Bratislava: Defence and Security cooperation in Europe and the Franco-German plan

  • By defencematters

The informal EU summit in Bratislava is expected to tackle security-related matters, building on the Franco-German initiative.

By Andrea Frontini

Security and defence cooperation in Europe: overcoming existing hurdles?

Security – along with defence - arguably remains a contentious issue in Europe, due to the traditional role of national sovereignty by EU Member States in this sensitive policy domain. From threat perceptions – notably between Southern and Eastern Member States – all the way to the very military, and wider security, capacities of single countries – with few ‘heavyweights’ such as France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Poland, concentrating the bulk of Europe’s ‘hard power’ – divergences in sensibilities, perceptions, doctrines and actual policies still remain a rather inescapable reality across the EU.

However, a combination of external pressures - from the crisis in Ukraine to instability in the Southern Mediterranean, up to the rise of terrorism within several Member States - and domestic and EU institutional developments, from the ‘Brexit’ and the expected ‘benefits’ of London’s mid-term leave for the institutional and operational empowerment of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), to the manifold and valuable references made to CSDP and security at large by the recent ‘EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy’ – might change this (rather static) picture to some considerable degree.


The Franco-German plan for European defence cooperation: a pragmatic way forward?

In this context, the recent Franco-German plan to enhance CSDP, and European defence and security cooperation at large, might play a very important role. The purpose of this initiative is somehow two-fold. On the one hand, the need for a cohesive and collaborative political response to the above-mentioned mix of challenges and threats affecting Europe clearly requires a new impetus to defence and security cooperation – and possibly, even fully-fledged integration – via the European Union. On the other hand, greater trans-European collaboration through the EU also represents a somehow pragmatic response to the implicit challenge of keeping in place a functioning defence and security system across Europe in times of enduring and widespread economic slowdown, and in the light of continuing (but slowly rosier) struggle among military establishments to reverse a decade-long trend of decreasing defence budgets.

More generally, in times of deep uncertainties not only for Europe’s security, but more broadly for the very future of European integration, investing in collective European defence and security cooperation could represent a responsible and far-sighted policy choice. Clearly, the very implementation of such plan will require a mix of short-term practical steps and overarching political commitment by the EU and its Member States, notably the bigger ones. Nonetheless, the Franco-German plan presents two potential advantages: it comes from two of the bigger European capitals, particularly Berlin (not least given the ascending foreign policy and security ambitions expressed by the current German leadership), and it appears as largely compatible with – and, in fact, quite supportive of – existing EU processes and mechanisms.

Looking at the very content of the proposal, the Franco-German plan does certainly include several references to de facto and EU-led integration of defence structures and assets, including by calling for the establishment of permanent EU Headquarters for CSDP, commanding structures for sharing military assets, the revitalisation of EU Battlegroups, the overdue activation of some ‘dormant clauses’ of the Lisbon Treaty such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the use of EU funds to finance military research. There are, of course, some concrete limits to what exact degree of integration can and should be achieved – in Paris and Berlin’s views - in the short-term, and the plan is clearly not aiming to create any EU supranational entity – not to mention a fully-fledged ‘European Army’ – in charge of planning and implementing defence and security policies across Europe. Rather, it seems to opt for more progressive and pragmatic harmonisation, and longer-term convergence, of EU Member State actions in this sensitive domain. This seems, overall, as a sensible way to go about it.


What future relations with NATO and US strategic posture?

Whatever exact form this enhanced defence cooperation in Europe might take in the near future, also in light of the Franco-German plan, it is very unlikely that it will, in any way, be incompatible with NATO. Quite the opposite. Stronger EU-led cooperation in defence and security should be coupled with a renewed and mutually beneficial division of labour between the EU and NATO, including - but not only - when it comes to the relationship between collective security and ‘out of area’ missions and operations, which will both contribute to European security in the foreseeable future.

By the same token, it seems quite plausible that the US will welcome this initiative as it meets Washington’s long-term call for a stronger and more pro-active security engagement by the Europeans, both in and around Europe.


Waiting for Bratislava

The forthcoming, informal EU summit in Bratislava is expected to tackle these and other security-related matters, building on the Franco-German initiative and the various EU institutional initiatives and developments already in place – most of which represent the ‘legacy’ of the 2013 European Council Conclusions on CSDP, and its political and institutional follow-up.

While inter-governmental consultations in Bratislava are likely to somehow ‘dilute’ the moderate ‘integrationist’ push of the Franco-German initiative, the flexible and open features of such proposal have the potential to provide a useful ‘play script’ for future defence and wider security cooperation across Europe, in full synergy with EU actors such as the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission and the European Defence Agency (EDA).

Only time will tell whether this going to truly succeed.


Andrea Frontini is a Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC), Brussels, Belgium