EDA chief: We need both, strategic autonomy and defence cooperation

Chief Executive European Defence Agency (EDA) Jorge Domecq. [EPA-EFE/Borislav Troshev]

With all the new types of challenges emerging in Europe, NATO can no longer do the job on its own, which is why Europe has to step up its defence cooperation, Jorge Domecq, who heads the European Defence Agency (EDA), told EURACTIV in his end-of-term interview.

Jorge Domecq has been the European Defence Agency’s chief executive since 2015, appointed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. He is set to end his term in February 2020.

He spoke with EURACTIV’s defence reporter Alexandra Brzozowski.

How do you see the future of Europe’s strategic autonomy? And with all recent policy initiatives on the way, are we closer to a European Defence Union?

EU leaders have given a very clear message on what they want the EU to do in the next five years with a strategic agenda they set out in June, where they’re calling exactly for more coordination in defence, more joint capability development, more technologies and a stronger industrial base. This should be translated into reality.

Strategic autonomy should be a concept which is not built against anyone. It’s not questioning our transatlantic link, not questioning our support to NATO as the cornerstone for collective defence, it only shows the need to become a more relevant partner for our allies across the Atlantic, but also in other fora as the global security provider, which is what the EU has the ambition to do.

It’s less about theoretical discussions of what strategic autonomy is, but rather the possibility to develop, deploy, and modify European capabilities to be used without having technological or political limitations to them.

Defence cooperation is the other side of the coin of strategic autonomy. There will not be strategic autonomy in Europe without defence cooperation. We will not manage without defence cooperation.

Would you agree with the notion that it took Trump and Brexit for leaders to push for a common EU defence?

In fact, the main push comes from a call by the citizens – that should be the main driver and which is reflected in what EU leaders have now set as one of the main drivers of the EU’s strategic agenda for the coming years. When across the bloc, regardless of them being more Europhiles or less, you have three-quarters of the population saying we need the EU to take more care of protecting us in our countries, it is quite an important message.

Do you think the current French position on EU defence – and especially NATO – is harming European cohesion on defence matters?

We don’t comment on statements by individual governments. But what I do see is a real wish of all member states to have an alive and thriving NATO, which really responds to the threats and challenges we have in Europe in the years to come and at the same time. All those countries realise that NATO alone, with the new types of challenges we have in front of us in Europe, can no longer do the job on its own.

There are two sides to this equation: a wish to keep NATO relevant, but at the same time, the EU has become an indispensable partner for NATO to be able to provide the tools for collective defence. Given the nature of the challenges we have – hybrid threats are just a clear demonstration of this – the EU is an indispensable partner.

What do you expect of the EU’s new DG Defence Industry and Space in terms of specific areas that should be tackled during the next term?

The push, which has already been the case during the past five years, is for the Commission to really look at how to support defence. As you know very well, defence is and will remain an intergovernmental policy, but no doubt, the Commission, as far as technologies and EU wider policies with bearing on defence and on industry are concerned, have tools which can support the European defence efforts. What we have done in these three years, since the EU’s Global Strategy was published, is to set up for the first time an end-to-end defence planning framework.

What the Commission can do, on the basis of those priorities and planning tools that have been set up, is to provide the incentives and the funds through the European Defence Fund  (EDF) and other mechanisms to support that progress in the European defence effort. In the running of that European defence fund, which would potentially have a substantial budget, it makes sense that you have a DG focusing on how to get about and to ensure that the defence industry we have in Europe would be able to remain competitive and technologically advanced to give us the capability we would need, now and in the future.

There is also a lot of talk about restructuring in other institutions – lift the European Parliament’s SEDE committee to the status of a proper committee, create a Commission portfolio in the future – better coordination?

These debates have been there, but for the moment, that has not happened. I think that you have very capable and very active SEDE members who are going to follow and scrutinise, as they should do, the use of European funding in the EDF, but also in the funds which would be devoted to military mobility, all the funds which would be benefiting defence through other means of EU budgets. For example, we have delegated as far as energy efficiency and the contribution of forces to the Green Deal.

Often the impression is that American officials don’t really get the gist of the differences between the EU’s defence initiatives. How much of a problem is the outside impression?

There is a need to continue an effort to explain these initiatives – transparency is a must and the EU has been quite transparent with what has been done. We should not forget that 22 of our members are also NATO allies. It would be very strange that they are playing one game in NATO, and another one in the EU, especially because they have just one single set of forces.

PESCO, which is a new kid on the bloc and totally different from all other previous defence cooperation instruments, is not an instrument for international defence cooperation – and that is something which is not that clear for non-EU states. PESCO is an instrument foreseen in the treaty for moving towards a greater convergence of defence plans and efforts among EU members. And it will not question very strong bilateral relationships with the US or any other country.

PESCO and EDF are two very different creatures and here I would add one, which is as important as these two, which is the Coordinated Annual Review in Defence (CARD). It will be the main tool with which we will ensure that what is done in PESCO and the EDF responds to the priorities we have agreed at European level and which we have made sure are coherent with NATO. CARD has a very important role as pathfinder for projects, as a strategic compass of where we are going to.

What about the rather contentious issue of third-country participation in the projects?

I can understand that the US, just as many other countries, are interested to know what the conditions will be in regards to participation of third states. But I am sure when those will be in place, it will be predictable and very clear conditions where they can exceptionally contribute to PESCO. We should not forget that the PESCO projects are there to contribute to the implementation of the commitments, not the other way round.

When we talk about the European Defence Fund (EDF), we should keep in mind it’s the strongest ever incentive for defence cooperation among European member states, in many cases involving their defence budgets. The money is coming from European citizen’s pockets and it will in some way support European defence industry to make it more competitive across borders.

I repeat, it does not exclude, upon certain conditions – regarding non-limitations of the technologies and the products that are developed – third country industries. Those conditions ensure that we are not having incentives for companies who are neither subject to the programme rules nor have a connection with the security and defence interests of the union.

When it comes to PESCO, there was the announcement to cut down the list of projects. Is there any thought of making the next wave of projects more targeted?

If you look at the third wave of PESCO projects, it’s already a much more consolidated and solid list of projects. We have 47 projects, of which 38 also respond to NATO priorities.

Next year, as part of the strategic review, we will be looking at the projects to see how they are progressing, which ones are lagging behind, which ones should be given extra attention and where there is the possibility to consider a merging or direct closure.

I do see improvement. By the end of this year or early next year, around 17 of those projects will be reaching initial operational capability. PESCO is a creature which is only two and a half years old and it has been a big effort, both for capitals, but also for EU institutions and EU military staff.

In the PESCO projects, we have refined the assessment criteria we have been using and now there is a very clear understanding that the PESCO Secretariat, – EDA and the External Action Service, including the European Union Military Staff (EUMS) – is an unbiased and honest referee.

We should be going perhaps in the future to fewer projects, but with more impact on the capability landscape in Europe. We won’t have any call for projects in 2020, the next call will be in 2021. That will also give some time to reflect on how the calls will happen in the future. Will it be every two years or every year? My sense is that we should move towards a two-year-cycle because it’s very demanding to have ‘new kids on the block’ every year.

What capability gaps the next wave of PESCO projects is meant to cover? 

Capability priorities, even with the technological leaps forward, do not change much. Two examples are air-to-air refueling and governmental satellite communications, which were already indicated as main areas of importance together with cyber. We have made big progress in air-to-air refuelling with a multinational fleet, with synergies with the existing fleet and with GovSatcom we have up and running a very substantial market where we pool commercial satellite communication for our missions and operations and we have also a governmental project of satellite communications, which is the GovSatcom demonstration. But there is still room for progress and we will have enough work to do.

We have the 11 European capability development priorities determined by the revised capability development plan, and within them there are many shortfalls we have to address. We will try addressing them through PESCO, but also outside in other projects. We have now a portfolio of more than 115 running research and capability projects in the agency, which has grown over the last year, additionally to the 47 PESCO projects.

In France, the US and NATO we currently see quite a push for investing more in space technology, space and defence…

We have an administrative arrangement with the European Space Agency going back around 10 years and in that regard we are working on research aspects, on cyber aspects, on CBRM threats, because we are trying to make the maximum out of synergies on dual-use technologies.

What would be important in the future, is that all space programs from the inception take into account the defence requirements, to inbuilt those requirements upfront. And that’s why member states are giving a big priority to satellite communications, to earth observation, space-based surveillance, and tracking and navigation projects. In all those, space is going to continue to be a key subject. Among other things, also in cooperation with NATO, because most of them have a direct relationship to military mobility.

There has been quite a debate about EU arms exports. With all those projects in the pipeline, would a comprehensive EU position bring more clarity in the development processes?

Efforts among member states are already taking place to try and reach a common understanding. The agency is not involved, because this is a domain where member states have wanted to be totally sovereign.

But I think as we advance to another level of European defence cooperation, there will be a clear need to clarify where we stand on that matter. Having said that, what they think has to be very clear is that the efforts we are doing at European level is not to make our order books look better as far as exports, that is not the end objective. But of course, if you have a more competitive defence industry, this will be something which should be used to other third countries and partners and there you have the export control aspect come into play.

Looking back at your term as head of the European Defence Agency – are you satisfied?

I am happy to have been able to have the opportunity to serve the member states, put the agency in the right direction so that the wind which was blowing, really pushed us along in the defence initiatives. We have ensured that the agency is key in all of this prioritization and the planning.

We are there as an instrument of the governments to ensure coherence of all these EU tools – from CDP to PESCO, from CARD to the European Defence Fund, the agency is involved in all and each one of these different initiatives. Secondly, we have consolidated the role of the agency as the main hub for defence cooperation and for improving interoperability, also for training and exercises. And last but not least, as the military voice in many of the EU policies – Single European Sky, Artificial Intelligence.

The ministries of defence have us here and my wish is that this momentum which has been taking place these years remains intact and even intensifies in the future. My best legacy would be that they recognise the agency as theirs and make use of the full potential it has. There were many things I would have liked to finish, but I’m sure that my successors will do a fine job.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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