There is a now a discernible momentum for the European Union to develop its own military capabilities, explains Antonio López-Istúriz White

The EU must be capable of intervening to stabilise its neighbourhood, says Parliament’s rapporteur on EU-NATO cooperation

By Antonio López-Istúriz White MEP

Antonio López-Istúriz White (ES, EPP) is Parliament’s rapporteur on EU-NATO cooperation and EPP Secretary General

07 Dec 2021

The world has undergone great shifts in the balance of power, which have weakened the traditional structures of the rules-based international order. American power is in relative retrenchment and is shifting its focus away from the Atlantic towards the Pacific.

The US has had to reassess its strategy: moving away from crisis management operations in peripheral countries towards traditional Great Power competition. It is not conjecture that while the US will try to contain both Russia and China, it will no longer be willing to intervene in regions more crucial to European security than to its own.

This new reality comes at a pivotal moment for our continent. Europe is in danger, and Europeans need to take their defence seriously. Our neighbourhood is unstable, and both the threats we face, and the nature of conflict itself, have become more complex.

Against this worrying backdrop, European military capabilities are a shambles. For too long, we have been reliant on the US and have neglected our defence as a result. Today, no single Member State or coalition of Member States is capable of conducting a medium-intensity operation in our neighbourhood without extensive assistance from the US.

We find ourselves in the situation of needing to compensate for decades of underinvestment as soon as possible, and any delay increases the risk to our Union and citizens.

There is bipartisan consensus in the US that Europe must do more to defend its own geopolitical and military interests. Washington has changed its traditional resistance and now favours EU defence initiatives, so long as they complement NATO activities.

"Washington has changed its traditional resistance and now favours EU defence initiatives, so long as they complement NATO activities"

This does not mean the US will stop being our closest ally; it simply means we need deeper cooperation in security and defence, and, where needed, a clear distribution of work.

Both the EU and NATO should focus on their strengths and cooperate in areas of shared responsibility: American power, Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington and NATO’s nuclear umbrella will remain the cornerstone of the territorial defence of Europe.

At the same time, the EU can promote a strong European technological and industrial defence base and facilitate military mobility in Europe. Beyond these exclusive areas of focus, the EU and NATO must cooperate in joint capability development, in crisis management, in addressing hybrid threats and in the exchange of information and intelligence.

The future EU-NATO Joint Declaration should reflect a division of labour along these lines.

Europe must invest in its own military capabilities, and our budgets must reflect this reality. However, we must be more efficient in how we invest in defence. The EU must address the fragmentation of our defence industry, and the joint development of capabilities must be the norm, not the exception.

For this purpose, the EU should give greater incentives for Member States to develop military capabilities together; a good way to start is to undo the budget cuts to the European Defence Fund.

The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) must be more ambitious: its projects should focus on addressing key strategic capability gaps, and it must gather all major European capability projects such as the Future Air Combat System or the European Main Battle Tank.

"Europe is in danger, and Europeans need to take their defence seriously. Our neighbourhood is unstable, and both the threats we face, and the nature of conflict itself, have become more complex"

The EU must be capable of intervening to stabilise its neighbourhood. The development of a rapid reaction capacity for the EU has captured most of the attention.

Although it is much needed, such capacity will be useless if we do not address our problems with decision-making and low-force generation for operations of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

The EU must explore ways to make its decision-making for CSDP more flexible, through Constructive Abstention, PESCO’s operational component and Article 44 of the TEU, which allows groups of states to take the lead on operations. We must also significantly increase common funding for CSDP missions and operations through the European Peace Facility.

Finally, it is crucial to develop a Common Strategic Culture and foster solidarity among Member States. Frequent joint threat analyses as well as systematic exchange of intelligence should help us develop a common threat perception.

Building EU defence is one of the main tasks for us and for the coming generation. The Strategic Compass is a good start, and I urge Member States not to dilute it, but rather to make it even more ambitious.

Member States will continue as the driving agents of CSDP and defence integration, but as parliamentarians, there is much we can do to support EU Defence: We must push for greater integration. We can work at both EU and at national levels, from our political groups and national parties.

Next year will be the year of European Defence: an important milestone, and we must live up to the moment.

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