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Europe cannot ‘remain in the passenger seat’ on common defence capabilities

At this point, the continent cannot afford to worry about creating a two-speed EU – the current geopolitical context gives Europe all the reasons it needs to take control – argues Martin Michelot

It is easy to be frustrated by the pace of Europe’s progress toward a common defence strategy and the absence of urgency. Just last week, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault channelled feelings within French political circles when he called for “a strategy, a global vision, a global organization,” while insisting that “France isn’t asking anybody to assume its responsibilities in its place”. But Europeans finally have an opportunity to address this issue head-on at this week’s European Council meeting in Brussels.

It is clear that not all the problems that have beset the cooperation and development of the Common Security and Defence Policy over the last few years can be solved by the council. Although the Brussels meeting marks an important opportunity to give momentum to a process that has not come naturally to member states in the past. Beyond focusing on the hard deliverables of the summit — of which there will be few — the emphasis should be on the framework that will be agreed upon to pursue these very necessary talks in the future. European diplomats have been working hard over the last few months to ensure that this will not be another missed opportunity, which would mark a setback for Europe’s global strategic relevance.

The two and a half hours of discussion on security and defence this week will focus on three different items: the effectiveness of CSDP, the improvement of Europe’s security capabilities, and support for Europe’s defence industry. One enabling element looms in the background of these discussions: it seems that Europeans have finally realised that they can no longer wait to take concrete measures in the face of the ongoing budgetary crisis. They are now ready to sit around a table and discuss these hard issues, after having for years looked for alternative solutions.

The decisive driver behind any future progress will be the existence of true political will on the part of member states, and a willingness to drive the process forward, following decisions made by the council. Whether this realisation has been imposed, as in the case of many smaller countries or by the growing understanding of the continent as an enabler of sorts, notably in the cases of France or Poland, does not matter as much as the dynamics that this new state of mind creates among the interested parties.

After the process of balancing expectations and outcomes that has played out in the last few months, it is crucial that leaders are able to agree to a common set of objectives that they can reach in the years to come. The stakes are high, and so are the risks of strategic downgrading if Europe does not have the tools to face challenges that will present themselves in the future. Ukraine and Mali are only tastes of things to come.

Of course, there are, and will always be, stumbling blocks in this process. For example, reconciling 28 strategic postures and priorities in an effort to create a new supranational security strategy is a massive task but one that should not stop Europeans from taking measured but firm steps toward a deeper integration of defence agendas – especially in terms of future procurement.

The question of the relationship between European Union structures and those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — an issue of significant concern for the United States — has been left on the sidelines for now but will need to be addressed given the various capabilities of the interested parties. The issues surrounding Europe’s defence industry have proven equally delicate although are also the one aspect on which the EU, via the European Commission’s directives, can empower institutions such as the European Defence Agency to support industry and make it more globally competitive.

This could be done, for instance, through support for research and development and incentives for member states to think through their modernisation processes strategically. Thinking together about European weaknesses that the US military compensated for in Libya and Mali, such as indigenous drones or better air-to-air refuelling capabilities, is an integral part of this long-term thought process.

Despite these complications, it is crucial for Europeans to create inclusive structures for discussion in order to make further progress easier, while at the same time keeping open the possibility for willing members to go a step further in broadening their defence cooperation; whether in multilateral or bilateral formats. At this point, the continent cannot afford to worry about creating a two-speed EU: getting the engine in gear is the first step. The current geopolitical context gives Europe all the reasons it needs to take control. It can no longer afford the luxury of remaining in the passenger seat.

Martin Michelot is the research officer in the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: Europe is ready to talk about common defence

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