Securing Europe in a post-COVID world

This December, the EU’s biggest defence conference will see military experts and policymakers gather to discuss the evolving security challenges that COVID-19 has created, and how these can be dealt with. Rajnish Singh reports.
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By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

07 Dec 2020

This December, the EU’s biggest defence conference will see military experts and policymakers gather to discuss the evolving security challenges that COVID-19 has created, and how these can be dealt with. Rajnish Singh reports.

Speaking ahead of the upcoming European Defence Agency (EDA) annual conference, in December, Chief executive Jirí Šedivý explains why this year’s event - and its theme of Sustaining European Defence – are so important. “Both the topic and timing of this year’s conference couldn’t have been better chosen. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a quickly shifting geo-strategic environment is creating serious security ramifications, therefore ‘Sustaining European Defence’ has never been more pressing than today.”

This year’s online conference brings together officials from EU ministries of defence, the armed forces, EU institutions, the defence industry and academia to discuss the year’s biggest achievements, most recent developments and what the future of EU security policy may look like. This event holds particularly importance for Šedivý as it will be the first annual conference that he will chair.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a quickly shifting geo-strategic environment is creating serious security ramifications, therefore ‘Sustaining European Defence’ has never been more pressing than today”

He explains that the event “will not be short of discussing relevant issues, besides the pandemic and its potential impact on defence spending and planning. Attendees will also have the chance to debate the findings of the first Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), and how Member States’ take up EU capability development priorities and their translation into national programmes.”

Delegates will also hear from Europe’s defence industry about how it plans to adapt to a post- COVID-19 world, paying particular attention to vulnerabilities and threats to supply chains. Chair of Parliament’s sub-committee on Security and Defence (SEDE), Nathalie Loiseau, shares Šedivý’s concern for how the pandemic is already shaping EU security and defence policy and planning.

Among the consequences witnessed so far, Loiseau points to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions which have temporarily ceased, saying that Coronavirus is “putting at risk the difficult progress that had been achieved over many months.” She wants to see CSDP missions continue, even during a pandemic.

As EU forces are now involved in dealing with both health and security issues in the countries where they are deployed, Loiseau also wants to see the two key EU defence initiatives - The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) - develop operational projects to strengthen medical responses.

Notwithstanding dealing with pandemics or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, the French MEP also wants greater focus placed on tackling growing digital threats including cyberattacks on critical infrastructures as well as disinformation campaigns and fake news stories seen throughout the pandemic. “We must realise that they are a weapon too, intended to weaken our democracies, and we must defend ourselves against them,” says the SEDE chair.

Loiseau’s SEDE Committee colleague, vice-chair Lukas Mandl, believes COVID-19 has exacerbated existing geopolitical crises and rivalries, saying, “Though the pandemic has highlighted the important role of our armed forces, it has also revealed our vulnerability and dependency.” He also believes a US led by Joseph Biden, who is seen as more pro-EU than his soon-tobe predecessor Donald Trump, will in fact see the country’s focus remain on the Asia-Pacific region and leave Europe to manage its own security.

Therefore, he argues, “We need to be able to deal with crises on our own and increase our efforts to achieve ‘strategic autonomy’. But this will not be easy, as the pandemic was putting additional strain on Member States’ defence budgets.” For the EPP member it is also important, now more than ever, that EU taxpayers’ money was spent more efficiently and sustainably, saying “A lot of money is still wasted due to duplication and fragmentation (in European military).”

However, fellow SEDE vice-chair, Özlem Demirel, is more cynical, arguing that the current situation has been used as an excuse for the EU to expand defence spending. She tells me it is interesting to note that these plans are not new but are being reconsidered in light of global developments such as the pandemic and the world’s changing situation.

She points to Brexit as another example, with the UK’s withdrawal allowing Germany and France to renew efforts to increase “military cooperation” within the EU. Demirel warns, “The citizens of Europe do not dream of war and aircraft carriers, but instead want peace and social security. Instead of billions of Euros given to the EDF, it should be invested in social measures and infrastructure.”

COMMON DEFENCE PRIORITIES

The CDP is the only joint defence capability prioritisation tool at a European level covering the whole capability spectrum. As the initiator of the CDP, the EDA has produced regular updates since 2008, in close cooperation with Member States, the EU Military Committee (EUMC) and the EU Military Staff (EUMS). In 2018, a revised version with 11 new European Capability Development Priorities was approved. They are focused on delivering capabilities needed to address existing gaps in European defence. The revised CDP is also coherent with NATO’s Defence Planning Process (NDPP), avoiding unnecessary duplication.

PERMANENT STRUCTURED COOPERATION (PESCO)

PESCO was established in December 2017 by 25 EU Member States whose declared ambition is to make it the “most important instrument to foster common security and defence” and a tool intended to provide Europe with “a coherent full spectrum force package, in complementarity with NATO”. In March 2018, a first list of 17 PESCO projects was approved. On 19 November 2018, a second list of 17 additional projects was approved by the Council. Together with EEAS (including EUMS), the EDA acts as the PESCO Secretariat.

EUROPEAN DEFENCE FUND (EDF)

The EDF was launched in 2017 through its precursor programmes (it should be fully operational in 2020) to financially incentivise and support cross-border defence cooperation among companies and between EU countries. To that end, it will co-fund collaborative projects in two domains: defence research and capability development. In June 2018, the Commission proposed to allocate €13bn to the fund for 2021-2027.

COORDINATED ANNUAL REVIEW ON DEFENCE (CARD)

Launched by Member States in May 2017, its objective is to foster a gradual synchronisation and mutual adaptation of national defence planning cycles and capability development practices. A trial run was conducted from 2017-2018 to allow Member States to test and adapt the CARD methodology; it was concluded by a report presented by EDA to Member States. On 20 November 2018, ministers agreed to establish CARD as a standing activity with the first full cycle to be launched in autumn 2019. Together with the EUMS, the EDA acts as the CARD Secretariat.

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