The Challenges for Europe’s Defence Council

By Matteo Ricci | 12 December 2013

To quote this document: Matteo Ricci, “The Challenges for Europe’s Defence Council”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 12 December 2013,, displayed on 27 September 2022

On the 19th and 20th of December the first European Council in six years dedicated to the theme of defence will take place in Brussels. This article looks at the objectives of the Council meeting and analyses the challenges facing Member States, which will have to choose before closer integration, or a steep decline in Europe’s defence capabilities.

Europe’s defence integration has developed significantly over its-70-year history. However, despite past achievements, numerous challenges face the sector today. The combination of rising costs, shrinking national budgets and growing nationalisation of political debates poses difficult challenges to European politicians. The December Council which is set to answer these difficult questions has three main issues on its agenda: defence capabilities, industrial capabilities and operational effectiveness.

Defence Capabilities

As of today, Europe's military capabilities consist of 28 separate national capabilities, without any form of higher level of integration. This fragmentation has led to duplications as each Member State has its own military academies, general staff, etc. This in turn leads to higher costs, as each platform contract has to be negotiated separately in each country, preventing the economies of scale that would otherwise be possible via EU-wide procurement. The small size of Member State defence budgets also means that those very expensive platforms, which are needed to support and deploy forces, such as heavy transport aircraft or amphibious assault ships, can only be procured in very small numbers, if at all. To further complicate matters, most budgets have been cut due to the economic crisis and these cuts have not been coordinated, with most Member States choosing to retire the same platforms. This has resulted in a general loss of capability for the EU. Europe, with a combined budget that is half that of the US (€200 billion compared to $600 billion) still possesses many more men under arms (1.8 million compared to 1.4 million). This means that more money is spent on soldiers' salaries than on the weapons and platforms that allow them to effectively conduct their missions.

This lack of capabilities was seen in recent years, first in Libya and then in Syria. While the intervention in Libya was conducted mainly by European air forces, especially those from the UK and France, it was a United States strike that destroyed the Libyan air defence network on the first day, paving the way for following actions. The United States even had to provide some European air forces with bombs, as their stocks had run out after a few weeks of relatively light operations.

In an effort to respond to the situation, the European Union had introduced the «Pooling and Sharing» concept, whereby different states pool their platforms together and share their use. A good example is the European Air Transport Command that coordinates the operations of all French, German and Benelux military cargo planes. However, the problem facing this approach is the rising cost of military procurement and the decline in defence budgets, which has led many to believe that individual EU states may soon no longer be able to afford the most advanced technology and equipment. Member States will soon be faced with a choice: either to continue to spend most of their budget on personnel costs (the "banana Republic" model) or move towards joint ownership of military equipment. Joint ownership of military equipment has succeeded in the past and was pioneered in 1982 by the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force. This force was formed by 18 E-3 Sentry radar and command planes registered in Luxembourg and jointly owned and staffed by 17 different NATO members. This is a much larger fleet than any single European country would have ever been able to afford.

The exclusion of defence from the Single Market

The problem facing the industrial capabilities of Member States in the field of defence is again that it consists of a collection of 28 different national markets, with very limited cross-border integration. The defence sector has been excluded from the common market via Article 223 of the Treaty of Rome, now Article 346 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFUE), which states:

«[...] (b) any Member State may take such measures as it considers necessary for the protection of the essential interests of its security which are connected with the production of or trade in arms, munitions and war material;[...]»

Traditionally, the national governments have favoured a very broad interpretation of this article and have followed a pattern of systematically assigning direct contracts to «national champions» for anything remotely connected to the armed forces.

The current fragmentation of the European defence industrial base, which has failed to follow the trend of merger and acquisition rounds that have taken place in the United States, is a direct consequence of this policy. Some consolidation has indeed taken place, in particular in the aerospace sector with the emergence of companies like the Franco-German-Spanish EADS and the British-French-Italian MBDA, but they represent the exception and not the norm.

The result of this fragmentation is that European defence companies are relatively small as they are sized for their national market, in which they often operate in conditions of virtual monopoly. This prevents them from investing massively in R&D and makes them vulnerable to much larger foreign companies. Such was the case in the early 2000s, when US giant General Dynamics bought off in rapid succession several European military vehicle companies.

The few attempts at industrial consolidation, which appear as a credible alternative to the rapid decline of the European defence industrial base, are however hampered by political action, as was recently the case for the proposed merger between the UK’s BAE Systems and the Franco-German-Spanish EADS. Such a merger would have created an aerospace company capable to compete with the US giants, but it has been ultimately vetoed by the German government.

Operational Effectiveness

Another challenge for Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy is the efficiency, or lack thereof, of its operational effectiveness.

Over the years, in particular after the Helsinki Defence Council of 1999, the European Union has equipped itself with the instruments needed to take informed decisions, creating its own defence college, institute for security studies, satellite imagery analysis centre (the last two taken from the Western European Union) and, more recently, its own foreign ministry, the European External Action Service. It has also created a rapid-reaction force, the so-called European Battlegroups, and a European Defence Agency (EDA). However, the difficulties faced by the two latter institutions reflect the challenges of building a common European defence policy.


Since is inception, the EDA has attempted to promote European-wide cooperation and coordination, both at the military and at the industrial level. Despite its ambitions, it remains a small, cash-strapped agency with a budget of just €30,5 million (unchanged since 2010), 74% of which is absorbed by its own running costs. In addition, the agency’s chief also holds the position of EU «Foreign Minister» and Vice-President of the Commission meaning that Catherine Ashton can dedicate only a fraction of her time to running the Agency. This creates a further hurdle for the EDA to overcome as it tries to have its voice heard within Brussels’ complicated political scene.

The EU Battlegroups, the EU's showpiece force, are small forces of 1500-2000 men/women that are intended to act as first-response units, being able to deploy within two days of the call. First proposed in 2003, the Battlegroups have been operational since 2007, with at least one on permanent standby for each six-month cycle. They have however never been used, even if many occasions arose where they could have been deployed, the latest being in Mali in January 2013. The main problem in the use of the Battlegroups lies in the so-called «Athena mechanism» of CSDP, according to which «expenses lie where they fall», with almost no contribution from the EU budget. This means that if, for example, the Spanish-Italian Landing Force Battlegroup is called to deploy, Spain and Italy will have to bear most of the costs. As a result, it is very difficult to reach the necessary consensus for the deployment of a Battlegroup.

These two examples illustrate how urgently the EU needs a revision of its Security Strategy. The EUSS is a document spelling out the conceptual framework of the CSDP, identifying the threats the EU faces and how it intends to address them. This document was first published in 2003 and has only undergone a minor review in 2008 making it out of date.


The main challenge facing Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy is ultimately to find the political will to make it happen. As the CSDP remains a mostly intergovernmental affair, with very little input from the Commission and almost none from the Parliament, the power to act still rests with national governments. Unfortunately, national governments have shown very little interest in a common defence policy during recent years. Furthermore, the Lisbon Treaty includes provisions with article 46 of the Treaty on the EU for a «Permanent Structured Cooperation-PESCO» between those countries that wished to increase their defence relationship. Such a PESCO has yet to come to fruition. The question remains, will the national governments rise to the challenge? The fact that they have put defence on the agenda of the European Council for the first time in six years is a step in the right direction. What can be expected to come out of the meeting?

Regarding defence capabilities, the focus will most likely be on furthering the current trend toward increased «Pooling and Sharing». While positive, such a policy is inadequate to prevent the erosion of European capabilities. There seems to be, however, no political consensus for stronger action.

Industry will probably be the theme that will trigger the most debate, as the defence sector employs, directly and indirectly, almost 1.5 million people. Regarding EU-wide consolidation of the defence sector, the Council is expected to make little progress. Failure to reach any agreement on industrial collaboration is to be expected. In the end the Council might decide on some initiatives in favour of research in dual-use technologies like civilian aeronautics and space flight, but little more than that.

Regarding operational effectiveness, Member States may likely reflect on strengthening the EU's «Comprehensive Approach» strategy that involves the civilians and military forces working together to solve a crisis. There will probably also be some debate about solving the Battlegroups issue, especially in the wake of a call from the Visegrad Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) to turn the Battlegroups into permanent instead of ad-hoc units.

What is ultimately hoped and called for, although it appears unlikely, is for the heads of government to promote a long-overdue revision of the EU Security Strategy: once the CSDP is provided with a clear objective and a plan for its future, the size and shape of EU forces and of the EU defence industrial base needed to attain it will be much easier to determine.

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