Deeper EU defence cooperation benefits governments and citizens

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

The Eurofighter is one of the best examples of defence cooperation. Joint projects have the potential to save billions of euros that can be reallocated elsewhere. [Shutterstock]

Long treated as a marginal aspect of the European Union’s wider Common and Security Policy, defence has emerged as a top priority on the European agenda. Successive EU and member state initiatives in 2016 have catapulted defence to centre-stage, writes Jorge Domecq.

Jorge Domecq is chief executive of the European Defence Agency.

But it’s more than just that: as EU leaders prepare to meet in Rome on 25 March for the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties in the midst of one of the most challenging and turbulent periods the Union has ever faced, defence is put forward as an area in which the European project could be reinvigorated with success.

I share this ambition: the time has come to make defence a matter of genuine European interest.

Let’s be frank: we, Europeans, have no credible alternative but to join forces and think and act on security and defence in more European terms, beyond national lines. The growing threats in our immediate neighbourhood, the future of our transatlantic relationship and the technological revolution that is taking place on a global scale should convince even the most sceptical that, at this time, Europe will not get out of doing more and better for its own security.

Politically, a stronger and more cooperative European approach to defence seems inevitable. To put it bluntly: the changing global order will sooner or later oblige European nations to pull together and to act collectively if they want to remain capable of protecting their interests and citizens.   

But pressure from outside should not be the only driver. In fact, there are also many practical reasons why enhanced European defence cooperation makes lot of sense. 

Budgetary sense, first and foremost. 

Today, Europe’s defence market remains seriously fragmented. Budgets are planned and spent nationally by 28 defence ministries without any proper coordination. This is costly and often leads to duplication of effort and spending as each member state tries to cover the whole spectrum of defence capabilities.

Better planning, joint procurement and the pooling and sharing of defence capabilities can therefore improve the output of military spending and save large amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Estimates in the Munich Security report suggest European governments could save almost a third (!) of what they spend on military equipment if they decided to coordinate investments. We are talking here about billions and billions of euros which could be saved or freed for additional long-term investment.

But cost-effectiveness is not the only benefit. Interoperability and increased effectiveness are equally important outcomes of a more cooperative approach on defence spending.

Compared to the US, European armed forces operate far too many different types of military capabilities. In 2016, for example, EU member states had 20 different types of fighter aircraft (compared to six in the US), 29 types of frigates (four in the US) and 20 types armoured fighting vehicles (two in the US).

More cooperative planning, procurement and operation of assets would streamline the capabilities in use and thereby considerably improve member states armed forces’ interoperability.

Pooling and sharing is therefore key to making sure that European Armed Forces become more effective/interoperable and European citizens and taxpayers get better value for money.

To facilitate such cooperation and initiate and manage cooperative projects between willing member states is the bread and butter of the European Defence Agency (EDA).

Since its creation in 2004, the Agency has become THE ‘hub’ for European defence cooperation with expertise and networks that are second to none. Experience clearly shows that if member states have the political will to seriously engage in cooperation, the EDA is able to deliver.

Today, at a time when the EU’s institutional lines between internal and external security are becoming increasingly blurred, it is worth recalling that member states have always, since the beginning, considered the EDA to be their main tool and vehicle for advancing defence cooperation, since it is in EDA where they, the national governments, decide what the capability priorities are and how to manage them.

The support that the European Commission is willing to provide through the recently adopted European Defence Action Plan (EDAP) is most welcome in this respect.

Defence cooperation is needed urgently. We cannot afford to allow this important issue to be dragged into political or institutional debates that do not strictly focus on our common goal: making European defence stronger. To achieve that, Europe needs to make the best out of the tools it has and the EDA is certainly among them.

The European Union is at a crossroads. Visionary decisions and ambitious actions are needed to keep the European project alive and thriving.    

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