After more than a decade of relative standstill, defence cooperation in the European Union has recently shifted into a higher gear. Geopolitical shifts, a deteriorating security environment, the United States pressing Europe to take care of its own security and the Brexit have created a window of opportunity for the EU and its member states to get serious about its own security and defence. Particularly European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has made the issue into one of his priority policies since he entered the Berlaymont building. His State of the Union address of 2016 is the best example: “Europe needs to toughen up. Nowhere is this truer than in our defence policy. Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others or let France alone defend its honour in Mali.”‍[12] This was followed by the concrete statement in his 2017 address: “By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union.”‍[13] The promise of ‘l’Europe qui protège’ has been turned into one of the central planks of the EU’s legitimacy, adding physical security to the social, economic and cultural connotations of protection.

Although strengthening the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was already one of the central themes at the European Council meetings in December 2013 and 2015, it was only propelled to the top of the agenda with the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence and the Commission’s EU Defence Action Plan that followed the launch of the EU Global Strategy in June 2016. As the 2017 election year generated results that kept the Netherlands, France and – later on – Germany on pro-EU courses, these plans could gain momentum. During his Sorbonne speech, the French President Macron spoke about the historic progress that has been made on what he called “the foundation of any political community” and laid out his ambitions for a “Europe of Defence”. He proposed to establish a common intervention force, a common defence budget, and a common doctrine for action.‍[14] There is a remarkable 75% of respondents that supports a common defence and security policy among EU member states. This high percentage has been stable since 2004 (varying between 71% and 78% only during the whole period).‍[15]

Amidst all these speeches, policy documents and initiatives, the question remains what it all amounts to. What is the ‘state of defence’ and how to assess the swift developments that have taken place on defence cooperation in the EU?

As regards European defence it is notoriously difficult to distinguish between rhetoric and action. Ever since the Franco-British Summit at St. Malo, now almost two decades ago, periods of optimism where a ‘strategically autonomous’ EU seemed to be around the corner, have alternated (and sometimes even coincided) with years of stagnation where EU member states could or would not contribute to even the smallest CSDP missions. Even now, when the stars all seem to align to take meaningful steps towards a more mature EU defence, progress is still reversible.‍[16] The main turnarounds have been the decision of the June 2017 European Council to launch permanent structured cooperation (Pesco) before the end of 2017 and the debut of the European Commission as an active player in promoting and financing collaborative defence research and capability development through the European Defence Fund.‍[17]

Both developments address two of the core problems that have slowed down a meaningful EU defence until now: a lack of (political) commitment and a lack of the right capabilities. Defence policy as the bulwark of sovereignty has so far been ring-fenced firmly in the intergovernmental zone. By awakening clause 42.6 in the EU Treaty on permanent structured cooperation, core groups can be formed. Signing up for Pesco means an end to voluntarism in defence. Failing to comply with the conditions entails that member states can be suspended by the Council. This is unprecedented in the field of European security and defence: Pesco would for the first time offer an enforceable legal instrument to keep member states from back-tracking on their commitments.

While Pesco can be a decisive breakthrough for an avant garde on defence and may in the long term develop into a European Defence Union, the actual implementation appears to fall short of that. Suspension of a Pesco participant seems revolutionary, but as it is a last resort sanction and there are no other sanction possibilities available, the actual enforcement of that sanction in case of non-compliance seems remote. That means more ‘business-as-usual’ in CSDP. Pesco is one of the crown jewels of the German-French proposals of June and September 2016.‍[18] While the kick-started German-French tandem was instrumental in making Pesco possible at all, the widely disparage views on defence between Berlin and Paris might also rid Pesco of its potential. Pesco will remain ‘inclusive’ on the insistence of Germany, that fears a divided Europe. Berlin and Paris are now after an ‘inclusive and ambitious’ Pesco, which seems like a contradictio in terminis, rendering it less effective as a mechanism for more commitment and for a more operationally able European defence. At the expected launch of Pesco in December 2017 creative officials could still contemplate to add an extra speed to a Pesco for ambitious member states only, thereby de facto creating a core group within Pesco.

The enduring problem of Europe’s shortfalls in military capabilities is addressed by the European Commission with its European Defence Action Plan (EDAP) of November 2016. It announced future financing of defence research by the Union budget and offered financial incentives for capability programmes of the member states. In June 2017, the Commission launched the European Defence Fund (EDF), a further elaboration of the financial proposals of the EDAP. With the EDF, the Commission wants to stimulate collaborative capability development by offering funding and other incentives to the member states. At the same time, the EDF aims at retaining key technologies and industrial capacities in Europe in order to underpin the ambition of the Global Strategy that the EU should become an autonomous security actor.

Altogether, the Commission proposes to invest €1.5 billion annually in the defence sector post-2020. This is a breakthrough – previously the Commission excluded defence from EU financing – and a game changer in terms of providing financial incentives for defence collaboration to the member states.‍[19] The EDF is not an EU defence budget as meant by, for instance, President Macron and the European Parliament. Its purpose is not to finance CSDP operations or EU-owned capabilities. The EDF and its instruments provide a carrot that could help in closing deals on collaborative defence procurement projects by member states that would have stranded otherwise.

Despite the recognition that the Commission’s involvement is just the incentive that defence research, the defence industry and member states’ defence investments need, it is by no means clear that the EDF is going to be created as proposed. Agreeing to the next EU Multi-Annual Financial Framework (2021-2027) without the UK’s contribution is already going to be a tight affair, let alone if room has to be made for another budget line for defence. Moreover, the battle of wills between those countries with substantial defence-industrial interests (i.e. Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain and Britain) and the Commission could turn out to sour the intended impetus for a more efficient European defence market.

There is no denying that major developments have taken place in the area of EU defence. Since June 2016 this has led to a Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) and a beefing up of funds available for CSDP operations through the Athena mechanism. MPCC, CARD and Athena are considerable accomplishments, but the way they turned out is clearly the result of difficult compromises and still leaves much to be desired. The MPCC is not an EU operational headquarters, CARD is still based on the principle of voluntarism and Athena still covers only a small part of the costs of military operations. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that the most important initiatives still have the status of promises. Invoking Art. 42.6 (Pesco) and creating a substantial EU Defence Fund are potential game changers, but ambitious implementation is still pending.

Apart from these steps in the direction of a more capable defence, there is a question that remains unanswered: what role will the EU take in European defence? The Implementation Plan of the EU Global Strategy has carved out an ambitious role, including three core tasks as far as defence is concerned that the EU should be able to carry out autonomously: a. intervention in and stabilisation of external crises; b. capacity building of partners; and c. protection of the Union and its citizens.‍[20] So far, this new level of ambition has not been defined very precisely, with the crucial issue of what autonomy in defence means for the EU, NATO or the relationship with the United States open to interpretation. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks that “Europeans have to take their fate into their own hands, (…), in friendship with the US and Great Britain”‍[21] were made in the heat of a German election campaign, but are still exemplary of the uncertainty that has crept into the state of transatlantic relations.

Recent years saw acceleration in initiatives on EU defence, and it is undoubtedly the case that the issue has momentum. The sense that the EU could be left to its own devices in a deteriorating security environment, is currently aligning a lot of stars. However, it is still unclear whether the all too familiar gravitational pull of short-term national interests and divergence of strategic cultures will continue to hinder an effective European defence.

Jean-Claude Juncker, State of the Union address. Towards a better Europe - a Europe that protects, empowers and defends, Brussels, 2016, link
Jean-Claude Juncker, State of the Union address, Brussels, 13 September 2017, link
Emmanuel Macron, Initiative for Europe, Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, 26 September 2017.
European Commission, Special Eurobarometer 461, ‘Designing Europe’s Future: Security and Defence, April 2017, p. 12, at: link
Arnaud Danjean, ‘Défense européenne. Attention à céder à l’euphorie’, Bruxelles 2, 6 October 2017.
Dick Zandee, 2017: a turning point for European defence?, Clingendael, The Hague, July 2017, link
Joint contribution by Foreign Ministers Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, ‘A strong Europe in a world of uncertainties’, 27 June 2016. See also: Joint Position by Defence Ministers Ursula von der Leyen and Jean Yves le Drian, Revitalizing CSDP. towards a comprehensive, realistic and credible Defence in the EU, 11 September 2016, link
Dick Zandee, New kid on the block – The European Commission and European defence, Clingendael Policy Brief, December 2016; Margriet Drent & Dick Zandee, European defence: action and commitment, Clingendael Policy Brief, March 2017.
HR of CFSP/CSDP, Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, Brussels, 14 November 2016, link
link, 28 May 2017.

About the authors

Margriet Drent is Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute and Head of the Security unit. She specialises in security and defence with a specific focus on the EU as a Security Actor and the Common Security and Defense Policy.