Prof. Biscop is the Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and a Professor at Ghent University. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.
The EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) is one of the most ambitious EU documents on defence to date. Presented to the Heads of State and Government by High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016, the EUGS is the first document to put forward the objective of strategic autonomy. Not a moment too soon, as security challenges inside and around Europe are rising, while the US has made it clear that it will not, and cannot, solve all of Europe’s problems.
The operational dimension of strategic autonomy comes down to the ability to act without the US whenever necessary. From that follows the industrial dimension: having a defence industry that can produce everything that this requires, notably the strategic enablers.
The EUGS sets out four major military tasks: to help protect the European way of life at home; to maintain stability in the broad neighbourhood; to maintain the freedom of the global commons; and to contribute to United Nations collective security. Together, these four tasks represent a clear increase in the burden placed on Europe’s armed forces.
The neighbourhood especially presents a challenge. The emphasis is on increasing resilience and building capacity, but where war is ongoing, the EUGS also commits the EU to protect civilians and to consolidate local ceasefires. That entails deploying troops on the ground with serious firepower, backed up by air support and ready reserves, who will not necessarily seek out and destroy an opponent but who will fight when the civilians for whom they are responsible are threatened. Without that determination, the EU will not have created a safe zone but a trap. For many Member States, land operations with such a high potential of combat go far beyond anything that they have recently undertaken, certainly in an autonomous European framework.
It is vital therefore that the implications of this and the other tasks are spelled out and fully taken on board by the political and military leadership. The EUGS provides for a “sectoral strategy” on defence to do exactly that, under the heading, recently announced by the High Representative, of an Implementation Plan on Security and Defence. What this really is, of course, is an EU defence white paper.
The EUGS itself calls for “full-spectrum land, air, space and maritime capabilities, including strategic enablers”. The white paper must now quantify the four military tasks and the desired concurrency: How many operations, of which size, should Europeans be able to undertake simultaneously, without relying on non-European assets?
When a new strategy demands strategic autonomy, it would be contradictory to set too modest a level of ambition. Some now propose to focus on the autonomous deployment of a brigade, presenting this as an increase as compared to the ambition to have two battalion-size Battlegroups on stand-by. That, of course, is the wrong point of departure: the existing EU level of ambition is the Headline Goal – to deploy and sustain up to a corps of 60,000. It is the Headline Goal that must be revised – upwards.
For sure, if after a Brexit the British contribution is withdrawn from the EU’s Force Catalogue, it will create gaps that in the short term cannot be easily filled by the existing capabilities of the remaining Member States. But the Headline Goal was set in 1999, for a Union of 15 Member States. A revised Headline Goal will be a target for a Union of 27, with 1.35 million troops and a total defence expenditure of $200 billion. At the very least, the current Headline Goal should remain eminently feasible.
But with such overall numbers even an increased Headline Goal can be achieved over time – on the condition that defence integration is pushed much further. And an increased Headline Goal will be necessary if Europeans want to be able to deploy, simultaneously: long-term brigade-size stabilisation operations and a high intensity crisis management operation of several brigades and squadrons in the neighbourhood, as well as long-term naval operations, and battalion-size contributions to UN peacekeeping, while engaging in capacity-building and military cooperation.
In light of the crises in Europe’s neighbourhood and the global geopolitical tensions, this level of ambition is none too high. It is but the reflection of the rhythm of operations of the last decade. Maintaining and, over time, even increasing the Headline Goal is the realist option therefore: in view of what is necessary, but also in view of what is possible, looking at Europe’s military potential. Realism not only means not setting unachievable objectives – it also means not setting the bar too low and underexploit the potential that is there.
Furthermore, after the Brexit, Britain will still be in Europe, and British forces will still be there. If a crisis on Europe’s doorstep demands intervention, Britain is more likely than not to be a part of it. Even though UK will no longer be involved in defence cooperation under the EU flag, in practice EU strategic autonomy, at 27, can therefore still be pursued in the context of European strategic autonomy, at 28, assuming a British contribution on an ad hoc basis.
Mogherini has planned for the white paper to be adopted before the end of the year. Subsequently, the detailed catalogues of capability requirements, existing capabilities (minus the UK), and shortfalls will have to be updated. This will take time, but immediately after the adoption of the white paper, the European Defence Agency (EDA) can already update the Capability Development Plan (CDP), which was foreseen in 2017 anyway, and generate a first set of capability priorities in order to steer national and multinational efforts.
These priorities can then be incorporated into the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) as well. Only if the next iteration of the NDPP takes into account the capability requirements of European strategic autonomy, notably with regard to enablers, can a capability mix be created that allows EU Member States to do all: to contribute to Article 5, to undertake non-Article 5 operations with the US and the other non-EU Allies, and to launch autonomous expeditionary operations alone.
The white paper is key to the industrial side of strategic autonomy too. Under the next framework programme for research (2021-2027), the European Commission will, for the first time, provide significant funding (of at least €500 million) for defence research. The white paper and the resulting capability priorities must become the formal guidance for the use of these new funds. Industry must serve the Member States and their armed forces, not the other way around.
Finally, Member States need not wait to take action. The only way to achieve the capability targets will be further cooperation and integration, at two levels. At the EU-level, making full use of the EDA and Commission funds, to acquire the necessary strategic enablers. And at the level of various clusters of Member States, to create larger deployable formations through a combination of far-reaching pooling and specialization. The EU as such can facilitate cooperation in clusters, but only the Member States themselves can initiate it. They should do so as soon as the EU white paper is finished
At that point, two simultaneous processes should thus take off: while the EU institutions prepare a new iteration of the CDP, one or more clusters of Member States coming it at it from the other side should immediately announce the start of closer military integration between them, in order to demonstrate a number of shorter term results. For results is what we need.
For a detailed analysis, see http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/egmont-papers-87_v1final.pdf.
Image: HRVP Mogherini presents EU Global Strategy to NATO Sec General Stoltenberg, June, 2016, via flickr.
One thought on “European Strategic Autonomy after the Brexit”
Interesting – but a little naïve, I think. In the Egmont paper, Sven makes a comment:
‘It is now up to the other capitals to accelerate cooperation, and prove that they were
not conveniently hiding behind the British objections but are serious about European
I don’t see it myself – London ‘blocking’ may have been convenient, but doesn’t mean that there won’t be one or more different nation states now similarly blocking. My experience of CSDP, and I was a member of the ESDC for a year, and of NATO is that the central European states in particular will reject this. NATO remains the key, or ‘major nation’- led coalitions, for common security and particularly for access to shared intelligence and major logistics assets. I have yet to meet a service person of any European armed service who considers themselves an ‘EU sailor/marine/soldier/airman’, never mind one who would want to join up as such.
It’s along the lines of arguments in academia: ‘why are the arguments so fierce? Because the stakes are so small!’.