Why EU needs a patchwork for defence rather than a grand scheme

The European Union has been through some rough times over the past few years, from terrorism to recession and from a migration crisis to Brexit. All these testing moments should have taught us some lessons.

One of them is this: the EU’s credibility is now linked to its ability to keep people safe.

Security and defence are at the heart of government duties. If our leaders cannot protect us, they have failed in their most basic tasks. The EU may be a hybrid organisation, but it has powers in a wide range of areas – and there is a big hole where defence is should be.

While NATO is still the cornerstone of Europe’s defence, it is not enough. We cannot always depend on the US to be our security blanket. As French President Emmanuel Macron said on August 27, “It is up to us to meet our responsibilities and guarantee our security.”

The EU is already taking baby steps in the direction of defence cooperation. Last year, the European Commission pushed plans to promote smarter military spending with a multibillion-euro scheme to fund research and boost investment in joint projects such as drones and helicopters. In his State of the Union speech on September 12, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he did not was militarise the EU, but rather, “What we want is to become more autonomous and live up to our global responsibilities.”

The Commission rightly argues that EU defence cooperation can create cost-effective synergies: on the supply side, it could consolidate Europe’s fragmented defence industry, while on the demand side, it should promote interoperability. Defence cooperation would also address the “strategic cacophony” among EU member states over foreign policy, an issue that has come to the fore with Russia’s recent aggression.

But what would defence cooperation actually mean for the EU?

We need to be realistic in what we can actually achieve together. It won’t come about through a grand scheme. We are a long way from launching an EU army, a notion that most Europeans would baulk at. We have also seen that for all the big rhetoric from some politicians about European defence, national governments have yet to put their money where their mouths are in real commitments.

But there is another way to do it. We need to start small, and slowly build up our joint capabilities with modest but manageable projects. However messy they might be, a set of patchwork schemes amongst willing countries could pave the way for broader cooperation.

Defence cooperation can and should have a wide scope. It should cover both research and development, and procurement. It should cover concepts, strategy and tactics. It should even cover maintenance, an issue all too easily overlooked.

I have had experience is all these fields, and I can testify how complicated it can become. There are different political and military arrangements in every country, different cultures, different defence industries. And countries have national pride and priorities.

But when it works, as NATO has shown, it can be very effective. With standardised systems and arrangements (not just for buying, but also for operating and maintaining), you can do so much more. You can talk with the same data links. You can look in new areas like cybersecurity. You can use the same spare part pool. When we align requirements with a multinational staff, everyone feels they have a stake in it.

The Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) is a good example: this is a 12-nation initiative based at Hungary’s Pápa Air Base providing access to Boeing C-17 military airlift capability for NATO and partner countries. It is an independent programme, outside the formal EU and NATO structures, and it is very effective.

I also saw this when I was the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy, and took on the additional role as Admiral Benelux. I would be briefed by Belgian officers and would align our joint requirements in operations and maintenance. And while Belgium and the Netherlands might seem close culturally, we still had to work on it. You need to start from the bottom up, establishing a system of rewards and best practices. And you cannot use this cooperation as an excuse for budget cuts: this is for strategic complementarity, and not political accounting.

After seeing the successful integration of our Low Country navies, I now wonder why, for example, we have not tried something similar on the Iberian Peninsula. After all, the two countries share the coastline, and their cultures are as close as Belgium’s is to the Netherlands. But the fact that this is not on anyone’s agenda yet shows the need to increase mutual trust.

Trust is just one of the many obstacles currently blocking the grand EU defence schemes. But there is a path to defence cooperation, and it lies through the patchwork of systems that is already emerging. Our priority now should be on enabling as many of these systems as we can.


Author: Matthieu Borsboom 

Matthieu Borsboom is BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe’s) Senior Advisor on Defence


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