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Chief Executive opinion editorial: Now, more than ever

However disruptive the economic and financial impact of Covid-19 might be, it will not not obscure the need for Member States to strengthen Europe’s full spectrum of defence capabilities, and to do it through cooperation. On the contrary: this crisis makes collaborative capability development even more indispensable and urgent, argues Jiří Šedivý, the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) new Chief Executive, in the following opinion editorial.

This pandemic is far from over and the full scale of its repercussions still unpredictable. Yet, there are lessons to be learned already now as Europe must adjust to a new post-Covid reality. Defence is no exception. The budgetary shockwave caused by the pandemic may heavily weigh on some Member States’ ability to sustain existing national defence programmes, let alone launch new ones. Which in turn threatens to further curtail Europe’s security and defence clout. 

There could be a plus side to the crisis as well, though: some of its effects might help speed up the process towards genuine EU defence cooperation. Looked at from this angle, this emergency offers a unique and unexpected opportunity for making collaborative capability development the new norm in Europe. Rather than weakening national defence forces one by one, the new reality imposed by Covid-19 could advance advance the Europe of Defence as a whole.  

Making a virtue of (budgetary) necessity

The follow-up costs of the pandemic are likely to squeeze national public spending across the board and for years to come, including spending on defence. What’s more, the fiscal downturn hits at a time when Europe needs to invest more and better in its security and defence. The many good reasons that led the EU and its Member States to raise the Union’s level of ambition on security and defence in 2016 and to work towards European strategic autonomy as a long-term goal, are still valid. To drop or even lower this ambition is not an option, even under today’s exceptional circumstances, as this would seriously undermine Europe’s security role in the world.  

How to square this circle?

Defence cooperation is the answer. Europe needs more joint defence planning and capability development. The call for Pooling & Sharing of resources and capabilities is not new, but it has become more pressing today. When defence budgets come under pressure, the smartest way for Member States to safeguard or even increase their military resilience is to plan, develop, procure, maintain and operate their defence equipment together. Multinational capability development – be it under PESCO, EDA or any other format involving several EU countries – is more cost-efficient and impactful than national solo efforts done in isolation. Money saved through EU cooperation can compensate for expected cuts in defence spending, at least in the long run. Beyond the financial benefits, cooperation also pays off thanks to increased operational effectiveness and interoperability, for the benefit of EU, NATO or other multinational operations. Joining forces will allow those Member States under budgetary strain to do more, for their own defence and that of Europe.

Tools ready and fit for purpose

The other good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. All instruments and processes needed to enable and manage EU defence cooperation are already in place and ready to be used: updated European Capability Development Priorities, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF). If Member States don’t use the toolbox’ full potential now, then when will they?

The same applies to EDA, the EU hub for collaborative research and capability development which currently hosts more than 110 research and capability programmes as well as some 200 other activities. Here too, Member States still have some leeway available if they want to use EDA’s expertise and potential to the full extent.  

Stronger emphasis on CBRN 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought to light, indirectly of course, the enormous disruptive potential of biological substances. Although Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats have been on our radar for some time – the European Capability Development Priorities reviewed in 2018 under EDA guidance explicitly refer to the need to strengthen European capabilities in the CBRN domain – this crisis has nevertheless highlighted the urgent need to do more in order to be better prepared and equipped to deal with these kind of threats in the future. This is another important lesson to be learned from this dramatic experience. Given the magnitude of the challenge, it can only be mastered together, i.e. through cooperation. Another example of why EU defence cooperation matters now more than ever. The same is true for other military assets which proved extremely helpful for our Member States during the most acute phase of the pandemic, such as medical and logistics support or cybersecurity. They, too, must stay high on our priority list for future cooperation.  

A fresh look at strategic autonomy

Finally, and this is a third lesson, Covid-19 has shown the importance of maintaining strategic local production capacities able to provide critical material of high quality and in sufficient quantities when crises hit – in this case relatively basic commodities such as masks or other protection utilities. This has served as a reminder to all of us, including the defence sector, that European strategic autonomy cannot only refer to high-tech, high-end capabilities but also to basic but indispensable industrial expertise and production capacities. Maintaining critical industrial production capacities in Europe is thus a crucial prerequisite for building a Europe of defence and moving towards strategic autonomy. Here too, cooperation is the way forward as Europe’s key strategic activities can only be sustained together.  

Special Report in European Defence Matters.

Our latest edition of European Defence Matters has a special report on the impact of COVID-19 on defence with contributions from Croatian State Secretary for Defence, Tomislav Ivić, Timo Pesonen, Director General of the European Commission’s DG Defence Industry and Space (DEFIS),  Daniel Fiott, Security and Defence Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) and Jan Pie, Secretary General of the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD). EDM19 is available now.