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Increasing EU defence cooperation in times of crisis

Among the many highlights of EDA’s recent Annual Conference (see other news) was certainly the high-level panel discussion on ‘Increasing European defence cooperation in times of crisis’, featuring the Greek Minister of Defence, Nikólaos Panayotópoulos, and Nathalie Loiseau, the Chair the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE). The interesting and animated debate, which can be reviewed here, was moderated by EDA Chief Executive Jiří Šedivý.

Welcoming the timely focus on 'Sustaining European Defence' (the topic of this year's Annual Conference), Nikólaos Panayotópoulos recalled Member States’ commitment, reflected in the Council conclusions of November 2016, to strengthening the Union’s ability to act as a security provider and to enhance the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as an essential part of the Union’s external action. “This means, in particular, that we need a more integrated and coherent approach across our different policies, internal and external, to better pursue our strategic interests, through international cooperation”, the Greek Defence Minister said, adding: “Member States should make full use of the EU defence initiatives and deepen their embedding in the national defence planning in order to achieve a better consistency between one another and reach strategic autonomy”.

The fact that nine PESCO projects have already received financial support under the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) is a positive development showing that the initiatives work, he said. Greece received funding approval from EDIDP for two PESCO projects it leads (‘Cyber Threats & Incident Response Information Sharing Platform’ and ‘Upgrade of Maritime Surveillance’). “This is a clear evidence of the coherence between the initiatives”. In the Minister’s view, enhanced cooperation and joint capability development among EU countries will not only improve Europe’s defence capabilities, but also help reinforce its industrial base and technological capacity “which is a fundamental aspect of EU strategic autonomy”. “I believe that spending more on defence will also strengthen the economic recovery. As the European Defence Agency has already indicated, EU countries should spend more on defence research and technology”, Mr Panayotópoulos stated: “We should sustain the trend of increasing national defence expenditures towards 2% of the GDP. I am proud that Greece not only fulfills but is about to exceed its commitment on annual defence spending”

The Minister also defended the EU’s operation IRINI in the Mediterranean (enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya) as a “question of political will and political courage”. People throughout Europe must understand that it is not a threat against one or two Member States, but against the entire Union. “Greece, precisely for this reason, and despite the challenges and provocations at our eastern sea and land borders and the Covid-19 outbreak, is substantially contributing to the Operation in terms of personnel and assets”, he explained. The Minister called for “unity and solidarity” among all EU countries. “We cannot discuss on strengthening our operational engagement and reinforcing our resilience without ensuring solidarity between us. Through the recent threat analysis we made a first step within the process of Strategic Compass to better understand and share a perception of threats, thus moving to the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. We have common threats and need common responses”. EU-NATO cooperation is a “key partnership” which we should reinforce, while our commitment to work with the UN in the field of security and defence should be enhanced, he said.

Nathalie Loiseau, the Chair of the SEDE committee, shared Mr Panayotópoulos’ positive assessment on the progress made on EU defence cooperation. There is indeed a “clear, common and shared ambition in the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament to enhance the efforts towards a European defence”, Ms Loiseau said, adding: “We have done more for EU defence in the last four years than we did in the previous four decades”. In a world that is becoming less predictable and more dangerous, “soft power is not enough”, she stressed (Greek Minister Panayotópoulos strongly agreed with her on this point: “In terms of soft power, the Europe is a superpower. In terms of hard power, it is lagging behind”, he said). Therefore, European countries need to enhance their defence capabilities, and cooperation is the best and most efficient way to do this. The EU’s new defence toolbox (CARD, PESCO, EDF) is in place and this is “very encouraging”, but everyone must admit that this is only the first step and that there is still some room for improvements, Ms Loiseau said. In particular, PESCO projects must become “more focused”. Improvements are also needed when it comes to EU CSDP missions and operation which often face problems during the force generation phase and whose mandates are “not always as strong as they should be”. Here, Member States need to show more commitment and “combine words with deeds”, Ms Loiseau urged. 

Regarding the debate about EU strategic autonomy, Ms Loiseau felt it was somewhat “overstated” because “no one is denying the importance of NATO” for Europe’s defence. What Europe wants is to become a more credible transatlantic and strategic partner, which is meant to be complementary with NATO.  “I strongly believe we need to revive NATO because NATO has to adapt (…) and we need to strengthen European strategic autonomy because NATO is not enough and will never be”, Ms Loiseau said.