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EU leaders’ decisions augur big developments for European defence policy, with wider implications for other sectors as well


BRUSSELS – After decades of procrastination, national leaders at their 22-23 June summit here took decisions that now set the stage for the EU’s entry into the defence field, though any talk of an imminent “European” army is fantasy.

Nonetheless, important policy proposals by the European Commission were approved. The member states themselves finally agreed to finance their diverse battlegroups to boost the EU’s common security and defence policy (CSDP), for example, while approving plans – far more radical – to allow self-selected EU countries to shift into “permanent structured cooperation” (PESCO) in defence. But these were just some of the approved measures.

An interesting coda to these decisions will be their impact on the EU’s homeland security, since an ever-tightening coordination of the EU’s foreign, security and defence nexus now looks inexorable. It’s not only the internal/external nature of the threats facing the EU – terrorism, a belligerent Russia – but the fact that Europe’s faith in the United States as a bedrock ally has been shaken.

Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre, summed up the issue at an EPC debrief a few days after the summit. “The overall narrative is that the EU is an alternative to a [US President Donald] Trump vision of the world,” he said, adding that “everybody played ball, and all conveyed a message of unity and optimism” in the areas of security and defence.

Take the battlegroups, for instance. The Council’s decision that member states will collectively bear the BGs’ deployment as a common cost via their inter-governmental “Athena” funding mechanism is a big step forward for giving operational teeth to the CSDP. Not only Trump’s America-first stance but also Brexit lay behind the shift, as London finally relaxed its long-standing veto on the Athena decision.

As Fabian Zuleeg, EPC’s chief economist, observed: “while watching the summit, you can see how much the UK is already on the sidelines. They’re allowed to speak, but the discussions are brief. It’s information only, then the UK leaves. The UK is already out of the discussions.”

Of greater import, however, was the leaders’ nod to the Commission to propose a plan by end-2017 for an “inclusive and ambitious” PESCO. Once established, PESCO will allow any and all kinds of defence cooperation:  policy, research, joint acquisition, joint military units, common training and curricula, etc.

Indeed, combined with the EU’s earlier decision to create an operational HQ for planning and executing CSDP missions, PESCO could eventually rival NATO’s military command structure, though no one within the EU would ever officially admit that. The member states have given themselves until early autumn to draw up a list of binding commitments and a governance structure for PESCO.

Where the EU’s energised defence agenda will veer first into the security realm will be the Commission’s proposals for a European Defence Fund and a European Defence Industrial Development Programme, both approved by the leaders as well. Aimed at consolidating the demand side of defence and lessening the sector’s fragmentation, the Council called for the two measures’ swift operationalisation.

While the EDF will fund “pure” (if non-lethal) defence research to the tune of EUR 500 million per year starting in 2021, it is difficult to envision this taking place in a pure defence vacuum. The Commission is pushing hard for dual-use synergies to emerge as it spends its research money – whether for civil or defence purposes –and as it deploys the EU’s massive Structural Funds on regional development across the member states.

As for the European Defence Industrial Development Programme, few observers doubt it will support the acquisition of capabilities such as long-endurance drones, satellite observation, secure command-and-control technologies and advanced situational awareness capabilities. Every one of these can be flipped over to civil security use.

Looking ahead, the EU’s new Estonian presidency will push forward the agreed June measures on security and defence. Matti Maasikas, Estonia’s deputy minister for European affairs, says his country’s priorities for the next six months include managing the migration crisis, strengthening military capabilities through defence cooperation, tackling cyber and hybrid threats, implementing PESCO, and reforming the common asylum system, among other subjects.

Asked which priorities were the most important – and what keeps him awake at night – Maasikas replied: “The migrant crisis, and its consequences for European solidarity.”

     THE UPSHOT: How the BGs and PESCO would be applied to internal security threats to the EU was not discussed but this will eventually have to be tackled. Technically, the BGs are for external missions. But if there was a wide-impact earthquake, a 9/11-type attack on a major European city or a military skirmish with Russia along its border with Finland – a member of the EU but not NATO – would the BGs stand idly by because the EU crisis was “internal”? That makes no sense.
     Once the basics of PESCO are in place, EU institutions will have to grab the external-internal operational beast by the horns and start defining guidelines for the “D’s” use in CSDP for homeland security.


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