The EU should provide more funds to enable faster movement of military forces across Europe, defence ministers from four eastern European member states said on Tuesday (10 March), two weeks before the bloc starts a new round of divisive talks over the next seven-year budget.
On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the Bucharest Nine, a group of countries on the eastern edge of NATO – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Romania – are meeting in Vilnius to assess the unity of the initiative’s members with regard to the security challenges along NATO’s eastern flank.
In a joint letter seen by AFP, EU and NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania said Brussels could undermine EU ambitions by cutting funding for the EU’s “military mobility” programme, one of the Commission announced priorities, including measures to quickly move troops and equipment across Europe in the event of a conflict with Russia.
The call comes after the European Commission’s latest ‘technical document’ on the EU’s 2021-27 budget proposed a reduced budget for the bloc’s space programme and suggested zero funding for the military mobility programme.
Throughout the negotiation process, the proposed funding for military mobility has dropped from €6.5 billion in the initial Commission proposal, to €2.5 billion under the Finnish presidency negotiating box, to €1.5 billion under Council president Charles Michel’s proposal, to potentially zero funding in the Commission’s latest technical document.
“The EU’s ambition to become a stronger player in dealing with most imminent security risks will be seriously compromised if Military Mobility were left without adequate funding from the very start,” the Eastern European ministers said in their letter.
They urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other senior EU officials “to respect the commitment” to the programme, which they said was a “flagship initiative for NATO-EU cooperation”.
So far, military mobility has been seen as the silver bullet for EU-NATO cooperation, especially in recent years when the bloc presented it as a complementary element between the two organisations.
“Since military mobility is one of the most substantial topics of EU-NATO cooperation, this will also have an impact on the perception of the relations between the two organisations,” Justyna Gotkowska, a researcher at the Warsaw-based Centre of Eastern Studies, told EURACTIV after the EU budget summit in February.
In 2018, Commission set out a plan to improve infrastructure and remove legal hurdles to allow faster movement of military troops and vehicles across the continent, a vital security issue for nations at the EU and NATO’s eastern flank.
Twenty-three EU member states have joined the European Defence Agency (EDA) programme on “Optimising Cross-Border Movement Permission procedures in the EU” harmonising and simplifying military movement across the bloc. The holdouts are Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Slovenia.
While full-scale conflict between Russia and NATO is seen as highly unlikely, some experts warned that increased military activity in the region increased the risk of unintended accidents.
In the event of a conflict, Russia’s capability to launch an attack within 24 to 48 hours and centralised decision-making could give it “military advantage over its neighbours” in the short term, Lithuania’s intelligence agency warned last month.
Known as the ‘Four Thirties’ Readiness Initiative, NATO already has a plan in place that would require 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 combat vessels ready to deploy within 30 days or less of being put on alert.
Several experts told EURACTIV that they believe the existing infrastructure barriers might resurface this spring, when around 37,000 soldiers take part in the military exercise “Defender 2020” for the transfer of troops to Poland and the Baltic states, in what security officials have called “the most extensive transfer of US soldiers to Europe in the past 25 years”.
Eastern Europeans have become warier about their Eastern defence since several fellow NATO members have questioned the urgency of the Eastern threat (Turkey) or their own commitment to NATO (France, US).
As EURACTIV reported from the London summit in December, NATO member Turkey had threatened to block an agreement for the defence of Poland and the Baltic states unless the alliance agreed to designate as terrorists Syrian Kurdish fighters Ankara targeted in its October military offensive.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]