quite unprecedented situation for European defence: We have a lot of pressure from the strategic environment, we have immediate experience from COVID-19, which also teaches us to cooperate more, we see the US not leaving Europe,” he added.

“If we miss the opportunity in this period, it means the next two years, if we miss the opportunity to use all these instruments, then it will be perhaps in the future by historians as EU actually missing the rendezvous with history,” Šedivý said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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