Defence agenda: Defence initiatives and squabbling allies

German and French soldiers are walking with the European flag in front of the 'Louise Weiss Building', seat of the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, France, 01 July 2019. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

This article is part of our special report All aboard: EU policy train builds up steam after summer.

The second half of 2020 will be crucial for a range of European defence initiatives. It will also be crunch-time for Europeans to make yet another attempt at sorting out security matters on the global stage.

Below, we update you on developments in the European defence policy agenda since the start of this year and give you a lowdown on the most important areas to look out for in the coming months.

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Money, money, money

A glass half full for some, half empty for others: While the new EU budget agreement charts an improvement from the European Commission’s previously planned outlay for the bloc’s security and defence initiatives, it still remains far from original ambitions.

The negotiations have created two big victims: the European Defence Fund (EDF), which has  seen its funding fall by 40% to €7 billion compared to the initial plan of €13 billion, and space, whose budget has dropped to €13.3 billion for the period 2021-2027.

EU officials agree that the fund, which was meant to provide the financial firepower to support the implementation of cooperative defence projects, provides far less than what would be necessary to drive technology innovation. For comparison, the annual budget of DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced innovation cell, is $3.5 billion alone, which is only a small portion of the total US military R&D spending.

“If we want to have anything close to an autonomous European industry, this deal is a travesty,” one EU source close to the file told EURACTIV recently.

At the same time, €8 billion of the space budget will be devoted to the modernization of the European satellite navigation system Galileo and €4.8 billion to the Earth observation program Copernicus, leaving little room to finance new projects, such as a European constellation of satellites in low orbit.

Called for by Commissioner Thierry Breton, the initiative was meant to allow Europe by 2027 to have a constellation of satellites based on quantum technology, capable of both connecting all of Europe to broadband, and to offer secure essential communications to member states police, army, emergency services, etc.

The last word, however, has not been spoken yet. MEPs in the European Parliament still need to agree on their negotiating position and a final plenary vote is expected in the second half of October.

European defence projects

EU budget matters aside, the bloc’s defence initiatives are soon to enter a decisive phase of evaluation.

To bring a bit of clarity to the EU’s defence acronym madness coming up: The Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) gives an overview of where the bloc stands and identifies next steps, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) spells out the options on how to reach the objectives in a collaborative manner, while the EDF was set up to provide the funds to support the implementation of cooperative defence projects in general, but with a bonus, if in PESCO.

“What is missing is the progress in many projects, but capability development is a very slow process, especially when it comes to collaborative initiatives – it is something most politicians tend not to understand as they have too much pressure to deliver results quickly,” an EU source complained over a coffee with EURACTIV.

The first full-cycle CARD report will be presented to EU defence ministers and European Defence Agency officials in November, with the report being for ministers eyes only. 

The same timeline applies to the PESCO Strategic Review, which is meant to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the 47 PESCO projects so far and examine whether its objectives have been reached.

And then enter COVID-19.

With the pandemic response having covered every policy area, a dedicated EU military task force was set up to support the coordination of the national armed forces in the fight against the virus fallout. So far, little of its work has been visible. NATO has been more hands on.

Although the two progress reports will mean assessment of strategic priorities, EURACTIV understands that the bilateral meetings with member states were taking place before the pandemic, so the information provided by them predates the health crisis.

“While the current analysis does not reflect the future decisions that will be made by member states, the general mood is that capitals will try to include new issues, but they don’t want to emphasise them too much or exaggerate too early,” an EU source close to the matter told EURACTIV.

“However disruptive the economic and financial impact of COVID-19 might be, it will not obscure the need for member states to strengthen Europe’s full spectrum of defence capabilities, and to do it through cooperation,” Jiří Šedivý, the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) new Chief Executive, wrote in mid-July, emphasising the opportunity that lies in the crisis. “This crisis makes collaborative capability development even more indispensable and urgent.”

However, asked whether there has been a shift in priorities due to the pandemic threat when it comes to the EU’s military projects, EU officials agree that “although events shape politics, it is dangerous to change priorities in every crisis”, an EU source put it.

The only sure development will be the stronger need to develop an adequate response to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats as the global struggle to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global societies to natural and manmade biological threats, prompting experts to warn of a potential increase in the use of biological weapons, like viruses or bacteria, in a post-coronavirus world.

→ Read also: Has COVID-19 increased the threat of bioterrorism in Europe?

At the same time, US officials have for months been lobbying for an inclusive policy providing the greatest possible access of third-countries to both PESCO and EDF covering defence contractors, which besides the United States would also include post-Brexit Britain.

German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had hinted that she would “try to implement the proposal so we can get third states onboard in PESCO projects“, during Germany’s EU Council presidency.

However, European leaders so far said they want to focus on strengthening intra-European cooperation – and support Europe’s fragmented defence industries – before opening up to the wider competition. This directly translates into the fear to restrict outsiders from receiving already very scarce European defence money intended only for member states.

“The open question of third-party participation rules must be resolved as quickly as possible,” the four defence ministers of France, Germany, Spain and Italy wrote to EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell in late May, hinting at a proposal for limitations to the accessibility of funds for outsiders.

“The involvement of entities in PESCO projects does not imply that such entities will necessarily be eligible for funding under the EDIDP or EDF regulations,” it read.

→ Read also: Germany wants EU ‘hospital trains’ as new military project

Parliament scrutiny

After summer break, MEPs will also debate two parliamentary reports, one on the state of play of the EU’s arms exports regime which is meant to address concerns over the lack of transparency and common arms export rules across the bloc.

“I would like to see reporting of the licences that have been granted, of the actual exports, but also of denials, because then we could see the discrepancies between member states, and they could be discussed in COARM,” rapporteur MEP Hannah Neumann (Greens) told EURACTIV earlier this year. The EU’s Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports (COARM) operates as a forum where the member states communicate and share information on their export policies to non-EU countries.

The second one is meant to evaluate the interpretation and application of international law on AI in defence.

EU threat analysis

One of the main objectives under Germany’s EU presidency will be the discussion on the bloc’s newly announced ‘Common Strategic Compass’, a tool meant to guide the implementation of the security and defence dimension of the EU’s Global Strategy and lead to a common threat analysis across the bloc. Approval is expected in 2022.

EU foreign ministers officially launched the work programme for the new initiative in June with the goal to align member states’ threat perceptions and still divergent strategic cultures, in an attempt to bring about more consolidation in the drive towards an EU Defence Union.

The threat analysis is the first step in the process and meant to cover security trends in different regions of the world and also thematically extended segments on European security. It is to be finalised by the end of the year, but according to an EU source, could be presented to member states in November, in the form of a classified intelligence document.

The past years (and months especially) have proven that finding common ground among 27 countries on such thorny issues as dealing with Russia and China or sustaining the transatlantic relationship resembles a European Mission Impossible.

After being announced in June, EU officials had been complaining about yet another new strategy document without the bloc having fully embraced the 2016 Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, which was meant to be the already updated doctrine to improve the effectiveness of the bloc’s defence and security.

“To be clear, the Strategic Compass is not designed to replace or rewrite the EU’s Global Strategy, but be an addition on newly emerged threats that then were not fully taken into account,” an EU source close to the file told EURACTIV.

US troop plans in Europe

In late July, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper outlined plans to take nearly 12,000 US troops out of Germany by shifting forces to Italy and Belgium, with several thousand others to start a rotation between the US and European countries, ending weeks of uncertainty over the US troop withdrawal strategy in Europe.

As part of that plan, Esper also announced that two headquarters — US European Command (EUCOM) and Special Operations Command Europe — would move out of Stuttgart to Mons, Belgium.

At the same time, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been ordered to make plans to move out of its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, its commander General Stephen Townsend said in a press release: “While it will likely take several months to develop options, consider locations, and come to a decision, the command has started the process.”

Although Esper sold the US decision, which is meant to happen ‘as soon as feasible’, by saying the move would “in a way strengthen NATO,” enhance the deterrent to Russia and reassure allies, it seemed to have caused the exact opposite effect in parts of the alliance.

Poland, meanwhile, turns out to be one of the winners (though mostly by self-definition). Positioning troops on Polish soil would certainly put them closer to Russia, which is one of Warsaw’s official strategic goals. And certainly, during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent trip to Poland, both sides signed a a defence pact, which will see the number of US troops in Poland rise to at least 5,500, with the possibility of more in case of an increased threat.

→ Read also: Pentagon to shift US troops from Germany to Belgium, Italy

NATO’s headache(s) continued

Which brings us back to the theme of “squabbling allies” within NATO.

NATO’s deterrence power does not only depend on military spending, but above all on political cohesion, solidarity and close cooperation. However, since last year’s acrimonious London anniversary summit, the alliance is still trying to bridge a series of intense internal divisions.

Turkey has become “the elephant in the room” for NATO, European diplomats say.

As a brief reminder: Despite being a NATO member, Ankara has bought Russian air defence, for quite some time blocked the alliance’s Eastern defence plans, and engaged itself in a Greek-Turkish showdown in the Eastern Mediterranean which have nearly led to armed conflicts with France and Greece.

None of the other NATO members has so far been able, or willing, to decisively mediate and solve the dispute. The same goes for the EU. Although EU foreign ministers showed support towards Greece and condemned Turkey’s actions, so far no substantive action has followed, with a decision to be potentially made in their EU presidency meeting next week in Berlin.

→Read also: The Brief – The EU faces ‘brain death’ over Turkey

One long-running problem with an end in sight seems to be Libya, however, with a big question mark. Senior EU officials said in June the bloc had contacted NATO to see “how we can have arrangements” between the EU’s Operation Irini and the military alliance’s Operation Sea Guardian in the eastern Mediterranean to enforce the UN arms embargo.

On Friday (21 August), Libya’s UN-recognised government announced a ceasefire across the country and called for demilitarising the contested strategic city of Sirte, raising hopes for peace in the more than nine-year-old conflict. However, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar , who has suffered a series of reverses in recent months, has already dismissed it as a “marketing” stunt.

A problem child (although of a different kind) in the making is Belarus. Eastern Europeans had been busy lobbying NATO to increase its vigilance towards Russia, after it has dropped down the priority list somwehat.

The Belarusian army has held drills in the Grodno region near Poland and Lithuania, close to the infamous forty-mile-wide stretch called the Suwalki Gap, whose two highways are the only land corridor by which NATO troops could reinforce its Baltic member states in the event of a conflict with Russia.

President Lukashenko said earlier that he was concerned by previous NATO exercises conducted in Poland and Lithuania, which both he and Russia’s President Putin see as an arms build-up at his frontdoor. At the same time, NATO rejected claims of troop buildup by Lukashenko as “baseless”, but said it was closely monitoring the situation following his contested re-election.“NATO poses no threat to Belarus or any other country,” the military alliance’s spokesperson Oana Lungescu said.

Disarmament talks

The clock is ticking as the world’s only remaining nuclear arms control treaty, New START, will expire in less than 6 months unless Russia and the US agree to roll it over.

While Washington has repeatedly called on China to take part in negotiations to extend it (not likely), the overall tone between the three nuclear powers has been rather rough.

After a previous round of talks in late June were constructive but fruitless, the US and Russia agreed to meet for another attempt in mid-August. And although both sides remain at odds over several key issues, they opened the door an inch towards a possibly temporary extension of New START.

With less than 100 days to go until the US presidential elections an agreement in principle would constitute a considerable win for President Trump, who during his term came under fire from Democrats and parts of his Republican base for exiting several international landmark agreements.

Nevertheless, the nature of elections campaigns could likewise put on ice serious attempts to move forward on an agreement after Inauguration Day (presumably 20 January, 2021).

→ Read also: Doomsday Clock: 100 seconds until the end of the world

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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