European Defence Cooperation: Out of the Shadows?

Opening speech

The keynote address of the Annual Baltic Conference on Defence 2017 was delivered by Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid. She began by highlighting the diverse set of security challenges facing Europe today. Conflicts, instability and humanitarian crises have led to an increase of immigration, and unfortunately, an expansion of religious extremism. Noting the frequency of recent terror attacks in the European Union, President Kaljulaid underscored the uneasiness felt by many who have welcomed migrants without prejudice into their own countries. She emphasized the need to search for ways and means to welcome cultural differences, whilst making sure that our cultural traditions remain predominant.

President Kaljulaid then turned to Russia’s strategic military exercise Zapad 2017. She emphasized concerns regarding both the number of troops involved and Russia’s disingenuity in discussing the nature of the exercise – but also stressed that the threat assessment of a direct Russian military action against NATO or EU members remains low.

President Kaljulaid stressed that Zapad 2017 is an important reminder of the larger defence and security challenges faced by the nations of the Baltic Sea region and NATO’s eastern flank. She noted that these challenges and uncertainties have had a clear awakening effect on Europe and there is a new willingness to recognize and confront shared security and defence challenges in multiple domains including cyber and hybrid. She emphasized that going it alone is not an option – collective action is Europe’s best chance to confront a host of challenges, while not undermining NATO’s role as the chief provider of security and deterrence in Europe.

In highlighting the goals of the Estonian EU presidency, President Kaljulaid stated that one of Estonia’s priorities is more and better defence spending. Common procurement and defence investment projects will not diminish the necessity of increasing individual NATO member defence spending. She noted that armed forces ready to fight are ultimately the best form of deterrence.

President Kaljulaid’s remarks concluded with the reiteration of the sacrosanct and immutable values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights that unite and bind together the European Union. She emphasized while specific policies and initiatives change in time these core values will remain unchanged and must be defended.

Full transcript of the opening speech is available here.

Discussion “European Defence Cooperation – Out of the Shadows?”

The European political climate is changing and as a result so is the future of European defence cooperation. Recent efforts to add value to common defence have resulted in some new initiatives, most significantly the European Defence Fund (EDF) and The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Both of which promise to achieve significant deliverables in security capabilities. However, questions remain what would the composition of European defence look like, how would it be used, and perhaps most importantly how would it collaborate with NATO.

Political momentum is complimented by the rise of defence expenditures across Europe, but the ultimate litmus test of the new wave of defence cooperation will remain its translation into practical projects and deliverables. Potentially divergent interests and strategies among member states pose uncertainties. It is important to avoid duplication with the existing security and defence obligations (NATO).

It is currently indisputable that European collective defence will remain NATO’s role, and the Alliance will also likely retain its role as the chief institution in Europe designed for large-scale kinetic operations. As such future efforts in European defence will function separately, but complementary to existing mechanisms within the NATO alliance. For instance, European states already possess the ability to operate where NATO cannot – namely stabilization operations exemplified by ongoing European efforts across the Sahel region.

Both PESCO and EDF projects working in conjunction with NATO have the potential to direct the future of European defence cooperation. The best potential is contained in projects where cooperation offers clear-cut dual utility to both EU member states and NATO. An example is a so-called “Military Schengen Zone,”, which could address logistical and legal issues of troop movements across the European continent.

Ultimately European defence cooperation has certainly reached a new level – but it still has a long way to go. The creation of the European Defence Fund, PESCO, and other future areas of EU member cooperation and defence collaboration are promising, particularly in filling security gaps within the broader transatlantic security relationship. The future of European defence cooperation will be grounded in the political and security needs but it will also be highly dependent on sustained political will.

Panel I – Getting More Serious about European Defence?

From the failure of the European Defence Community (EDC) in the 1950’s to more recent disappointments in implementing various CSDP initiatives – deficiencies in political will and divergent interests have long plagued European defence cooperation efforts. This historic experience naturally raises the question of how best to preserve the existing drive to achieve hard deliverables. Recent European efforts likely will, at least in part, provide a remedy for this – the introduction of the European Defence Fund, the establishment of the Coordinated Annual Review for Defence (CARD) and PESCO are all strong indications that policymakers are committed to long-term defence reform.

Grassroots level changes in the EU have resulted in Europeans increasingly wanting better protection against the threats they face, but will this translate into meaningful change? It is clear that momentum will benefit change in European defence cooperation at least temporarily- the challenge remains striking a balance between ambition and achieving deliverables.

Recent changes in European defence landscape include new avenues for enhanced collaboration in procurement, research and development, and for the development of capabilities, as well as some re-evaluation on how European forces could potentially be used, as demonstrated by the expansion of EU military mandates to accommodate close air support and enhanced maritime operations. Identifying specific capabilities for the EU will largely be dictated by existing and future European security challenges, bridging both counter-terror and conventional force capabilities.

Additionally, establishing practical frameworks and standards for member state engagement will be an important task in the path to better defence cooperation. As levels of member state defence investment do not necessarily correlate to the level of participation states offer to EU security efforts it is critical to maintain a big picture perspective in evaluating member states performance.

The recent initiatives, if successful, may open the door to future conversations on European defence standardization and interoperability – in the meantime, European initiatives like PESCO, CARD, and the EDF are a testament to the fact the Europe is getting more serious about its own defence.

Panel II – Resources and Political Will – It Takes Two to Tango

Divergent interests and priorities have long defined the European security environment – rifts in security outlooks between Europe’s north, south, east and west playing a determining role in threat assessments, which in turn, have limited possibilities for European cooperation initiatives. These difficulties, combined with the necessity of preserving member state defence industries, have proved to be substantial barriers in the pursuit of common projects. Yet increased political will across the EU gives hope that it may be possible to overcome these obstacles.

From the outset, it is important to characterize and place current European defence initiatives within the context of past failed initiatives. Many of Europe’s more ambitious proposals have often been side-lined, which makes it difficult to assess how successfully current projects – PESCO, CARD and the EDF – will overcome the same challenges. It is especially important to consider challenges related to financing as a potential impediment to success – highlighted by the difficulties encountered in using existing EU battlegroups.

For smaller EU members strong incentives to cooperate are already in place, as they often lack resources necessary to pursue major defence and security projects independently. Pooling of resources in pursuit of commonly needed capabilities could be a mechanism for sustaining political will on European defence cooperation into the future. This can help build trust within the EU which may translate into an eventual willingness to address some of the bigger challenges with defence cooperation like industrial issues and national sovereignty.

Working towards a common European defence technological base will be difficult. Current cooperation efforts must consider identifying both the structure and strengths of the European defence industrial base and how it should look in the future.

Panel III – CSDP in 2025 – Quo vadis?

The difficulty of predicting the future of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in 2025 is illustrated by the unpredictability of the past. Recent years have shown many assumptions of the post-cold war security environment to be false, and overturned assumptions both on the European threat landscape as well as the status of the union itself. However, it seems increasingly likely that recent efforts have provided a foundation on which to build in future defence cooperation.

The existing mandates of CSDP – capacity building, crisis management and the protection of Europe – will retain their significance as core objectives in shaping initiatives but they will need to be refined and more clearly defined in the future. Similarly, EU and NATO cooperation will need to be focused on achieving greater coherence across institutional and national levels.

Maintaining goals and objectives requires understanding the linkages between common European security and defence initiatives and the perspectives of European citizens. Because of this, there will be a constant need to sell ideas and maintain support of the publics in EU member states for projects that are worthwhile. This challenge is of course directly linked to maintaining political support at a national level for European defence cooperation projects but will also likely necessitate setting realistic long-term goals for joint projects.

Envisioning a common end-state of European defence cooperation is necessary, however, the present divergence of objectives across member states will have to be addressed. One commonly agreed upon long-term goal is that of a European defence union, existing politically and legally within the EU. However, its realisation demands further alignment of strategic interests, building trust, and shared conceptions of defence cooperation goals.

The current initiatives, perhaps none more so than PESCO, make the prospect of reaching a defence union possible. PESCO as a tool which establishes both a legal and political framework helps to bridge many of the structural challenges that have inhibited bolder cooperation initiatives of the past. The word “Permanent” in the name of initiative already indicates something more lasting and fundamental than the usual cooperation projects which can be terminated at will.

As Europe progresses towards a stronger defence union challenges remain, most significant of these will be overcoming issues pertaining to the defence industrial base, building trust to address issues of nationalism and sovereignty, and lastly building consensus in strategic outlook and threat perspectives.