Anyone following the debate on European security might notice that there is a lot more to tackle than just money and cooperation. The EU’s long-term ambition to enhance women’s involvement in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) shows the bloc’s dedication to upholding human rights, fortifying missions and operations, and advancing gender equality.

So it did not go unnoticed that in March last year, Portugal – a founding member of NATO – appointed Helena Carreiras as its defence minister, joining countries such as Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Latvia and the Netherlands in shifting the paradigm towards greater gender balance at the highest level.

Carreiras brings with her an intellectual rigour. She was the first woman to head Portugal’s National Defence Institute, a public institution to support national strategic thinking. She also has taught and written widely on security and defence, and civil-military relations. She has chaired a number of military education and research posts both in Lisbon and at the European level.

“From the Portuguese perspective, defence cooperation between EU countries is paramount,” she says. “Defence cooperation at the EU level takes many forms, while allowing Member States to remain autonomous. And this is positive,” Carreiras says. “We are unlocking the potential of European defence cooperation in new areas, while deepening it in others.”

For Portugal, as an Atlantic country, the approach makes sense because different countries have different strategic interests and capabilities. With a long naval tradition, Portugal is critical in protecting transatlantic sea routes.

Even so, the impact of a bitter land war in Europe is not lost on Carreiras. “The war in Ukraine has had an inevitable impact on our view of European defence,” she says. Despite its western geographic position, Portugal is helping to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, while also providing support to Ukraine. Carreiras visited Kyiv in February on the first anniversary of the war.

“The war boosted and accelerated our cooperation as Member States, but it also had an impact on how we perceive the role of EU organs and institutions. Similarly, there is further development of new possibilities regarding synergies with NATO in several domains. NATO’s enlargement, triggered by the war, has made this even more evident.”

Channelling Aristotle: The whole must be greater

European countries should tackle the long years of underinvestment in defence, Carreiras says. “We must take decisive steps, at a good pace, to ensure the security of Europe. This encompasses two things: that our armed forces are interoperable, capable, and combat ready, and that we have a strong, competitive European Defence Industrial and Technological Base (EDTIB),” she asserts. “We must aim for a true EDTIB, which must be greater than the sum of our national parts.”

It must not be dominated by a few large companies, either, she says. “Greater cohesion and the effective integration of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is fundamental to ensure a more integrated EDTIB, instead of only a few larger companies from only a few larger Member States providing the necessary capabilities.”

When it comes to the European Defence Fund, the EU still needs a longer-term strategy, she says.

“There are two aspects that we must look carefully at: the time it takes to fully develop a military defence capability; and, on the other hand, the fact that the European Defence Fund (EDF) is still part of an industrial policy and not a part of a truly integrated defence policy,” Carreiras says. “It is thus vital to strike a balance between ‘big’ and ‘small’ projects: multiannual flagship projects must support the cross-border participation of SMEs and research organisations to promote the EDTIB’s level playing field in the EU.”

In addition, Carreiras says: “We must take into consideration, and act upon, the importance of all operational domains – including outer space and cyberspace – and how important the exchange of information and cooperation are in the current context.”

Carreiras sees opportunities stemming from the possibility of increasing the EU’s budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – including the EDF. She says there may be a correlation between the EDF and the acceleration of the development of the EDTIB by making mandatory the establishment of consortia between companies from different Member State.  “That improves the integration and transfer of knowledge, carrying added-value for them and for the Member States' armed forces - the final buyers.”

However, she is clear that the EU first needs to understand its shortfalls. That is work done in part by EDA and the EU’s defence review (CARD) and the collaborative procurement arrangement (see EDM page 36). “We must look to the future and consider the possibility that the war in Ukraine continues and that other threats may also come from the south. This is paramount for appropriate capability planning – in alignment with NATO, as much as possible.

She has a word to the wise, too. The war in Ukraine “makes it clearer that we cannot respond to Russia’s expansion ambitions alone,” Carreiras says. Still, she adds: “The European Union will continue to stand by Ukraine, just as Portugal will, as far as we can and for as long as is needed.”

More progress now than in decades

Beyond Ukraine, today’s security environment contains a wide and growing set of challenges. As both an Atlantic and European country, Portugal has always championed a 360-degree approach to security and defence in the Euro-Atlantic space. Portugal is involved in 24 missions and operations in 12 countries.

Portugal’s historical link with Africa also plays a role. “We must look at what is happening all around us that may affect European security, and this includes paying attention to the Global South.” Carreiras is clear that the EU and NATO must pay particular attention to the Sahel and West Africa, including the Gulf of Guinea, where maritime piracy and transnational terrorism are proliferating.

But we must do so through an effective, integrated approach, not only focusing on the conflicts themselves, but also their root causes. This approach should render our action on the ground more sustainable,” she asserts.

Carreiras ends on an optimistic note, despite such a dangerous moment in European security. Ultimately, she believes, if the work of EDA, the EU institutions and Member States continues, deeper EU defence collaboration is achievable and in everyone’s interest.

“In recent years, we have seen more happening than in the decades since the creation of the Union,” she says.

Portugal takes over the EDA’s Multinational Helicopter Training Centre (MHTC) programme at the end of 2023.

Helena Carreiras, Portugal’s Minister of Defence, talks about what to expect.

“With new infrastructures including a new simulator, we have the conditions to provide new courses or activities, always evolving according to the participants’ needs. The MHTC’s mission is to improve European military helicopter interoperability and capability through a coordinated approach to training, tactics, techniques and procedures as well as doctrine.

“Portugal wants to be an active player in European defence, contributing to the improvement of European military capabilities. The MHTC is a strategic investment for our country, and we are committed to supporting the centre, not only in the beginning but also in its daily activity.

“A good example of the Portuguese commitment to this project is the Hot Blade exercise. This multinational helicopter exercise is one activity of the Helicopter Exercise Programme, and Portugal has been the country where this exercise has been held the most frequently.

“Portugal hosted the exercise in 2023, which will be the last one under the aegis of EDA, while the 2024 event will be the first one run by the MHTC. Our first challenge is to consolidate these programmes into the MHTC, which should remain a flexible tool to support nations’ operational needs. As such, the expectation is that the MHTC will continue to evolve and adapt to new courses and additional activities, as sponsored by the participating nations, planning new initiatives and improving coordination and interoperability. We hope that the MHTC will become an interoperability enhancer and force multiplier in the EU, and for the EU.”

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