Juhan Parts: Member States' visions of EU's role in defence differ

There is a risk that adequate goals may not have been set and proper systems may not be in place to accommodate the new ambition level

Photo: European Union, 2019 - ECA Juhan Parts

The current Member States' military capabilities do not match the EU's level of military ambition, and several hundred billion euros would be needed to overcome this gap if Europe had to defend itself without outside assistance, says Juhan Parts, Estonian Member of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), in an interview to Europost.

Mr Parts, why exactly now the ECA is putting its focus on defence by carrying out an analytical review of this particular domain?

Defence is a specific domain, which lies at the heart of Member States' national sovereignty. For the majority of EU Member States, European defence mainly consists of two important layers: Member States' own self-defence capability and the collective defence offered by the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Until 2014, there had been limited action in the area of defence at EU level and a European Defence Union does not exist. However, in response to a challenging new global environment, the EU has launched new initiatives in defence cooperation between Member States.

The EU's higher level of ambition is reflected in a significant increase (almost tenfold) in the amount earmarked for defence and external security for the 2021-2027 period.

This has placed defence clearly on the ECA's radar, as such a rapid increase in funding entails performance risks. The ECA has therefore prepared this analytical review based on publicly available information. It aims to highlight the main risks associated with the EU's new level of ambition and the proposed increase in funding.

What led you to the conclusion that recent EU plans in defence entail performance risks?

Member States remain strongly in the driving seat when it comes to European defence. In other words, nothing should happen without their will. But there are clear strategic differences across EU Member States, whose perceptions of security threats and visions of the EU's role in defence differ. Member States also have different rules of engagement and a wide range of views on the use of military force. Finally, there is a clear gap between what the Member States are expected to do and what they can agree on and deliver.

The EU's defence-related initiatives represent attempts in an area where the EU has had little experience in the past. As things stand, there is a risk that adequate goals may not have been set and proper systems may not be in place to accommodate such an increase in EU spending and the EU's new level of ambition. In particular, as for the impact of the new EU initiatives, several key conditions are lacking: an effective EU planning process; the Member States' participation; the impact on real capability needs and the governance and accountability framework.

Defence involves creating real military capabilities, with a clear potential to deter potential threats. In the absence of such critical success factors and without specifying clear goals, there is a risk that current EU defence initiatives end up with no outcome.

What in fact is the EU institutions' role in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)?

The Common Security and Defence Policy aims to provide the EU with “an operational capacity drawing on civilian and military assets”. In other words, it may be used outside the EU for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security. Since 2003, there have been 35 civilian and military operations deployed all over the world. Besides, Member States have an obligation of mutual aid and assistance if a Member State is “the victim of armed aggression on its territory”.

But again, one fundamental aspect of the CSDP is its intergovernmental nature, with the leading role played by the Member States. As a consequence, the EU institutions' role in the CSDP differs from other EU policies. For instance, the Commission has no right of initiative and the European Parliament has no legislative power. In addition, there are several limitations on the CSDP action. One of them is the respect for the “obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in NATO”. The CSDP provisions shall not prejudice the specific nature of the Member States' security and defence policy, for example as regards neutrality. Another limit is the possibility for Member States to opt out of defence cooperation. This has been used by Denmark, which does not participate in the CSDP.

The Commission proposed a manifest increase for defence and external security budget to €22.5bn for 2021-2027. Is this increase of almost 10 times justified, compared to €2.8bn for the 2014-2020 period?

We see several risks in that and have highlighted them in our review. In fact, though the EU's defence spending is due to increase in the near future, it is minor (on average about €3bn annually), and accounts for less than 2% of the Member States' overall military spending. In fact, defence spending mainly occurs at national level. In 2017 alone, the EU's 28 Member States earmarked over €200bn of public expenditure for 'defence'.

However, contributing to better defence capacity in Europe means going beyond words and requires effective implementation of real initiatives, with the aim of supporting a competitive European defence industry and enhancing Member States' military capabilities in full complementarity with NATO. Ultimately, the EU's success and future in the field of defence depends entirely on the Member States' political will, as they play the central role in Europe's defence architecture.

However, the current Member States' military capabilities do not match the EU's level of military ambition, and several hundred billion euros would be needed to overcome this gap if Europe had to defend itself without outside assistance.

In this respect, only six Member States up to now met the 2% of GDP threshold for defence spending, though the US president said it's too little. Do those analysts who wonder why Europeans should foot the bill for defence twice - once for the EU's ambitious plans, and again for NATO - have any reason?

The coherence of EU initiatives and their synergies with other frameworks, in particular NATO, is essential. As Member States participate in several cooperation frameworks, this may dilute the respective benefits and lead to competing practices and duplication of processes.

In that respect, EU-NATO complementarity is a key point, as for 22 Member States NATO remains the primary framework when it comes to collective defence. EU Member States have a single set of forces; therefore, in order to avoid inefficient use of the taxpayer's money, a critical point and a key priority for the near future is whether the EU is able to complement NATO and so avoid duplication and overlapping functions with it.

In which specific activities there is a jeopardy of duplication and overlapping with NATO for example, and can the EU-North Atlantic Alliance complementarity be effectively controlled?

Efficiency means avoiding all forms of unnecessary duplication, be they of processes, structures such as operational command, or outputs. For instance, steps to increase the capacity of EU defence planning tend to increase activities that are parallel to NATO's, as well as potentially overlapping and duplicating several functions.

At what cost can the level of interoperability of the various armed forces in Europe be enhanced?

The Member States' military capabilities are characterised by a high level of duplication and fragmentation, meaning that European armed forces are less interoperable. In 2017, the 28 EU Member States operated 178 different weapons systems, compared to 30 in the United States. This wide variety of systems in operation - and thus the lack of common technical standards - is detrimental to the interoperability of the various armed forces in Europe. In today's context where collaborative missions and operations are the norm, an appropriate degree of interoperability is vital for effective (co-) operation.

It is not possible to provide a reliable estimate of the costs needed to enhance the level of interoperability of the various armed forces in Europe. However, merely to meet the 2% GDP guideline, EU Members of NATO would need to invest an additional €90bn annually, i.e. about a 45% increase compared to their 2017 level of spending.

What consequences for EU defence are possible due to the UK's departure from the EU?

Without prejudging the outcome of Brexit, the UK's departure from the EU is likely to have strong consequences for EU defence. The UK has traditionally been Europe's biggest spender on defence. In 2017, its defence budget accounted for about one quarter of the EU Member States' total defence spending. Seen from a different perspective, the UK's departure from the EU means that 80% of NATO's defence spending will take place in non-EU countries. Also, British companies have a strong position in the European defence market.

In operational terms, the UK's contribution to both CSDP civilian and military missions and operations has been limited overall. On the other hand, the loss of strategic enablers in Air (air-to-air refuelling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities) and special operation forces are an example of capability domains that would be greatly affected by Brexit.

Consequently, the EU27 will have considerably fewer resources to fill in the identified gaps in capabilities and military research. In both areas, shortages will most likely be aggravated by Brexit, it would entail a material reduction in the EU's overall existing capabilities and an investment gap in research and development.

The review paper contains many valuable analyses, conclusions and warnings. What is expected to follow after it?

A review presents and establishes the facts surrounding a specific issue; it is not an audit. However, it aims to contribute to strategic reflection, thereby providing an input for co-legislators and increasing awareness among the public and other stakeholders.

It also allows the ECA to acquire knowledge and develop skills with a view to future audit work in this area. As the EU's independent external auditor, the ECA will programme and carry out audits in the coming years to ensure that EU funds spent in this domain are spent in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations and achieve value for money.


Juhan Parts is Estonian Member of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) since January 2017 and sits in ECA's chamber III “External action, security and justice”. He graduated in law from University of Tartu in 1991. Between 2003 and 2005, Mr Parts was Prime Minister of Estonia. He started his professional career in 1992 as Deputy Secretary General at the Ministry of Justice. Afterwards, from 1998 to 2002 he served as Auditor General of Estonia. From 2007 to 2014, Mr Parts was Minister of Economy and Communications. He was Member of the Estonian Parliament twice, in 2005-2007 and 2014-2016.

Mr Parts is the responsible member for the recently published ECA's analytical review on European Defence.



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