On the 27th of March 2014 I had the honour to attend the annual conference of the European Defence Agency (EDA) entitled “European Defence Matters”. Over 500 participants were present from various sectors ranging from the government, military and industry. During the conference the importance of pooling and sharing resources and research and innovation were highlighted as a gateway for the future. Further cooperation, political will, unity and trust between the members were also stressed as being necessary to improve Europe’s defence capabilities and to obtain capabilities not attainable on its own.
The event started with a welcome address by the chief executive of the EDA, Claude-France Arnould. She stressed the importance of acting on behalf of defence ‘Now’ and ‘not tomorrow’ as we are being surrounded by challenges in both security and defence that are not only present outside of Europe. As we have recently seen with the case of Crimea they can occur very near to or even within in the European neighbourhood. This is why defence matters.
As Mrs. Arnould mentioned in her opening speech “Europe cannot have the ambition to be a security provider, to stand for its values and interests without the capacity to sustain this ambition. The political will is there let’s make sure that the implementation is not missing.”
The opening speech was followed up by a keynote speech by the Greek Minister of Defence and the Italian Under Secretary of Defence.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the Greek Minister of Defence also representing the current EU Presidency, emphasised that European cooperation is about enhancing political stability, not only on a regional level but on a larger scale. He asserted that Europe needs to “learn to stand as one”, and went on to say that “European cooperation in the field of defence and security, is not just another European project. It has become one of the most critical pillars for European democracy, integration, cohesion and growth.” He also stressed that the EDA has an important role for improving EU capabilities and that political will is vital.
General Domenico, Italian Under Secretary of Defence, also representing the upcoming Presidency of the EU, underlined that “defence is relevant for the economy, central in our identity and political strategy”. The General stated that the EDA can act when it comes to uniting the members.
After the speeches it was time for the first debate panel focusing on pooling and sharing resources between members.
Panel 1: European Defence Capabilities: Pool it or Lose it?
This panel discussed the necessity of cooperation for European defence in order for it to move forwards. One of the main points discussed in this regard was that strategic and defence movements must become more coordinated and transparent. The practicalities of cooperation were also discussed, with the panel raising the point that the mind-set of EU countries has to change with greater trust fostered between the member states for effective cooperation.
A key question discussed by the panel was perhaps the most obvious: why should EU members pool and share?
General Patrick de Rousiers, Chairman of the EU Military Committee, argued that there are many reasons as to why we should pool and share resources. He asserts that it is getting harder for countries to be able to afford to sustain capabilities on their own and that working together cqn lead to more efficient results. However, he concedes that strong industrial and political will is necessary to make this possible. Alexander Vershbow, NATO Deputy Secretary General, echoed these remarks saying that current defence and security resources “were insufficient for only a national approach”.
Tim Rowntree, the Director of OCCAR, stated that countries have to build confidence amongst each other so that pooling and sharing can take place. A strategy is necessary: “We need to plan further ahead so we can align nations.” This idea was supported by General Sverker Göranson, the Swedish Chief of Defence, who said that countries should trust each other so that plans could be shared. He stated that this should start off with a small groups of countries so that it can be expanded later on.
Though trust and transparency are necessary steps for European defence to take, it is clear that it would take time to be achieved as there would be an initial reluctance. As mentioned by General Patrick de Rousiers, increasing transparency and trust is not that easy since it encroaches on countries’ sovereignty. However, Alexander Vershbow argues that we should learn from the success stories and mistakes, that incentives should be created to encourage countries, and that nationalistic approaches to defence capabilities acquisition have to be overcome.
Two countries that are an excellent example of mutual cooperation are Belgium and the Netherlands. Within the EU this cooperation is considered to be one of the most far-reaching examples of military collaboration. For over 15 years, the Dutch and Belgians navies have been working together closely when it comes to maintaining fleets and training personnel, and they even unified their operational command. They are also currently discussing expanding cooperation into the field of aeronautics, clearly illustrating how military cooperation can expand further within the EU. More info about this cooperation can be seen here.
As stated by Ine Eriksen Søreide, the Norwegian Minister of Defence, it is time for the EU to step up and take over control of EU security.
Panel 2: Securing the Future through Research and Innovation
This panel focused on Europe’s defence industry and on what could be done to maintain technological advantage. Amongst the panellists were members from the defence industry and politics.
The defence industry in Europe is responsible for innovation, growth and jobs in the sector, but due to budget cuts the amount of funding that goes into research has reduced significantly. However, despite these reductions, Europe continues to be a leader when it comes to cutting-edge technology.
The panel discussed a number of key questions for the industry: how long will its status as a leader last, and what can be done to ensure that Europe does not lose its current position?
Bernhard Gerwert, Chief Executive Officer at Airbus Defence & Space argued that there is no innovation without budget. Companies will not invest in technological fields that will not be used. Companies want to know what the demand of countries is before channelling financial resources into research.
Michael Gahler, Member of the European Parliament, Committee on Foreign affairs & Subcommittee on Security and Defence, underlined that the decline in defence budget could result to loss of time and experts in the field. He also stated that there should be a review of EU defence.
Overall, the panellists agreed that there should be a clear overview on future demand before companies invest in cutting-edge defence technology.
After both panel discussions reached an end, Catherine Ashton gave a keynote speech on the importance of defence capabilities to reinforce the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU.
Catherine Ashton, head of the EDA, stressed that “peace and stability in Europe could be more fragile than we thought. Defence matters for a number of reasons, but recent events remind us that it matters first and foremost because it provides security to our citizens.”
The European Council highlighted four capabilities that are in need of further development such as cyber security, air-to-air refuelling, drones and satellite communications. These are also the four capabilities on which the EDA focuses. European defence can only be successful if reinforced by these capabilities.
As stated by Mrs. Ashton: “One of our most valuable instruments and one of the greatest strengths of the EU is the comprehensive approach. It is about the effective combination of diplomatic, military, political, financial and other instruments. But most of all it is about the broadest possible vision of what security is about. In this respect, comprehensiveness means investing in early warning, being prepared and conflict prevention just as much as in crisis response, stabilisation and peace-building, development and policy dialogue. It also means to systematically and closely work with partners on the full range of issues that may pose security risks. Cooperative and comprehensive – that is the way forward.”
By this time the conference was nearly finished, but it had been a very interesting and educational day for me. I learned a great deal about European Defence and the role of the EDA in it. I definitely agree that cooperation is the way forward, although this will take time since the gap in confidence has to be bridged by many countries. Once trust is established countries will become even more united as their relations become more transparent. I believe that the EDA has an important role in achieving this by building a network of trust between the members. Pooling and sharing our resources through cooperation will also allow us to expand our capabilities beyond national borders. As Catherine Ashton mentioned, this is vitally important as peace and stability in Europe could be more fragile than we previously thought. It is time for the EU to step up and take control of EU security cooperation. As Mrs. Arnould made perfectly clear, the time for action is now – not tomorrow.
Cover image ‘European Defence Agency Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould‘ by European External Action Service