New EU defence initiatives for old political problems

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini poses with some foreign and defence ministers from 23 EU member states after they signed the notification on Permanent Structure Cooperation (PESCO) on the margin of a foreign affairs council at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 13 November 2017. [EPA-EFE/EMMANUEL DUNAND / POOL]

In security and defence, let-downs garner more attention than successes. The EU Global Strategy is a perfect example, writes Raluca Csernatoni.

Raluca Csernatoni is an expert on European security and defence focusing on emerging and disruptive security and defence technologies at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

Published in 2016, the Strategy triggered a flurry of initiatives designed to shore up the EU defence cooperation landscape, such as the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the launch of the European Defence Fund (EDF).

Under the hyped rhetoric of European strategic autonomy, such developments are meant to address the bloc’s military capability shortfalls.

Yet, despite the undeniable activity and ambition, the end goal—to develop coherent, interoperable, cost-effective, and transparent military capabilities—remains elusive. Putting the puzzle pieces of the EU defence toolkit together is challenging at best.

The EU’s defence agenda is hobbled in no small part by the diverging priorities and interests of member states, European defence consortia, various EU institutions, the armed forces, the transatlantic link, and NATO. To actually solve the puzzle, some have argued that the European defence agenda needs a ‘Hamiltonian moment’.

But this is more of a chronic case of new defence initiatives with old political problems.

For decades, the EU defence integration process has been plagued by the issue of sovereignty, with countless examples of differing strategic positions from member states and of EU inter-institutional turf wars; one need only look at the politics of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to spot the disagreements.

What is more, progress in high-end capability development is at a snail’s pace, particularly in the case of collaborative initiatives like the 47 PESCO projects and their light footprint.

Predictably, the first CARD from November 2020 highlighted that the EU is not doing enough to address major capability deficits.

It painted a grim picture of the Union’s ability to achieve its level of ambition and emphasized EU member states’ uneven understandings of the concept of strategic autonomy. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the notion brought more ambiguity, and not of the constructive type.

Similarly, the first PESCO Strategic Review further revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the PESCO projects and stressed the need to achieve concrete outputs and tangible deliverables by 2025.

Technology is key to European security and defence capabilities. The CARD report also warned that levels of defence research and technology (R&T) spending have not fared better, putting at risk the development of cutting-edge military technologies.

The European Defence Agency’s annual Defence Data report for the year 2019 published this January noted that investment in defence R&T remains insufficient.

With the pressure to make the most of fast-evolving technologies and innovation, it comes as no surprise that the EU is now moving towards synergies between civil, space, and defence programmes to maximise cross-fertilization between these sectors.

Against this background, it is debatable whether the much-contested notion of strategic autonomy brings more conceptual consistency to the European defence agenda and rallies further support for cooperative defence projects.

No one can deny the zeal with which EU decision-makers and political leaders alike recently used and misused the concept, either to express the need for a European grand strategy or to propose a more nuanced and sectoral approach to strategic autonomy.

Concerning the latter, the term has now become interchangeable with similarly elusive terminology such as technological, digital, space, regulatory or data sovereignty. So, will a European military doctrine in the form of the Strategic Compass bring more clarity?

Yes and no. Magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, a sovereignty scaled-up rhetoric speaks to a growing understanding that the EU should embark on a political identity-building journey, to become a full-fledged international security and defence actor.

Indeed, the exercise of European sovereignty in defence strikes at the core of what type of polity the EU will evolve into. Yet, the Strategic Compass to be adopted by the member states is not a silver bullet for security and defence.

While it might provide the political weight of a grand strategy, deliver a common threat perception landscape, and set the direction for the EU’s role in the world, it remains to be seen whether it can answer tough political questions about the EU’s strategic future.

Overall, the issue remains that recent defence technological and industrial developments all too often seem like substitutes for, rather than instruments in the implementation of an overarching European strategic vision.

Above all, the Strategic Compass is expected to facilitate the emergence of European strategic culture, secure the commitment of member states, and clarify what the EU should and should not do in security and defence. There have also been questions of whether the CSDP has surpassed its crisis management archetype and should evolve into a broader policy framework, especially given current geopolitical challenges.

More pressing is the question of the European public’s support and the scrutiny of recent security and defence initiatives. This is necessary to ensure the accountability and democratic control of the European defence agenda.

For instance, debates surrounding the EDF flagged the need for more political oversight of research and development projects and investments for the benefit of the European defence industry and various member states.

Effectively, there should be more transparency and public outreach over how EU defence money is spent and for what purposes.

However, the EU security and defence policy has become an elite preserve of high-politics, technocratic expertise, and industry interests, that undermines the energy needed for continued democratic legitimacy and public buy-in.

While the semantics over strategic autonomy might indeed capture the imagination of defence experts, it is also important to consider how they translate in national public and political arenas.

The entire European defence spectrum needs to work harder to engage the European public and open its ranks to more active participation from civic groups and nongovernmental organizations. This could be a game-changer to remain in sync with public opinion.

Starting with its origins as a peace project, the EU has been a unique experiment in polity construction, moving beyond the power politics that dominated the continent for centuries.

Considering the last 70 years of European efforts to disavow military power as a tool of global influence, the complaints that the EU should be more geopolitical, strategically autonomous, and spend more on defence ring particularly ironic.

Today, in a more complex global context, European leaders openly call for military ‘hard’ power as an important instrument for international influence. Is this a case of strategic hubris for the EU? Time will tell what the increased militaristic approach will bring to Europe’s future.

Subscribe to our newsletters