The idea of building a European drone is expected to make inroads at a two-day summit of EU heads of states and governments, which opens this evening (19 December).
The summit will not be the big night for European defence, according to Arnaud Danjean, the president of the European Parliament's subcommittee on security and defence.
“I don’t believe in big nights but in gradual progress,” Danjean said.
With the economic crisis biting at national defence budgets, attention at the European level is turning to the promotion of a continental defence industry.
Indeed, budgetary cuts are starting to be felt, illustrated by the the recent restructuring of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), which has cut more than 5,000 jobs across several European countries.
"All governments, including the British and French, have cut their military budget. So we will have to do the same with less money. And that can only be achieved through mutualisation," said Michel Barnier, the European commissioner for the internal market.
A more balanced industrial basis
As a result, countries are scrambling to save their domestic defence industry, particularly the larger countries like France, Germany, the UK and Spain.
But countries with smaller, sometimes very specialised niche industries, are also concerned, including Belgium (aeronautics), Finland and Poland (armoured vehicles), Czech Republic and Poland (helicopters) and Estonia (cyber security).
Like many Eastern European countries, Poland is calling for a more balanced distribution of the European defence industry. The defence sector employs “directly some 400,000 persons and generates 960,000 indirect jobs,” according to the European Commission.
The Commission's July communication for a “more competitive and efficient security and defence sector” is expected to be endorsed in its entirety by EU leaders.
But a detailed roadmap establishing objectives and a timetable should be agreed, according to an EU diplomat.
The European Commission and the European Defence Agency could be given several tasks, including looking into the creation of a pool of common capacities or the establishment of fiscal incentives in the form of a VAT exoneration for industrial projects led under European cooperation.
This project is supported by many countries, including France, Belgium and some of the southern countries.
Drones and tanker aircrafts
On the industrial level, Europeans also intend to focus on two big industrial projects.
The first, under the leadership of the Netherlands, will aim at acquiring three additional aircrafts for refuelling by 2019.
And around ten countries are expected to start a project for launching a European drone that could be established by 2020-2025. Industrial groups EADS, Dassault and Finmeccanica have already announced their intention to join the programme for a medium-altitude, long endurance drone (or MALE).
Drones and tanker aircrafts were among the two big capacity gaps that were revealed during air operations in Libya, where refuelling was done by US aircrafts. These shortcomings have existed since 1999 and the NATO operation in Kosovo.
European defence is coming out of a “slow hibernation”, a European diplomat said.
“A few years ago this issue was regularly on the agenda of European summits. Since 2008 we have forgotten it. The objective is also to bring the topic back on the table of heads of states and governments,” a veteran diplomat said.