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Disagreements between EU member states over military missions and funding instruments represent a challenge to effective EU cooperation on defence, participants at the European Defence Industry Summit in Brussels heard on 5 March.

Speakers discussed current ‘hot topics’ related to EU Defence, including the European Defence Union (EDU) and Fund (EDF) before an audience consisting of experts from EU institutions, NATO, think tanks and industry.

Since 2016 political instability around Europe, Brexit and President Trump’s doubts regarding NATO and multilateralism, have combined to push EU leaders to seek stronger strategic autonomy in security and defence. This has resulted in several initiatives, including the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) for defence projects, the EDF and the current self-defined ‘geopolitical’ Commission’s decision to put defence high on the EU agenda, by creating a new Directorate-General for Defence and Space.

As the EU still faces a number of security threats, including current situations in Turkey, Libya, Ukraine, plus potential new migratory crises, speakers stressed the urgency need for closer cooperation. But disagreement on prioritisation of security challenges and military cooperation, along with member states’ varying rules of engagement for their national forces, arms export regulations and parliamentary control may result in a missed opportunity for a real Defence Union.

While countries in Eastern Europe feel a more urgent sense of threat and need for defending their borders, others are either more afraid of terrorism coming from the South or are traditionally neutral,” Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh explained.

Disagreements also occur regarding EU countries’ participation in military missions, which have been so far mostly carried out by (restricted) ‘coalitions of the willing.’

Other than France, which has taken the lead since Brexit, other countries do not take initiatives, Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe Paul Taylor said, “Italy has some capabilities and is very engaged in several international (and peace-keeping) operations, but is politically unstable” and has a long-standing pacifist tradition. Spain does not have the appropriate legitimacy for historical reasons, he added.

The “very missing piece,” he stressed, “is Germany, which has serious military capabilities but also strict parliamentary control and export regulations,” which often became a battlefield for the coalition.

One solution proposed could involve reconsidering the need for unanimity in votes on military operations – as well as on European projects under the EDF – within the Council.

 

The EDF and Transatlantic Relations

Speakers also discussed the EDF, which was created to help fund defence capability prototypes in order to to incentivise cooperation between EU Member States, tackling market fragmentation and systems duplication issues. The fund potentially faces severe cuts in negotiations around the EU’s multi-year budget, dropping from the Commission’s initially proposed €13 billion to around 7 billion.

Speakers said this move reflects the scepticism of some states – such as France – who are reluctant to fund the EDF rather than their national programmes.

Sylvia Kainz-Huber (Head of Unit of the Commission’s DG for Defence Industry and Space) said the fund is meant to provide a contribution and not to replace the big ‘top-down’ programmes such as new-generation jets. She also praised the fund, saying the idea of a community budget used for defence is “itself already a revolution.”

Some European countries seem to be more optimistic. Czech Deputy Minister of Defence Tomáš Kopečný explained that his country considers the fund as an “exciting opportunity” for small and medium enterprises to get access to supply chains which have been “closed for decades […] For the first time, Czech companies – along with Austrian, Hungarian, etc. – start believing that there is something to do within and with the European Union,” he concluded.

The last panel, dedicated to transatlantic cooperation, saw speakers aspiring to open markets on both sides of the Atlantic and for more cooperation. There cannot be defence capabilities “without industrial basis on both sides, a strong supply chain and transatlantic cooperation,” concluded Rudy Priem, Chair of the AmCham EU Security, Defence & Space Committee.

Caterina Tani in Brussels for MON

Delegates listening to presentations at the European Defence Industry Summit (EDIS) in Brussels on 5 March. (Photo: EDIS)

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