Commission unveils EU defence action plan
The Commission has unveiled one of the EU's biggest-ever defence research plans in a bid reverse billions of euros in cuts.
The Commission has unveiled one of the EU's biggest-ever defence research plans | Photo credit: Press Association
The announcement on Wednesday of a European defence action plan is also partly designed to send a message to US President-elect Donald Trump that Europe wants to pay for its own security.
During the US election campaign, Trump questioned whether the United States should protect allies seen as spending too little on their defence, raising fears that he could withdraw funding for Nato at a time of heightened tensions with Russia.
At the launch of the plan, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, "If Europe does not take care of its own security, nobody else will do it for us."
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The Commission said EU countries have cut defence spending by nearly 12 per cent in real terms over the last decade but have failed to deepen military cooperation. The executive says this lack of cooperation is costing €25-100bn each year.
EU defence spending currently stands at around €200bn, far behind China and the US. Twenty-two EU countries are also members of Nato. Only five of them, including the UK, spend Nato's agreed upon target of two per cent of gross domestic product on defence.
As a response and part of a broader push to revitalise defence cooperation, the Commission has now proposed a €5bn fund and a lifting of rules preventing the EU's common budget and its development bank from investing in military research.
One of the main proposals of the plan unveiled at a news conference is an investment fund for defence, which could allow EU governments that pay in to also borrow from it. Governments would be able to club together to buy new helicopters and planes to lower costs. At present, most member states pursue their own defence projects which, it is said, can lead to duplication.
The plan to let the EU's common budget and its development bank invest in military research could open the door to drones, cyber warfare systems and other hi-tech gear.
Under the plan, the European Investment Bank (EIB) could finance innovation if a majority of governments agree to remove the ban on backing military projects.
Speaking at the launch in Brussels, Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen said it was time to lift restrictions on the EU from using its budget for military research.
He added, "This is not about an EU army, this is not about spending on the military instead of social security. We face multiplying threats and we must act," the former Finnish premier said, stressing that all assets developed would belong to national governments.
"Our member states cannot afford to protect their citizens without deeper and better cooperation."
The EU's defence industry directly employs about 500,000 people and had a turnover of €97.3bn in 2014.Dominated by Britain's BAE Systems and the trans-European corporation Airbus Group, the industry also includes more than 1,350 small and medium-sized companies that the Commission says are mostly concentrated in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Britain.
Reaction to the announcement was mixed, with German centre right MEP Michael Gahler, his party's spokesperson on security and defence, saying he was "disillusioned" about a plan which "warms up old and well-known subjects out of the inventory which are already or shall be in the process of implementation."
He said, "The plan is a missed opportunity to present specific communication on the nature and scope of the intended programme. That's what the European Parliament continues to ask for.
"Where are the requested EU-wide system on security of supply, the Green Book on strategic defence assets and the legally-binding civil-military hybrid standards?"
His reservations are shared by Maltese S&D group MEP Alfred Sant, whose country takes over the EU presidency on 1 January, and who described the plan as "totally ill-advised."
Ukip's new defence spokesperson Bill Etheridge said, "For the Commission to claim that these proposals do not add up to an EU army is laughable. The EU collectively buying weapons of war is a frightening thought and will undermine Nato further.
"Two per cent of defence spending is a target we should all work towards, however this must be done at a national level. This posturing from the EU is unhelpful arrogance at best and dangerous boasting at worst."
The plan is to be debated with industry and submitted to EU leaders for discussion at their summit in Brussels on 15-16 December.
Though MEPs support new Commission proposals to develop Europe’s defence industry, the role of SMEs and having ‘geographic balance’ is of concern to some deputies.
The new European defence fund will provide innovative support to EU defence, writes Elżbieta Bieńkowska.
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Europe is lagging behind in exploiting the potential of its helicopter sector, argues Jaime Arqué.