Small can be beautiful … in defence

IIEA2nd March 20206min
Whatever size a state may be, these new defence initiatives presume that success can only be achieved if governments pool more of their sovereignty together.

Author: Daniel Fiott

How are small states supposed to make sense of all the changes that have taken place in EU security and defence since 2016? It can often feel like EU defence is a subject reserved for the ‘big fish’ like France and Germany, but EU initiatives like Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund were designed as inclusive mechanisms to take defence cooperation forward as a union and not simply for cliques of states. Whatever size a state may be, these new defence initiatives presume that success can only be achieved if governments pool more of their sovereignty together. Without getting into a debate about what constitutes a ‘small state’, it is difficult for EU states – regardless of size – to reconcile the push for EU defence integration with their own sovereignty.

Countries such as Ireland initially hesitated to join PESCO and some lingering doubts may still exist. My own country, Malta, has stayed away from the idea of deeper EU defence cooperation on the basis that it may affect the island’s neutrality (mind you, this neutrality has not stopped Malta from participating in Common Security and Defence Policy – (CSDP missions and operations in the past). Denmark, by dint of its CSDP opt out, cannot be part of PESCO. Even so, Copenhagen, Dublin and Valletta can all benefit from the new European Defence Fund through the financing of defence research and capability projects. In this regard, while the vision in EU defence may be the preserve of leaders like President Emmanuel Macron or HR/VP Josep Borrell, it is up to the EU’s legion of small and medium-sized states to ensure that EU defence is European by motive, design and construction.

It is a crucial time for the EU’s smaller states and how they collectively manage and articulate their interests in defence will affect the nature of the EU as an international actor. This means that in order to be seen as credible partners in defence, they need to live up to their commitments under PESCO and enthusiastically develop PESCO projects too. PESCO’s collective commitments do not single out the behaviour of any one state, so it is easy for smaller Member States to simply piggyback on the efforts of those with more resources and political will. This is why demonstrating tangible outcomes through the PESCO projects are vital. Yet even here genuine commitment is required: presumably no small EU state wants to be part of a PESCO project that is eventually abandoned or discontinued.

Interestingly enough, a logic has emerged through the PESCO projects whereby governments look around the EU for project partners. This same philosophy should be pursued by states under the European Defence Fund too. It is simply short-sighted to believe that a hastily cobbled together group of governments or industrial and research actors from across the Union will win a bid under the Fund. True, cross border cooperation is a precondition for financial support under the Fund but how should governments decide on the partners to choose? In some cases, it may be necessary to build on existing cooperation that benefits from a common language and strategic vision (see how Benelux cooperation functions, for example).

Bids under the European Defence Fund that are put together with only an economic imperative mind may still be successful, of course, but this is no alternative for a sound strategic partnership to anchor defence research and capability programmes. ‘Knowing thy partner’ is key here. Small states need to build up their strategic partnerships in the European Defence Fund and PESCO, as this will help rationalise their capability development and spending plans. This could help smaller states develop and access capabilities they are unable to accrue nationally. What is more, coherent defence partnerships can help create a political critical mass that may be useful when negotiating the nature of EU defence integration.

Political capital that is built on the back of partnerships in defence will be a much-needed commodity in the years ahead, especially if the voices of smaller states are to be heard at all. Currently, there is a debate about how to evolve decision-making in EU external action and Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is being held aloft as an answer to the EU’s lack of consistency and coherence in foreign policy. To date, all decisions on external action have been taken by unanimity meaning that a single Member State (regardless of their size) can veto an EU decision. This means that if Malta hypothetically vetoes a decision, then the supposed interests of less than 500,000 people will decide the security of millions of other European citizens. It is not too hard to see why unanimity can stifle EU action.

Whatever the likeliness of the introduction of QMV for external action, there is perhaps some comfort for governments that such a form of voting would never be extended to security and defence and fundamental questions such as the use of force. This comfort may persist for a while longer, although QMV will be used by the Commission to agree on the European Defence Fund’s 7-year work programme and it can be used in PESCO for certain decisions. All of this is to say that if smaller member states frown at the prospect of QMV, they need to come up with their own alternative solutions for improving the coherence of the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies. Not only can the EU ill afford sluggish decision-making capacities as it enters a phase of global geopolitical competition, but a number of smaller Member States may actually be in favour of QMV.

Smaller states need a more coherent strategic vision of their own interests beyond electoral cycles, and they need to work closer together on the security challenges and threats facing the Union. We already know that (in)security is interconnected with states sending troops and civilian experts to Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as farther afield. Yet, there is no common European threat perception or strategic culture. Interestingly, in 2020 there may be an appetite to change this state of affairs by working towards a specific initiative called the ‘strategic compass’. Building on the EU’s current military level of ambition, some difficult questions might be asked during such a process: how can the Union become a more effective defence actor and what will this imply for the EU’s operational footprint, as well as uncovering what type of military actor the Union should ultimately become.

Such an exercise will rely heavily on the input and leadership of Member State governments. This is an opportunity for ministries of foreign affairs, national security and defence to define the contours of the EU’s military objectives together. For the next two years or so, this initiative will be a focus of Brussels-based policymakers and during this time a range of large (Germany and France) and small (Croatia, Portugal, Slovenia) states will hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU during this initiative. In addition to the Commission’s work on defence, where it will give greater strategic thought to EU capability development, there is a risk that Member States feel somehow disconnected from EU defence policymaking in Brussels. This is dangerous. To ensure the buy-in and legitimacy given by governments, the EU needs a collective strategic reflection on defence. Yes, Brussels will be involved but any such reflection first needs to begin at home.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not the IIEA.