Looking at the state of EU defence cooperation on the threshold of 2022, there is no way around noticing two very different, almost contradictory developments - a positive and encouraging one, but also a more disconcerting one.
The good news first. Ignored and neglected for too long, defence has risen to the very top of the EU’s agenda, even animating summit debates among Heads of State and Government.
A long overdue priority reset that not only reflects the worsening threat environment we live in, but also Europe’s acknowledgement that it needs to take more responsibility for its own security and defence.
The pace and determination by which the missing building blocks for a more structured and coherent defence cooperation were put in place after 2016, when the new EU Global Strategy was approved, are impressive.
Likewise impressive and solid is the EU defence toolbox now in place, with the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF).
Each of the tools is fully operational, playing its assigned role and, most importantly, delivering results.
"The pace and determination by which the missing building blocks for a more structured and coherent defence cooperation were put in place after 2016, when the new EU Global Strategy was approved, are impressive"
The EDF, formally launched only this year, has already issued first calls for proposals and is preparing to co-finance its first projects as of 2022. PESCO, set up only four years ago by 25 participating Member States, has already completed four selection rounds with a total of 60 collaborative defence capability development projects up and running.
And there is the CARD, probably the most significant new element introduced to pave the way towards a more coherent and collaborative European defence.
Because CARD has two key missions, indispensable for achieving more cooperation: to review Member States’ defence activities on a regular basis in order to continuously provide a realistic and updated picture of Europe’s defence landscape; and to identify and promote cooperation opportunities for joint defence capability development.
A year has already passed since the European Defence Agency (EDA) presented the findings and recommendations of the first CARD ever conducted at European level (in the meantime, EDA is already in the starting blocks to launch the second CARD cycle before the end of 2021).
Even today, the results of last year’s exercise are still resounding - as a wake-up call. The findings were indeed more than alarming as they found Europe’s defence landscape “heavily fragmented” and “lacking coherence”, especially because Member States’ Armed Forces operate too many different types of equipment and capabilities, including logistic systems and supply chains.
What’s more, the commitment to EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations was judged “very low” with strong disparities between countries in terms of engagement and operational effort.
The fundamental problem, the first CARD revealed, is that “only few Defence Ministries consider multinational capability development as an essential part of their national defence planning”.
"The [Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD)] findings were indeed more than alarming as they found Europe’s defence landscape “heavily fragmented” and “lacking coherence”, especially because Member States’ Armed Forces operate too many different types of equipment and capabilities, including logistic systems and supply chains"
We probably knew this before, but we never had such compelling evidence than what was described in this first CARD report. It is also a proof that the EU’s common defence instruments, long considered unthinkable, are fulfilling their missions. What an achievement!
This brings me to my second, more worrying point. Setting up structures and tools for cooperation is an important step forward, but only half the journey. Fully using them for making a tangible change on the ground, is the other half.
This is where the problem lies. Latest figures collected by EDA as part of its annual Defence Data Portal updates tend to corroborate the red flag issued in the first CARD report, namely that Defence Ministries still do most of their defence capability planning in isolation, without a European perspective.
Worse, the part of the national defence expenditure Member States allocated for cooperation with other EU Member States - be it for the joint development and procurement of equipment and capabilities or for defence research and innovation - is even further declining compared to previous years, even though overall defence budgets are increasing throughout Europe.
Available figures show indeed that, in 2020, all Member States taken together spent just €4.1bn on European collaborative equipment procurement, 13 percent less than in 2019 and the third lowest value recorded by EDA since 2005.
Whereas the agreed benchmark requires Member States to spend at least 35 percent of their total defence equipment procurement in cooperation with other EU countries, they reached only 11 percent on average in 2020.
It is hard to dismiss this as a one-time slip because the share allocated to European collaborative equipment procurement has been decreasing continuously since 2016.
"Available figures show indeed that, in 2020, all Member States taken together spent just €4.1bn on European collaborative equipment procurement, 13 percent less than in 2019 and the third lowest value recorded by EDA since 2005"
True, it is still early days and the practical impact and outcome of the new cooperation tools have still to materialise and reflect on defence expenditure data and statistics, which will obviously take some time.
The recently launched new PESCO projects, many of which are still at an initial planning phase, will at some point enter national defence budget cycles under ‘cross-border undertakings’, and the 100+ cooperation opportunities identified in last year’s CARD report will hopefully trigger many new joint projects in the months and years to come.
Yet, EDA’s latest figures on Member States’ collaborative spending should be taken for what they are: a reminder that words need to be followed by action and that the proof of European defence cooperation is not in political intentions or well-thought-out paperwork and initiatives, but in the quality, efficiency and interoperability of our Member States’ defence capabilities on the ground.
As the EU hub for joint defence research, innovation and capability development, EDA will continue to keep the focus on both cooperation and operational output.