European Defence Fund on track for vote in April

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini , European commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness Jyrki Katainen and EU Commissioner in charge of Internal Market, Industry, Polish, Elzbieta Bienkowska give a press conference on the European defence action plan in Brussels, Belgium, 30 November 2016. [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s Industry and Research Committee (ITRE) green-lighted on Monday (25 March) a recently reached provisional political agreement on the establishment of a European Defence Fund for 2021-2027.

The EU institutions finalised negotiations over the provisional agreement on the EDF in February, which will now be subject to formal approval by MEPs, in the Parliament’s Strasbourg plenary session in April, and then by ministers.

According to plans, the EDF would receive an estimated €13 billion in the EU’s next long-term budget (MFF) and finance collaborative research projects mainly through grants.

The provisional agreement, however, does not include the final figures, as the EU’s next long-term budget still needs to be approved by the next Parliament in autumn.

European Defence Fund talks reveal rift over EU’s defence future

EU lawmakers failed to seal an agreement on the future of the European Defence Fund (EDF) despite a nine hour negotiation session last week.

Negotiations in recent months repeatedly stalled as Parliament and member states disagreed on the fund’s objectives, ethical control of the actions and the eligibility criteria of the entities and actions financed, as well as the direct or indirect management of the fund. But an inter-institutional agreement was reached on most of the points.

“We can expect a rather emotional parliamentary debate before the EDF vote, because although the provisional agreement has been reached, some MEPs feel that a lot of crucial issues have been neglected and the negotiations had been rushed through to make it before the elections,” a Parliament official close to the file told EURACTIV after the negotiations in February.

Commission boosts European defence plans

Last Wednesday (20 March), Commissioners Jyrki Katainen and Elżbieta Bieńkowska announced a roadmap for spending the €525 million under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP), which is considered the precursor to the EDF, until the latter is implemented in 2021.

The Commission kick-started the first EU-funded joint defence industrial projects in 2017 through the EDIDP, a key pillar of the European Defence Fund.

“To ensure Europe can protect its citizens, we need cutting-edge defence technology and equipment in areas like artificial intelligence, drone technology, satellite communication and intelligence systems,” Commissioner Bieńkowska, responsible for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, told reporters in Brussels.

“With the EU investments we are launching, we are going from ideas to concrete projects, we are strengthening the competitiveness of our defence industries,” she said.

The Commission has also announced the publication of 21 calls for proposals for joint defence capabilities developments, which are meant to cover air, land, sea, as well as space and cyberspace.

Responding to criticism that funding from the EDF will be dominated by national interests, Bieńkowska said the projects were European, “not single member state priorities”.

Two projects already selected will receive financial support from the EDF. Among them is the Eurodrone, developed jointly by Airbus, Dassault and Leonardo, with financing of €100 million, and the so-called ESSOR programme for military communications with a budget of €37 million. A Franco-German battle tank is another proposal considered for funding.

Moot points remain

One of the friction points in the negotiations had been that the future EDF will have no parliamentary scrutiny. As the text now foresees, the Commission will adopt the Fund’s work programmes through ‘implementing acts’, excluding EU lawmakers from an oversight role.

“It is without precedent that a Parliament with legislative and budgetary power gives up its scrutiny role over a 7-year €13 billion fund,” said Ann Feltham, parliamentary co-ordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

“Such a compromise will pave the way for the EU to become merely a cash cow for an agglomerate of national short-term interests, and the Parliament reduced to a rubber-stamping body,” she added.

Critics also pointed out the possibility that the fund could be used for the development of controversial weapons, but Bieńkowska said “the European Defence Fund will not cover actions or projects that are prohibited under international law.”

Autonomous weapons, AI are future of defence but require ethical debate, says expert

Should a computer be allowed to take decisions over life and death? As artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role, many issues still need to be discussed in parliament and by the general public, Ulrike Franke told EURACTIV about the ongoing autonomous weapons debate and the future of warfare.

But while exclusion of lethal autonomous weapons without the possibility of human control over critical functions has been pushed through by EU lawmakers, critics point out that research and development for other autonomous or unmanned systems is allowed, including armed drones or fully autonomous systems “for defensive purpose only”.

“Not all types of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear technology or white phosphorus, are excluded. In a context where ‘obvious’ international treaties can suddenly be put into question by superpowers, it is a concern that the EU avoids defining reliable standards when it comes to developing new weaponry,” said Francesco Vignarca, coordinator of the Italian Disarmament Network.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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