This is the sixth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Following a long period of decline in defense spending, subsequent withering of European capabilities and low relative numbers of European forces, the EU is now actively pursuing its own military renewal. This European military renaissance, however, is hardly a bolt from the blue. Nor is it specifically a reaction to waning confidence in U.S. security guarantees due to the Trump administration being, well, the Trump administration. Arguably, the process began in 2007 with Lisbon Treaty reforms that included establishing the European External Action Service (EEAS) as a “coordination platform and a source of expertise and strategic advice.”These reforms suffered setbacks in wake of the 2008 financial crisis and resulting cuts in defense spending, and EEAS was ultimately never empowered with either funding or decision-making authority. As a consequence, EU states and their militaries found themselves ill-equipped to defend themselves.
More recently, in an attempt to overcome these initial obstacles and insufficiencies, Germany announced its Framework Nations Concept (FNC) in 2013 (yes, still pre-Trump), which was designed to organize and systematize defense cooperation in Europe. The concept is hardly as alarming as the “European army” it’s been made out to be. Since 1995, Europe has in fact been home to the EU’s Eurocorps and its sub-unit, the Franco-German Brigade (FGB), which is composed of German and French units. Despite the FGB being operational for decades, it has actually never been very capable—nor terribly “active” or “successful.” Nevertheless, it is likely to remain EU force headquarters.
The FNC stands to revamp the efficacy of these forces, though, by designating framework nations to coordinate clusters and provide logistical and command and control capabilities for them. Smaller nations will then be able to add their capabilities to these clusters. The idea is to allow Europe to execute “longer and more complex operations,” as well as streamline procurement and spending. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine forced the evolution of the concept further, as well as a move to scale up of number of troops per cluster.
More recent EU initiatives have gone a step beyond, focusing on pan-European harmonization and synchronization through joint procurement and industrial cooperation. In 2016, the EU presented its EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS), as an initiative to enhance coordination and investment in European security and defense, with the aim of establishing strategic autonomy, comprised of both operational and industrial autonomy. EUGS will use monies from the European Defense Fund (EDF) to conduct defense research, develop new technologies, and facilitate multinational cooperation, likely rendering the European Defense Agency something much more like an EU Department of Defense. EU funds are intended to be matched with co-financing from member states on a cluster-by-cluster basis.
To further deepen military integration within the broader clusters designated by the FNC, the EU is turning to a previously unutilized programmatic concept from the original Lisbon Treaty: Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense (PESCO). Through PESCO, member states will spearhead and participate in defense innovation projects. Although voluntary, the commitments states make to these projects will be binding. As it is currently envisioned, a PESCO council will establish policy priorities and standards for evaluation, while a separate PESCO body will develop specific defense projects, to be managed by contributing member states. PESCO was only formally launched in November of this year, and the European Council of the EU formally adopted it last week (December 11, 2017).
Up next, in early 2018, we should expect to see a list of projects slated for PESCO development, as well as further formalization of rules and procedures for the program. All eyes should also be turned towards the next meeting of the EUGS’s Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD), which will identify force and capability gaps, and establish strategic priorities that will, in turn, determine specific PESCO projects to fill those gaps.
What also remains to be seen, of course, is whether these initiatives will yield significant projects on reasonable timelines. As they stand now, these defense initiatives are still in their “ideational” phase. For completed projects to emerge successfully, the EU needs to move—and move fast. As technologies increasingly come out of the private sector and originate in dual-use innovation, new military might is poised to spread rapidly—standing to, once again, set Europe behind the curve. As soon as EU states can acquire new weapons and systems more cheaply elsewhere, the glue binding these states with disparate budgets and security goals together, may weaken.
An additional potential stumbling block includes the fact some EU states have not yet joined the FNC, holding out hope that their own security priorities will be directly addressed by these new initiatives. France, moreover, has chosen to forego framework state status entirely, though remains party to existing and ongoing bi- and tri-lateral projects in Europe. These cooperative defense projects are already in full swing, driven and funded by select EU member states, and remain outside the new pan-European framework. It is not yet clear how these kinds of “private endeavors” will be integrated, if at all. It also remains unclear how new EU capabilities and strategic priorities will be integrated into the NATO framework. Finally, EU states will need to be able to effectively harness innovation coming out of their private sectors to produce cutting edge military equipment. Getting to a point where these kinds of public-private partnerships function with ease is no simple task.
Having a Europe with military forces that can by themselves serve as an effective deterrent to military aggression is, of course, a desirable security goal for all. Bringing it into existence may, however, ultimately force the question of where to go with arms control in Europe, given the atrophied Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and now well-documented violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Additional follow-on effects include those that come from essentially creating a novel hub of military innovation that could, in the limit, pose a formidable challenge to the primacy of the US defense sector, as well as precipitate the chain reaction of increasing innovation, production, and ultimately diffusion of military technologies.
To a certain extent, this process of Europe seizing the reins and revamping its collective military capabilities is inevitable, particularly in the current security landscape. Its potential long-term effects range from beneficial to nefarious, although it’s too soon to say for sure what exactly to expect. If successful, PESCO projects may ultimately serve to add competition and fuel innovation to the defense industrial landscape, or contribute to already bloated global military-industrial complex, with new and more weapons and systems that can increasingly, digitally, evade controls, or both. In Europe, at least, the mood seems to be one of determination mixed with cautious optimism right now.
Amy J. Nelson, Ph.D. is a Robert Bosch Fellow in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. She is also a research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center.