United we stand


Picture of Teija Tiilikainen
Teija Tiilikainen

Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The EU’s new security and defence agenda has gained support among member states

Teija Tiilikainen is Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Tension over Europe’s security has grown in recent years due to instability in the Middle East and Africa and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. These threats come at a time when European defence budgets are under increasing pressure, making it hard for EU Member States to raise spending on their capabilities. Moreover, the United States, an essential guarantor of European security through NATO, has been complaining that Europeans are not doing enough themselves in defence.

The result has been a series of initiatives to bolster European defence, which are finally giving momentum to European defence cooperation.

Firstly, Member States are starting to develop common capabilities in order to reduce costs. The European Commission has actively led this agenda, which it sees as an important contribution to a competitive European defence industry.

Secondly, the EU has developed its first substantial defence policy. Deepened security and defence cooperation has been at the heart of official thinking on the future of the EU, as it is a component of the Union’s ability to survive crises. In 2016, the Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy translated threats to European security into policies and instruments extending beyond crisis management. It also shifted the focus of security and defence policy closer to the EU’s territory and borders.

There is now every reason to hope that the EU will make a success of its new agenda on security and defence

Thirdly, Member States are no longer split along NATO and non-NATO lines in their views on the EU’s role. This has been helped by the EU-NATO joint declaration in 2016, where the organizations agreed to step up cooperation in areas including hybrid threats, capacity building, cyber defence and maritime security. As a result, most EU members now seem convinced that there is a role for both the EU and NATO in European security politics.

This new dynamism in EU defence policy has met with an apparently firm consensus by the member states. However, there are differences over the details and the contribution expected from the EU.

Concerned by Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, most East and Central European members now support the EU becoming prepared more concretely to implement its mutual defence clause – Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which was activated for the first time in by France after the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015.

Of the three Nordic EU members, Finland has been most constructive. As a small nation with a territorial defence system, it expects the EU to add concrete value to the management of its multiple threats. Denmark and Sweden have been more reserved, and are still contemplating their positions for the post-Brexit era. Denmark’s opt-out from EU defence cooperation limits its participation. Sweden is concerned about new supranational elements in security and defence and about the implications of procurement cooperation for the Swedish defence industry.

Despite changing policy on security and defence, Germany is not yet at ease with questions of military security in the EU context. Germany has thus focused on the new capability agenda and the EU’s comprehensive approach, instead of promoting debate on the military needs for the Union’s territorial security. Defence cooperation has also formed one of the core topics on the Franco-German agenda as the countries seek consensus over the EU’s future. Germany is working with France in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a mechanism enabled by the Lisbon Treaty for groups of Member States to launch joint projects in defence cooperation.

The renewed ambitions in security and defence are also meant to supersede some less-successful projects

The Franco-German consensus does not, however, extend to the level of detail, and old dividing lines between the countries have delayed an agreement. France had wanted PESCO to become an instrument for EU operative efficiency that would provide capabilities for demanding military tasks. But Germany, loyal to its principles, wanted to safeguard EU unity by making the enhanced cooperation as inclusive as possible. A compromise has now been reached, and a framework should be ready for the December European Council meeting.

The renewed ambitions in security and defence are also meant to supersede some less-successful projects. The EU’s Battle Groups reached operational capacity as early as 2007, but have not yet been used, reflecting a major divide among Member States over the Union’s strategic role. Now though, ongoing efforts to increase their funding through a common budget might facilitate their use. Similarly, the European Defence Agency (EDA) was facing difficulties in obtaining funding to enhance common projects in research and technology within the European defence industry, but it now benefits from the European Defence Fund.

There is now every reason to hope that the EU will make a success of its new agenda on security and defence. The contemporary Union with its strengthened internal interdependencies and common external borders is much more vulnerable than in the early years of this millennium. And the world around it doesn’t seem to be much more peaceful.

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