Members' Research Service By / May 21, 2022

Future Shocks 2022: Strengthening European defence union [Policy Podcast]

The EU Global Strategy stressed that ‘in a more complex world of global power shifts and power diffusion, the EU must stand united.

Written by Suzana Anghel.

This paper is one of 11 policy responses set out in a new EPRS study which looks first at 15 risks facing the European Union, in the changed context of a world coming out of the coronavirus crisis, but one in which a war has been launched just outside the Union’s borders. The study then looks in greater detail at 11 policy responses the EU could take to address the risks outlined and to strengthen the Union’s resilience to them. It continues a series launched in spring 2020, which sought to identify means to strengthen the European Union’s long-term resilience in the context of recovery from the coronavirus crisis. Read the full study here.

The issue in short: The challenge and the existing gaps

The EU Global Strategy stressed that ‘in a more complex world of global power shifts and power diffusion, the EU must stand united.

Both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) showed unity in the weeks preceding and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With this ‘premeditated and unprovoked‘ attack, Russia did not only oppose Ukraine’s free choice and ability to determine its own destiny, but also aimed at breaking euro-Atlantic unity as well as at redefining the European continent’s security architecture. Ukraine’s resilience and resistance countered Russia’s plans, while NATO further affirmed its ‘open door policy’ and strengthened its eastern flank. In March 2022, in Versailles, the European Parliament President, Roberta Metsola, warned the EU leaders that ‘Putin will not stop in Kyiv, just as he did not stop in Crimea’, and urged them to ‘make the defence union a reality’.

The return of war on the European continent does not only confront the EU and its Member States with growing instability, but also with multi-faceted – both conventional and non-conventional – threats. To be able to rise to the self-imposed level of ambition set in the Global Strategy – protect EU citizens, respond to external crises and conflicts and build the capacity of partners – the EU needs to become a global security player, complementary to NATO, which remains the primary collective defence and deterrence tool for those 21 EU Member States that are also members of the alliance. The implementation of the Strategic Compass is key and could lead to a more robust EU in defence, allowing Member States to stand by the mutual obligation of ‘assistance’ deriving from Article 42(7) of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), which the recently adopted Versailles declaration recognises as being the fundament of their solidarity.

Deep geopolitical shifts where already under way prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as big powers stepped up their game. Both China and Russia have long been questioning multilateralism and an international order based on rules, reviving the concept of ‘spheres of influence‘. Some interdependencies, particularly in the economic sphere, that for a while were beneficial, have proved, in the long term, rather disadvantageous, as they pointed to vulnerabilities. The most telling case in point is energy, which over the past three decades has been largely considered in economic terms as a commodity, and not from a security perspective as a strategic public good. The European Council President, Charles Michel, stressed that building a strategically autonomous EU is the challenge of a generation. It may also well be the opportunity to address vulnerabilities, bolster partnerships and strengthen the EU’s role in the world by acting simultaneously on internal and external polices, and in particular by building a genuine European defence union based inter alia on a yet to be shaped common strategic culture and joint capabilities able to contribute in a meaningful way to both European and transatlantic security.

Existing policy responses

EU action

European defence cooperation is an area where a leap forward has been made over the past decade, owing to a political consensus reached in the European Council in 2013 that ‘defence matters‘. EU leaders agreed to step up defence cooperation along three lines: 1) crisis management, 2) the development of capabilities, and 3) the defence industry and market.

As regards crisis management, substantive progress has been achieved in recent years, in particular with the adoption of the civilian compact, intended to strengthen and streamline EU civilian missions. Only incremental progress has been regarding EU military operations, mainly reflected in the establishment of a military planning and conduct capability (MPCC) as a permanent command and control facility for ‘non-executive’ common foreign and security policy (CSDP) military operations. The Strategic Compass, endorsed by the European Council on 24-25 March 2022, called for a further strengthening of existing command and control structures, including the MPCC, in order to increase readiness and to develop an EU rapid deployment capacity of up to 5 000 troops by 2025. Furthermore, the modalities of flexible cooperation on CSDP missions and operations under Article 4 TEU are to be decided by 2023. Figure 50 shows both the Strategic Compass process and initiatives to be implemented.

In focus: Strategic Compass
On 24-25 March 2022, EU leaders endorsed the Strategic Compass at the end of a process they had been monitoring closely for over a year. The Strategic Compass provides a ‘shared assessment of the [Union’s] strategic environment’. It acknowledges that the world has become more dangerous, and that the EU is facing ‘strategic competition and complex security threats’ that it needs to address collectively and in a united manner, in close cooperation with like-minded partners.
The war in Ukraine has led to a shift in focus of the Strategic Compass and to the introduction of robust language on Russia. The EU condemned Russia’s military aggression, its breach of international law and, in particular, the threat of resorting to nuclear weapons. The EU reaffirmed its commitment to a European security order based on the respect of the rules enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, including the principle of ‘the sovereign equality and territorial integrity of States’.
On China, the Strategic Compass reiterated previous language from the EU-China Strategy released in 2019, which referred to the country as ‘a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival’. It acknowledged China’s interest in developing its ‘military means’ and in modernising its armed forces by 2035, stressing that it was important China continued to ‘uphold global security’ and a rules-based international order.
‘A quantum leap forward’ is needed to ensure that the EU is able to act in a more resilient manner while ensuring ‘solidarity and mutual assistance’. The compass offers a detailed plan with clear-cut deadlines aimed at strengthening security and defence at the 2030 horizon in four main areas. These cover the EU’s ability to ‘act’ when a crisis emerges; to ‘secure’; to ‘invest’ in capabilities and new technologies; and to cooperate with like-minded partners globally (the UN), regionally (NATO), and bilaterally (Canada, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States).

Taboos were broken in recent years as key inter-linked tools such as the coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) have been introduced and permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) (Articles 42.6 and 46 TEU and Protocol 10) activated. The overall aim was to identify the defence capabilities of which Member States dispose, or which should commonly be developed and funded in jointly cooperative projects, in order to be able to respond united to the threats and risks the EU is facing.

CARD allows existing capabilities to be identified and national defence planning cycles brought closer together. It could facilitate their ‘gradual synchronisation and mutual adaptation’. A first CARD report was released in 2020, recommending a coordinated approach to ‘defence spending, defence planning and defence cooperation’ as the only way of overcoming fragmentation and duplication. A second CARD report is expected later in 2022.

Figure 50: Timeline of security and defence initiatives
Figure 50: Timeline of security and defence initiatives

The EDF, which has been preceded by the preparatory action on defence research (PADR) (€90 million for 2017-2019) and the European defence industrial development programme (EDIDP) (€500 million for 2019-2020), is the result of a progressive paradigm shift initiated in the European Council between 2013 and 2015. Then, EU leaders agreed to boost joint defence research and fund it from the EU budget, strengthening the Community method in the area of security and defence. The EDF benefits from an €8 billion envelope under the EU’s long-term budget, the 2021-2027 multi-annual financial framework (MFF). The fund comprises two windows, one dedicated to defence research, fully funded from the EU budget, and a second one dedicated to capabilities, which draws on EU budgetary means as well as on Member States’ funding. The EDF capability window allows the development of prototypes to be co-financed, with a maximum share of 20 % of the costs being supported from the EU budget. It also covers acquisition, with the caveat that this component – the most costly – remains for now fully financed by the Member States. President Metsola stressed that the EU ‘must go beyond the European Defence Fund and make the EU budget work for our security and defence policy whenever it adds value’.

PESCO is a Treaty-based mechanism allowing for differentiated integration in defence. It was activated in December 2017, when 25 EU Member States (except Denmark and Malta) notified the Council of their intention to participate. Obligations undertaken by the Member States are legally binding, and 60 projects have been developed thus far in areas such as ‘training, land, maritime, air, cyber and joint enablers’. The flagship project is the Dutch-led military mobility, which includes 24 Member States and aims to facilitate the rapid transfer of military capabilities – personnel and equipment – across the continent. In parallel, the European Commission has issued a joint communication on improving military mobility and an action plan, a dual-use initiative funded under the Connecting Europe Facility for an amount of €1.5 billion in the period 2021-2027. Military mobility is also a key component of EU-NATO cooperation, as the more rapid transfer of national capabilities can benefit both organisations in case of need. PESCO, along with CARD and the EDF, contributes to the progressive framing of a European defence union. President Metsola stressed that an EU ‘capable of countering new threats’ needs smart defence spending and would require a PESCO reform.

More recently, on 15 February 2022, in the run-up to the EU Strategic Compass, the European Commission presented a communication on European defence, in which it reaffirmed its commitment to supporting implementation of existing initiatives, including the EDF, and outlined ‘new measures and initiatives’ on, inter alia, investments, joint procurement and strengthening space cooperation. It has also recalled, among other things, that the Member States were yet to meet the 35 % collective defence equipment spending target. In response to a request formulated by the European Council, the Commission also presented a roadmap on critical technologies for security and defence, in which it committed to boost dual-use research, technology, development and innovation, ‘mitigate strategic dependencies from external sources’, and coordinate with the US and NATO. Furthermore, again at the request of the European Council, the European Commission is, in cooperation with the European Defence Agency, to present by mid-May 2022 an ‘analysis of the defence investment gaps’.

The European Peace Facility (EPF), an off-EU budget instrument that brings together the former Athena mechanism (common costs for CSDP military operations) and the African Peace Facility (mechanism to support peace and security in Africa), has been operational since 1 July 2021. The EPF consists of two pillars, namely ‘military operations’ and ‘assistance measures’. It benefits from an envelope of nearly €6 billion for the period 2021-2027, funded by the EU Member States (except Denmark)[i] on a gross national income (GNI) basis. Prior to the start of the war, the Council pledged to provide €31 million in assistance to support the Ukrainian armed forces under the EPF, and similar decisions targeted Bosnia and Herzegovina (€10 million), Georgia (€11.4 million) and Moldova (€6.3 million). After the start of the war, the amount for Ukraine was increased by €500 million, of which €450 million for lethal arms and €50 million for non-lethal supplies, and political agreements were reached for two further increases of €500 million (thus totalling €1.5 billion). As EPF implementation begins, the question of the accountability of the money spent could progressively arise; this issue could be addressed by bringing the EPF into the EU budget and hence under the scrutiny of the European Parliament.

National level initiatives

At the 2014 Wales NATO Summit, allies committed to dedicate a minimum of 2 % of their gross domestic product (GDP) to defence spending by 2024. The European Council shared this commitment by calling repeatedly for an increase in defence spending, a requirement enshrined in the legally binding commitments to which Member States agreed under PESCO.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, only a few EU Member States, including the Baltic countries, France, Greece, Poland and Romania, were meeting the 2 % GDP defence spending criterion. In the meantime, the outbreak of the war led some of these countries to announce a further increase of their defence spending; the boldest move was made by Poland, which announced a level of 3 % of GDP in defence spending for 2023 to ‘increase the size of its armed forces, restore the reserve system and modernise its equipment’. Germany, which currently spends 1.5 % of its GDP on defence, has announced a one-off €100 billion special defence fund. It has thus opted for a tailor-made mechanism as opposed to a permanent increase of defence spending, which would have long-lasting doctrinal consequences and ‘would be harder to reverse’. Although spending is decided and implemented nationally, efforts need to be coordinated at the European level and in close cooperation with NATO to ensure best value for money, avoid duplication, foster interoperability, and stimulate the acquisition of those capabilities that would enable implementation of both the EU Strategic Compass and the upcoming NATO Strategic Concept.

EU-NATO cooperation

EU-NATO cooperation at the political and technical levels is running smoothly, and a new joint declaration is being prepared for June 2022. At the political level, the High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP), Josep Borrell, often attends the meetings of the North Atlantic Council, as did his predecessor, Federica Mogherini, while the European Council regularly invites the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, for an exchange of views. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine allowed the European Council President, Charles Michel, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, to stress the unity and complementarity of the EU and NATO, two organisations that joined efforts in supporting Ukraine. At the technical level, cooperation focuses on the implementation of the seven priorities identified in the 2016 and 2018 joint declarations with NATO: hybrid threats, cyber-security, operational cooperation, capacity-building, defence capabilities, research and industry, and training.

Member States maintain a single set of forces, which, whenever needed, they can commit either to the EU or to NATO. Their (joint) efforts to strengthen existing capabilities and develop new ones, undertaken in the EU framework following the introduction of CARD, PESCO and the EDF, can only strengthen both organisations, and thus, transatlantic unity and security. Building a strong European pillar within NATO is not only about sharing the financial burden of transatlantic security by meeting the 2 % GDP commitment to defence spending by 2024, but also about stepping up the ability of European allies to act, at a time when European security is under threat and EU budgetary means remain under-explored when it comes to funding security and defence.

Obstacles to implementation

Member States’ sensitivities and limitations in political will remain the main obstacle for yet another leap forward in security and defense. Within the framework of Article 42(2) TEU, the EU can progressively frame ‘a common Union defence policy’. The existing policy responses, examined above, contribute to the progressive shaping and strengthening of the European defence union called for by the European Parliament and the European Commission. The European Council has not used the term European defence union in its conclusions thus far. It has nonetheless maintained security and defence as a ‘rolling’ item on its agenda, and has been a staunch supporter of strengthening European defence cooperation. Article 42(2) TEU allows the boundary between defence cooperation and integration to be pushed even further by moving towards a ‘common defence’, but this depends entirely on the European Council.

As outlined above, technical instruments to foster joint procurement of capabilities are already in place and could be further developed should Member States break away from existing patterns. Indeed, EU Member States have committed collectively not only to increase defence spending, but also to procure 35 % of defence equipment through joint collaborative projects. Nevertheless, European Defence Agency data show that only 11 % of equipment was procured jointly by EU Member States in 2020. The data also show that defence equipment procurement continues to be conducted on a national basis, despite the adoption in 2009 of the Defence Procurement Directive, which aims to foster joint procurement. In the long term, there is potential for ‘a profound change in procurement practices’ if EU Member States are willing to commit fully to the implementation of the EDF capability window, and more importantly, to go beyond the EDF and maximise the output that the EU budget could offer in support of security and defence.

The specialisation of national armed forces is another sensitive issue. This would require Member States to increasingly trust each other with their security, specialise their forces, share capabilities and adapt their procurement patterns to the needs identified as a result of the collective CARD exercise. It would allow for genuine economies of scale, reduce waste, and ensure better value for money. For that purpose, a new political consensus on defence would be needed in the European Council.

Policy proposals by experts and stakeholders

There is a rich and rapidly growing body of academic and think tank literature on the topic, which for the most part acknowledges the need to further step up European defence cooperation. In some cases, the focus is on individual mechanisms – CARD, PESCO and/or the EDF – and the challenges encountered when implementing them. In others, it is on institutional aspects, with proposals including the introduction of a European Security Council, a ministers’ of defence Council configuration, or the upgrading of the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Security and Defence to a full parliamentary committee. Decision-making is another area where multiple proposals have been put forward, including moving towards qualified majority voting for civilian CSDP missions. A large body of literature continues to focus on crisis management and on the over 35 civilian and military missions and operations launched to date, which represent the most tangible EU contribution to peace and security.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine will, most likely, have deeper and long-lasting effects on tomorrow’s international order, which not only Russia, but also China, wish to reshape. HR/VP Josep Borrell stressed that the survival of the post-war multilateral acquis with ‘the UN, international law and universal rights’ at its core was at stake. Analysts argue that the US and their European and Asian allies need to ‘develop a free world defence strategy‘ to counter the revisionist views that look to revive a world based on spheres of influence. Furthermore, the EU could step up its game and use its ‘soft power tools’ – trade, development, sanctions and diplomacy – more assertively. At the same time, it could move towards becoming a ‘smart power‘ by relying on its existing ‘soft power tools’ whilst developing ‘hard power tools’ allowing it to respond to the full spectrum of threats and to be a more reliable transatlantic partner.

The EU could go beyond the existing fragmentation and duplication of defence capabilities and build tomorrow’s military capabilities by fully embracing the scholarly enunciated principle of ‘pooling, sharing and specialisation’. Furthermore, a reviewed PESCO could give more space to projects such as the EUFOR crisis response operation core, which in case of clarification of the modalities of activation of Article 44 TEU could offer participating Member States the possibility of pledging forces on permanent bases, something which scholars argue would move the entire EU beyond interoperability towards integration.

Position of the European Parliament

In a February 2022 resolution, the European Parliament stressed that ‘the Strategic Compass was a starting point for implementing a common European defence in line with the provisions laid out in Article 42(2)TEU’ and ‘should constitute a major step towards a genuine European defence union’, which is part of the EU’s ‘objective of achieving strategic autonomy’. It underlined that the European External Action Service (EEAS) ‘must closely monitor and ensure the traceability and proper use of the material delivered to our partners under the EPF’. It also noted that several bodies, including the EU Satellite Centre (SATCEN) and the European Security and Defence College ‘should benefit from structural Union funding’.

Cooperation with partners, in particular the UN and NATO, is one of the elements most emphasised by Parliament, which reiterated the view that European NATO member countries needed ‘to take on more burden-sharing responsibilities in protecting the transatlantic space and respond to new hybrid threats’. Parliament has also stressed that it ‘expects the final draft of the Strategic Compass and the NATO Strategic Concept to be coherent with one another to ensure strengthened collaboration and burden sharing, and to identify ways to reinforce EU-NATO cooperation’. It considered Russia’s aggressiveness ‘as a major security threat for the European continent’, and warned of ‘severe economic and financial sanctions’ the EU was prepared to adopt in close cooperation with the US and other partners in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Parliament has also called to ‘assess and develop options for the establishment of EU standing multinational military units financed both from the European Peace Facility and the EU’s budget by making full use of the current possibilities offered by the EU Treaties’.

Possible action

Listen to policy podcast ‘Future Shocks: Russia’s brutal expansionism‘ on YouTube.


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