Lacklustre EU summit did little to spur defence and security momentum

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

EU leaders have missed a key opportunity to bring new momentum to common security and defence policy (CSDP) at their December EU summit. National prerogatives still prevail in key areas, preventing the EU from making bold strides forward, writes Lisa Watanabe. 

Lisa Watanabe is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) based in Zurich.

December’s EU Council meeting produced meagre results. Discussing defence and security issues for the first time in five years, leaders of EU member states had the opportunity to impart the CSDP with new momentum, particularly in context of an altered strategic environment.

A number of things have changed since EU leaders last discussed defence and security in 2008. Europe’s neighbourhood is experiencing heightened instability as a result of the transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the crisis in Mali, and the ongoing civil war in Syria. The US has also been signalling that it expects its European allies to be doing more in the area of crisis management.

Yet, increasing demands on the EU come at a time when fiscal austerity in European countries is placing pressure on defence budgets. While the EU Council does seems recognise the need to take on board these issues, the difficulty of finding consensus among 28 member states has produced timid responses, to say the least.

As expected, no grand plans for the EU’s role in the area of defence and security were set forth at the summit, even though some states such as France, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Poland have been pushing for a more clearly defined long-term vision for the EU in this field.

There is simply not enough consensus among member states to see such an development. The UK has been unwilling discuss defence and security issues with the prospect of a referendum on EU membership looming. Germany too has been restrained, particularly with its government only recently having been formed. And, newer member states still prioritize NATO. Instead, it was announced that the EU would develop a Maritime Strategy and a Cyber Defence Policy Framework in 2014. While not unwelcome, these measures build on developments already underway.

Improving mission effectiveness seems to have evaded almost completely. Here, the results are indeed disappointing. Securing commitments from member states for new missions and force generation has been difficult in the past. Short of a permanent military operational headquarters, which was unlikely to be agreed, there does seem to be some will to improve the situation through exploring ways to replicate the European Air Transport Command, although no concrete measures were announced. Concrete deliverables to improve the rapidity of deployment were also absent, as were means of enhancing coordination between the European External Action Service and the Commission.

On a more positive note, some steps have been taken to develop the critical capabilities. The EU will seek to develop Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in the 2020-25 timeframe. Remotely piloted aircraft or drones were among the key capability gaps highlighted by the operation in Libya. This represents a positive step forward from the viewpoint of filling capability gaps. It also represents a large industrial project that should benefit major European defence industrial groups. The announced intention to make preparations for the next generation of Governmental Satellite Communication will also help meet a growing demand resulting from the increased use of drones. Another major shortfall demonstrated in Libya, as well as in the Mali operation, was in the area of air-to-air refuelling. Here again, progress can be seen with the commitment to establish a Multi-Role Tanker Transport capacity. The decision to further develop cyber defence capacities will also is also help to implement the recently agreed EU Cybersecurity Strategy.

Some effort to give momentum to the development of a more integrated and competitive industrial and technological base was also made. The European Defence Agency and the Commission will prepare a road map for the development of defence industrial standards by mid-2014. Increasing mutual recognition of military certification between EU member states is a gesture in the direction of a more integrated defence industry. So too are movements toward creating an EU-wide Security of Supply regime is also a start in addressing member states’ concerns about security of supply of defence equipment and overcoming current preference for national suppliers are also positive steps in the right direction.

Yet, all in all, as expected, decisions on defence and security have been fainthearted. National prerogatives still appear to outweigh overall EU interests. With these decisions setting the direction of the EU’s security and defence policy for several years to come, the EU looks set to muddle through as usual. This is dangerous, given increased instability in the EU’s near abroad and the likely need for rapid and comprehensive responses to emerging crises. Let’s hope that another five years will not pass before security and defence comes back on the table.

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