This article is part of our special report The road ahead: challenges and opportunities for Europe’s regions.
Since the 1990s, European infrastructure has been developed purely for civilian purposes, but in recent years military aspects have gained in importance as they could fill funding gaps for dual-use infrastructure projects.
Rail Baltica, a 870-kilometer-long high-speed rail line from Tallinn via the Baltic states to Poland, connecting the region with Western European rail networks, is currently one of the most touted EU infrastructure projects.
But beyond the transport aspects, the route is expected to have an important contribution for “military mobility” for the rapid transfer of troops and material to the Russian border in case of crisis.
In 2018, Catherine Trautmann, the European coordinator for the trans-European traffic corridor North Sea-Baltic Sea, stated that Rail Baltica could also be financed through the EU’s defence budget.
The EU’s next seven-year budget, includes €1.5 billion for military mobility, one of the Commission priorities, in form of a contribution to the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) to adapt European transport networks to military mobility needs.
The EU’s current Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) policy addresses the implementation and development of an Europe-wide network of railway lines, roads, inland waterways, maritime shipping routes, ports, airports and railroad terminals.
The ultimate objective is to close gaps, remove bottlenecks and technical barriers within the EU.
A new dimension of TEN-T is the movement of military forces within and beyond the EU, which currently is hampered by physical, legal and regulatory barriers such incompatible infrastructure or cumbersome custom procedures.
To overcome these barriers, dual-use (civilian-military) co-funding of transport infrastructure projects has been proposed within the next Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).
A recent analysis compared the TEN-T infrastructure and its requirements with those of the military sector, finding a 94% overlap, which has moved policymakers to look for ways on how to combine funding to regional development.
“The EU needs to look for ways to incentivise nations to invest in improving their infrastructure,” Ben Hodges, a retired US general who commanded American army forces in Europe, told EURACTIV during the EU’s budget negotiations earlier this year.
“Political leaders need to recognise that mobility is not just about military mobility, it’s about crisis mobility, it’s the need to be able to across borders during times of crisis, whether it’s to move medical supplies and healthcare professionals or military equipment”, he added.
While the EU’s Green Deal aims to get as many cars off the road as possible, “investment in rail and anything that helps reduce the number of automobiles on the road for transportation, while contributing towards the green targets, also improves crisis mobility.”
With the re-emerged debate about military mobility, many hope the framework could also improve filling regional civilian infrastructure gaps, especially in Eastern European countries.
So far, the concept has been seen as the ‘silver bullet’ for EU-NATO defence cooperation, meant to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises. Military mobility has been hailed as one of the EU’s flagship defence initiatives with few political disagreements across the bloc.
“Backing the building and improving of necessary military infrastructure in member states such as roads, bridges, barracks and other facilities is of crucial importance if the EU and the member states are serious about enhancing security and defence cooperation and establishing the Schengen of defence,” MEP Urmas Paet (Renew) told EURACTIV.
*When we speak about the member states that are bordering a non-EU country, “the EU must keep in mind that their external borders are also the external border of the whole of the EU and thus it is our common interest to have a well-functioning infrastructure in those areas”.
At the same time, the increased presence of NATO allies and a well-functioning infrastructure in specific countries would also serve as a protection for all EU and NATO countries and a solidarity-based distribution of additional costs would be justified, he added.*
Asked whether military mobility funding in Eastern Europe could also be a game-changer in reducing regional disparities, Paet said that “in certain regions, the military mobility funding would additionally benefit the civil infrastructure.”
“However this alone would not abolish the regional disparities as the main goal is still very clearly enhancing military mobility and for reducing regional disparities one needs a more comprehensive approach,” he told EURACTIV.
At the same time, however, enhanced military mobility is likely to contribute to better crisis management as in the recent COVID-19 health crisis.
Experts have pointed to the civil-military value of military mobility and dual-infrastructure especially in less developed European regions.
“Changing the lens through which we tend to see military mobility could help, particularly switching from an almost-exclusive Cold War type of view to a more comprehensive view that reflects today’s security challenges,” Tania Lațici, policy analyst for EU security and defence at European Parliamentary Research Services (EPRS) told EURACTIV.
Asked how the EU could incentivise nations to invest in improving their commitment to dual-use infrastructure, Latici said it would be important to “build on the momentum created by the tremendous assistance the armed forces provided to civilian authorities during the COVID19 crisis”.
According to her, the health crisis has shown European citizens that armed forces are there to help and that readiness enhances their ability to do crisis response.
“Learning from the Commission’s DG ECHO how civil protection authorities in Europe established strong cross-border cooperation channels and had to de facto become more interoperable during the corona crisis could be an essential blueprint for military mobility as well,” she added.