Defence and security win battle but not war, in EU budget plans

Air Mobility Command (AMC) of the US Air Force stand ready on the US Air Force base Ramstein, near Kaiserslautern, Germany, 24 January 2018. The Ramstein Air Base is a military airport U.S. Air Force and serves as the headquarters for the United States Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) and also for the NATO Allied Air Command (AIRCOM). [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

While the new EU budget proposal charts an improvement from the European Commission’s previously planned outlay for the bloc’s defence initiatives, it still remains far from original ambitions.

On Wednesday (27 May), the European Commission increased the total financial firepower of the EU budget to €1.85 trillion.

The new proposal comes after EU leaders, MEPs and the European Commission had been at odds over the total figure for the long-term budget, with MEPs calling for €2 trillion to be put aside to mitigate the economic fallout of the health crisis.

Cuts to the European Commission’s draft defence budget proposal were already under consideration well before the pandemic hit Europe.

Even though defence spending is set for an overall increase, EU officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that budget limitations would undermine EU ambitions to reduce its military reliance on the US, at a time when the bloc’s defence initiatives have started to show progress towards more European autonomy.

Compared to earlier proposals, the Commission’s new MFF increases the funding for EU defence cooperation-related initiatives.

The ‘Resilience, Defence and Security’ budget bracket is meant to receive €29,1 billion over the next seven years, with the EU’s flagship initiatives – the European Defence Fund and military mobility – receiving €8 billion and €1,5 billion respectively.

With this, funding levels remain far below the originally proposed €13 billion for the EDF and €6.5 for military mobility.

Security initiatives such the Internal Security Fund, nuclear safety and decommissioning as well as other decentralised agencies will receive 4,56 billion.

Meanwhile, the ‘Resilience and Crisis Response’ bracket has seen a rise to 14 billion as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to only 1.2 billion under the Commission’s initial proposal.

The new French-brokered European Peace Facility (EPF),  which could potentially be used to boost EU presence in Africa – although not part of the EU budget itself but mentioned in previous proposals – has been excluded from the current text.

However, the new proposal contains a Strategic Investment Facility, aimed “to invest in key value chains crucial for Europe’s future resilience and strategic autonomy”.

Slight return to military mobility ambition

“Overall, the funding that the Commission proposes for EU defence cooperation related initiatives is not as low as some feared,” Niklas Novaky, EU security and defence policy analyst at the Wilfried Martens Centre, told EURACTIV.

According to him, it would be “positive that the numbers are even up from what was previously proposed” and the resurgence of military mobility in particular should be welcomed.

The Commission’s February budget non-paper had threatened to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals, with military mobility being one of the main casualties.

Throughout the negotiation process, the proposed funding for military mobility dropped from €6.5 billion under the initial Commission proposal, to €2.5 billion under the Finnish presidency negotiating box, to €1.5 billion under Council President Michel’s proposal, to zero funding in the Commission’s technical document.

Europe's military mobility: latest casualty of EU budget battle

The Commission’s latest budget non-paper threatens to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals. It was put forward on Friday (20 February) in an attempt to bridge the growing differences among EU leaders over the bloc’s next seven-year budget.

Intended to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises by reducing physical, legal and regulatory barriers, military mobility has so far been hailed as one of the EU’s flagship defence initiatives with few political disagreements across the bloc.

It had been one of the initial projects launched under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), leading some to hope it could eventually create a “Military Schengen” as it is inspired by the EU’s Schengen Area.

However, according to Novaky, given the current political climate in Europe, it should be expected the numbers will fall again once the European Council will discuss the MFF.

“Even before COVID-19, there was pressure from the member states to cut the proposed funding for EU defence cooperation related initiatives,” he said. “This pressure is likely to be even greater now that the member states are having to deal with the heavy socio-economic fallout from COVID-19.”

Filling the infrastructure gaps

According to experts, the current €1.5 billion pledged to military mobility also falls short of what is needed to fill capability gaps.

“The EU needs to look for ways to incentivise nations to invest in improving their infrastructure,” Ben Hodges, a retired US general who commanded American army forces in Europe, told EURACTIV.

“Political leaders need to recognise that mobility is not just about military mobility, it’s about crisis mobility, it’s the need to be able to across borders during times of crisis, whether it’s to move medical supplies and healthcare professionals or military equipment”, he added.

While the EU’s Green Deal would aim to get as many cars off the road as possible, “investment in rail and anything that helps reduce the number of automobiles on the road for transportation, while contributing towards the green targets, also improves crisis mobility.”

According to Hodges, another incentive could be that the investment done by EU member states into some of the dual-use infrastructure could be counted into NATO’s 2% spending target.

“NATO knows how much it needs EU efforts to improve military mobility, because the fixing or expanding of infrastructure, as well as getting the work done for crossing borders, is within EU responsibility,” he said.

“If the West does not do this, for whatever reason, China will in fact step in, as they already have, and we know the result of this,” he said, adding that EU countries, because of the influence of Chinese investment, have already undermined EU efforts to hold China accountable.

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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