EU lawmakers on Thursday (29 April) approved the controversial €7.9 billion European Defence Fund (EDF), clearing the way for the bloc’s first-ever dedicated programme for military research intended to bolster military cooperation between EU member states.
The fund, first proposed under former European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, had been initially planned for €13 billion, but subsequently slashed by €5 billion in last year’s EU budget negotiations as a pandemic casualty.
The fund aims to strengthen Europe’s defence industry and reduce duplication in defence spending by co-funding defence research with member states, with up to 8% going to be spent on new “disruptive technologies”.
The programme will also cover the development of weapons prototypes, provided the member states involved commit to acquire the final product.
“The aim of the fund is not only to support research and development projects of the European defence industry but also to include new entities in cooperation networks and supply chains, including those that have not been active in this industry until now,” the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the fund, Polish MEP Zdzisław Krasnodębski (ECR), said.
“The EDF will not subsidize bilateral cooperation between countries, as the minimum number of participants in the financed project is at least three entities from at least three member states,” he added.
The European Commission will directly manage the programme and the first grant competition is expected to be announced before the summer.
“We must increasingly be able to take our own security into our own hands and to be a security player on the world stage,” EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton told the European Parliament upon its approval. “The European Defence Fund is an essential building block in increasing independence for Europe,” he added.
“We must gradually be able to add to our soft power arsenal with more and more hard power,” he added.
The agreement on the fund comes as France spearheads a push for EU “strategic autonomy” to be able to stand alone on security matters in the aftermath of Brexit, uncertainty during the former Trump administration and amid an escalating geopolitical stand-off between the US and China.
Speaking in Brussels, Krasnodębski sought to dismiss “urban legends” that the new programme set the bloc on the path to a united military.
“It’s not the first step to create a European army and the monies will not be used by member states to purchase military equipment together,” he said.
“The dreams of the first European platoon, or legion, or any other sort of formation will have to be left for the future.”
Ambitions on common defence have gathered steam in recent years, and all but two EU nations signed up to the landmark EU permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), aimed to help fund, develop and deploy armed forces together and make the EU’s defence sector more flexible and independent of the US.
EU’s defence industry has welcomed the EU’s recent moves, hoping for competitive support towards the dominating American competitors.
“We are convinced that the EDF is a major contribution to enhance European technological sovereignty in a strategic sector and stand ready to support the European institutions in their efforts to further develop European defence”, Secretary-General of the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), Jan Pie, said.
However, the programme has also attracted a large amount of criticism, with some EU lawmakers and NGO’s warning the planned investments would lack transparency and parliamentary control.
During this week’s debate, some MEPs reiterated their worries about a “blank check” to the industry as the European Parliament won’t be involved in scrutinising the spending for the next seven-year.
Under exemption rules, the EDF will be carried through ‘implementing acts’ instead of ‘delegated acts’.
“This means that the European Parliament will hardly have a say as to how the fund will be implemented by the Commission and member states in the next seven years and the security interest argument is regularly used to bypass EU transparency rules – it is a dangerous precedent which undermines EU democratic control” stated Laëtitia Sédou, Project officer at European Network Against the Arms Trade (ENAAT).
Italy’s Patrizia Toia, vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy, Committee (ITRE) said she wants to see the fund benefit SMEs, so “they’re not left by the wayside by large operators”.
But over the past years, the initiative has also faced criticism over ethical concerns.
One of the moot points during the negotiations had been the possibility that the fund could be used for the development of controversial weapons.
The agreement excludes the development of lethal autonomous weapons – so-called killer robots – and weapons systems prohibited by international law, such as land mines, or nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Any research projects involving autonomous weapons should require “meaningful human involvement”, Toia stressed.