Potentially powerful: The European Defence Agency at five years 14/10/2009

Europe's World, Community Posts, 14 Oct 2009, by Frank Slijper, Senior Researcher at the Campagne tegen Wapenhandel and associate of the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam.

Most Europeans have probably never heard of the European Defence Agency, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. Yet, this little known EU agency has slowly created a basis for the development of common military projects.

While its achievements can certainly not be called spectacular, in the context of the problematic nature of European defence cooperation, the EDA has shown more potential than its predecessors.


Diverging national interests in the areas of procurement and defence industry policies still impede much of the agency’s planned progress. Industry takes a front seat in the EDA decision-making process, with easy access to all relevant players though, naturally, it complains about the lack of speed.

Like most developments in the area of European military co-operation, the work of the EDA is happening completely outside the view of the wider general public. The lack of public involvement in an area that is still highly controversial, undermines its legitimacy and risks further erosion of public support for the wider European project.

With a long history of failures to foster European co-operation on arms production and procurement, the establishment of the European Defence Agency (EDA) on 12 July 2004 was received with considerable scepticism. The end of the Cold War era had changed perspectives on European defence, while emerging conflicts across its borders -- especially in the Balkans, but also outside Europe – gave a significant impetus to increased military co-operation. European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) developed rapidly. On the legal front, ESDP was foremost in the process towards the EU Constitution, while out-of-area operations have mushroomed over the past few years.

The statement in the Constitution that “Member States shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities” is directly linked to the establishment of the EDA. It has led many to doubt whether Europe intends to be a friendly military power. Such suspicions have been further fuelled by the EDA mantra that “we need to spend more and to spend better”. Its claims that military co-operation would lead to rationalised forces and thus save money, have not proved credible.

Along the same lines, French President Sarkozy has argued that, “Europe cannot be a dwarf in terms of defence and a giant in economic matters.” Then Greek Defence Minister Papantoniou said in 2003: “We [Europe] must strengthen our presence, especially in the defence field, in order for the United States to view us seriously.” Curiously, he saw the main obstacle being “that after the Cold War there is no strong threat. We have to overcome this problem.”

Another ‘milestone’ was "A Secure Europe in a Better World", Europe’s blueprint for a security strategy, which was launched in 2003 by Javier Solana – High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Solana’s security strategy has been compared with the infamous neo-conservative “Project for a New American Century“, the blueprint for US post-9/11 foreign policy.

With Solana appointed the head of the EDA, the agency was guaranteed political support. “The need to bolster Europe's military capabilities to match our aspirations is more urgent than ever. And so, too, is the need for us to respond better to the challenges facing our defence industries. This Agency can make a huge difference”, stated Solana.

A strong European military power nurtured by a strong European arms industry is certainly no easy task for the EDA. According to its first chief executive, Nick Witney, the Agency “will stand or fall ultimately with the success in attracting, maintaining and fostering the interest and support of the participating states” [i.e. all EU members except Denmark]. And that is exactly where most of the EDA’s problems have turned out to be.

With the EDA’s staff growing this year to 109 and a substantially increased 2008 budget of 32 million Euros, especially the French want the EDA to grow much stronger. Former French Defence Minister Alliot-Marie was said to be supportive of a 200 million Euro budget, but received little support from other member states. France also pushed to give the agency a three-year budget, but Britain vetoed this. “We don’t back a budget without seeing what we are paying for”, a British official was quoted as saying.

Evaluating the first five years of EDA’s work in simple terms of success or failure is difficult. Looking at its annual work programme, which largely involves strategy mapping, one can’t but detect a marked lack of ambition. The more difficult business of getting substantial and concrete projects off the ground - for example, in the area of armaments co-operation, has shown very limited progress so far. It looks like we’ll have to wait another five years to see any real progress.

EDA has learned from earlier experience how difficult this may be. Aiming for a united European land vehicle sector, for example, the EDA had ambitiously set out to rationalise the high number of current and future requirements. It saw a lot of duplication with too many producers making the same systems. “Is it satisfactory for EU members to run 23 different national programmes for acquiring new armoured fighting vehicles?”, asked Javier Solana rhetorically in an op-ed in the Financial Times in 2005. Four years later, little has been heard about plans to consolidate the vehicle sector and its procurement programmes. “The train has left the station, but there are still a number of political and budgetary problems to solve”, was the very understated comment of an unnamed EDA official. With renewed enthusiasm, a similar initiative on helicopter co-operation recently took off.

Among the more tangible achievements has been the EDA’s growing involvement in technology research projects, both under its own flag, as well as through the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7) security research budget. It shows not only the EDA’s potential to win acceptance as the lead in such common projects, but also a shifting focus towards the broader security context, including border control and less lethal weapons. The EDA is cashing in on the abundance of EU funding and political will.

Probably most significant has been co-operation with the European Commission, which complements the EDA’s efforts towards a borderless, more competitive market for the defence industry. The Commission’s so-called defence package was finalised in late 2008. It consisted of two related directives. One aims to ensure more competitive procurement by member states, while the other outlines a new regime under which export controls of intra-community transfers of military goods would be greatly simplified. Civil society organisations have rightly argued that the latter undoes much of the progress made over the past years on transparency in relation to arms exports. More importantly, they have warned that such a directive might lead to weapons leaving EU territory through countries that maintain less restrictive interpretations of the commonly agreed criteria on arms exports, as licence applications are still decided upon by national governments.

The EDA has certainly developed as a key player, sometimes even a catalyst, in the broader area of European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) developments. It is too early to judge properly its real added value, however, or its potential as a cornerstone in the process of an increasingly militarised role for the European Union. Doubtless, structurally diverging national interests will continue to be a major barrier. It is likely that the most potential for the EDA will lie in the fostering and co-ordination of defence research and production co-operation programmes; and in building bridges between the Commission, national governments and industry.

The fact that the EDA has remained largely invisible to most people is deeply problematic. The referenda rejecting the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty showed the ambiguity and widely diverging, often negative, views of European citizens on the current state and proposed future of Europe -- including its rapidly developing security and defence policies. Continuing on the road to further EU military integration, including the special role for the EDA, without broad public consultation and a serious public debate, risks further undermining trust in the wider European project.

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