European defence is a vital topic, and we always welcome keen and practical debate about ways forward. The opinion pieces below are not the opinions of EDA. Rather, they are reports and articles produced by others, which EDA feel make a valuable contribution to the contemporary defence debate.

Opinion: Building European Defence: An Architect and a Bank

Brussels - 14 May, 2014

If a set of investors plan a grand apartment building in which they can each afford just  one  apartment,  they need an  architect to design a  building that is both affordable and that meets all their needs, to negotiate with the constructor, and to ensure follow-up. When building capabilities for European defence, the sole possible architect is the European  Defence  Agency  (EDA). Those who have to reach consensus and invest are the EU Member States. And there is even a European Investment Bank (EIB) to assist them.

Member States  should  cooperate  more,  and the most effective way for them to do so is through the EDA. To that end, Member States must be given incentives, while the EDA (with the European External Action Service or EEAS) has been tasked with thedevelopment of a policy framework. The end result must be systematic and long-term cooperation. This is what  stands  out  from  the  December  2013 European Council conclusions on military capabilities. The crisis in Ukraine will hopefully lend a sense of urgency to the implementation of these decisions and see an acceleration of defence  cooperation,  for  continued inefficiency is now even less acceptable than before. Some Member States have even announced that they will increase their defence budgets. At the very least the crisis ought to produce a stabilization of European defence spending – any further defence budget cuts will raise some eyebrows among the general public.

The most cost-effective way to use European defence budgets remains cooperation. Systematic and long-term or – dare one say it – permanent and structured cooperation, requires a holistic approach to capabilities, encompassing: new capabilities, with a focus on the strategic shortfalls, as well as the restructuring of existing capabilities; research and  development  (R&D);  and  defence planning.


The first step towards systematic common development of new capabilities is to ensure that no opportunities for cooperation are overlooked.

The immediate areas of focus have of course been identified by the European Council itself, which welcomed multinational programmes in four areas: drones, air-to-air refuelling, satellite communication, and cyber. And it should not be forgotten that in December 2011 the Foreign Affairs Council prioritized eight more areas, including smart munitions and ISTAR. If programmes leading to new European platforms are to be launched in these 12 areas, in order to really reduce our dependence on the US, more contributions are urgently needed from more Member States. The stakes are high, and the potential is great. If Airbus became a global leader, so the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System initiative (RPAS) can produce a global player.

The institutions have a role to play in stressing the importance of participation to the Member States which have so far remained reticent, but the capitals that have already assumed a leading role need to play an even stronger part in bringing these states to the table through targeted bilateral diplomacy. It is harder to dismiss an invitation to take part in a programme when it comes from a fellow Head of State or Government rather than a European official.

On  a  more  permanent basis, the  EDA  can offer a dissemination mechanism and a discussion platform to Member States, or clusters of Member States, whenever they seek partners for any specific plans and intentions related to existing or future capabilities. Furthermore, the Agency need not just passively wait for Member States to approach it, but can proactively invite Member States that are known to be considering certain projects. Passage via the EDA whenever a multinational project is being considered could even   be   made   compulsory,   allowing   the Agency to formulate (non-binding) recommendations. In addition, the EDA can offer Member States a systematic analysis of draft  white  books,  defence  reviews  etc.  in function of commonly identified shortfalls, priorities and redundancies, and of other Member States’ known plans and intentions.


However, it’s not just a matter of identifying opportunities for cooperation. Member States must also be convinced to make use of them. This is where the EDA must position itself as the indispensable architect who can design tailor-made cooperation for every project. Why should a Defence Policy Director, Service Chief, National Armaments Director, Chief of Defence, or indeed a Minister of Defence favour   multinational   programmes   via   the EDA? Because it can offer incentives that they cannot reasonably ignore.

This is the argument for the architect:

Cost arguments come to mind first. Cooperation can drastically reduce not only the cost of development and acquisition, but also the life-cycle cost of any programme. The starting point is a common configuration for equipment (instead of “gold-plating” it by introducing  superfluous  national specifications), followed by common updates throughout its life-cycle. In addition, once the platforms have been delivered, permanent common logistics and maintenance can be set up (through pooling and/o specialization between the countries participating in the programme). If the participating   Member States so decide, even the use of the capability can be commonly managed (as in European Air Transport Command or EATC, which the European Council put forward as a model).

The key is that the EDA is the coordinator of the programme throughout its life-cycle, from chairing a common configuration board of Member States, to acting as a single point of contact with the private contractor, driving cooperation on logistics and maintenance, to managing the updates decided upon by the Member States. Members of the F16 Multinational Fighter Programme will recognise this, for this is exactly what it has successfully  achieved – which demonstrates that it is possible.

Exempting any projects thus launched from VAT   (an   exemption   from   which   NATO already benefits) seems but logical.

Funding  arguments are  crucial  as  well. Through the EDA the Member States participating in a programme could tap into further European resources. The European Council  consecrated  the  role  of  the Commission in European defence. This should not remain limited to R&D. The possibility of Commission participation in dual-use programmes at the same level as the Member States ought to be assessed, including in any multinational structures set up during its life- cycle. If e.g. ten Member States joined up to build a drone or a satellite, why shouldn't the Commission participate as if   it were an eleventh Member State? It certainly needs this capacity, for FRONTEX, ECHO and many more programmes. With the EDA acting as the leading organization, Member States need not fear for their prerogatives, so why not pool and share with the Commission?

Payment  schedules are  at  times  even  more crucial. One of the obstacles to multinational cooperation is the reality that potential participating states rarely have budget available at the same time. Through the EDA, the European Investment Bank (EIB) could allow Member States to have an account into which they could make down payments for a specific project as soon as they have been authorized by their political authorities. Thus Ministries of Defence could avoid falling victim to subsequent budget cuts or having to return allocated budgets to the Treasury if they had not been spent within the fiscal year. Member States could also borrow funds, in order not to miss the opportunity to join in a project while waiting for national funds to become available.

In addition they could choose to spread the payment schedule over a longer period (even over the entire life-cycle of a project) if that were the only way in which they could participate. The latter comes close to leasing – but why not?

Operational  arguments are  naturally  of  the essence. The more the EDA can assume a central coordinating role in common capability development, the more it will be able to guarantee:  interoperability  between programmes and countries; the acquisition of nothing but state of the art equipment; and continuous updates to keep it at that level.

Finally, the offsets  argument comes into play as well. The EDA could negotiate a general policy on technology transfer with the Commission, and coordinate a specific return of technology among Member States for each programme.


Cooperation  to  make  better  use  of  existing capabilities and to create new capabilities goes hand in hand with a restructuring of national forces. The acquisition of new capabilities will demand doing away with existing duplications at all levels. The EDA can offer its services as an honest broker, assessing the effectiveness and efficiency of pooling and sharing schemes, applying best practices from successful models such as EATC. Furthermore, the possibility of using the EU’s structural funds to compensate for base closures that result from the choice for multinational cooperation can be explored through the EDA.


Just as in capability development, in defence R&D the EDA can position itself as the self- evident point of entry for any multinational initiative. Again, Member States will only be convinced if they see clear benefits. Through the Agency, the critical mass can be achieved that Member States individually, with mostly very low R&D budgets, cannot generate. At the same time by acting as coordinator the EDA can ensure that all participants’ centres of excellence receive their due.

In addition, the EDA can act as a multiplier: each Euro invested by a Member State can be complemented with more Euros from the Commission,  either  under  Horizon  2020  for dual-use aspects, or under the future Preparatory Action for defence per se. The EDA can act as the focal point through which Member States can provide input and draw upon funds under the latter.


As a further stimulus to cooperation, the EDA can publish an open source “balance” of European defence, permanently updated and publicly available online, focusing on multinational initiatives.


If the short-term priorities are clear, longer term capability needs are not. There is as yet no reflection on Europe’s capability needs in 20 to 30 years' time, in NATO (because the NATO Defence Planning Process does not really look beyond each four-year cycle) or the EU (because the Capability Development Plan or CDP does not really go into detail). Yet if capabilities are desired by then, the time to start thinking about them is now, in view of the many years that always elapse between the conception of a new capability and its coming into service.

To that end, the EU could proactively invite all Member States to a discussion about long-term capability needs, in order to define requirements and start programmes collectively from the very start. Because of its newly consecrated role in defence, the Commission should be part of this debate as well. The updated CDP can frame and in turn be alimented by such a discussion. More than a one-off event, this could lead to a permanent  and  structured  dialogue  about defence planning as a whole between Member States willing to participate. Almost like a “permanent capability conference” such dialogue alone can ensure that eventually all shortfalls are addressed and no new redundancies arise.

Ideally however such a capabilities discussion ought to be framed in a strategic view of Europe’s level of ambition as a security provider. Elements of this exist. The Headline Goal remains in force, but its ambition of deploying at corps strength is mostly ignored. The EU Military Staff applies five illustrative scenarios to generate detailed capability requirements, but these are in need of an update. As Europe’s broader neighbourhood has become increasingly volatile, and as the US strategic focus shifts toward Asia, this strategic debate is more urgent than ever. The basic question is deceptively simple: in addition to our Article 5 obligations, which demand a strong conventional deterrence, which security and defence responsibilities does Europe (i.e. the European Allies and Partners or the EU Member States) want to be able to assume outside its territory, if necessary without US assistance?

The strategic chapter of the High Representative’s preparatory report for the December 2013 European Council offers the clearest ever indication of what the level of ambition could be: Europe needs strategic autonomy;  in  its  broad  neighbourhood;  in order to protect interests; by projecting power; with partners but alone if necessary. Furthermore, the Maritime Security Strategy highlights the fact that Europeans have a vital stake  in  global  maritime  security.  The  next High Representative would do well to take this as   a   starting   point   when   taking   up   the European Council’s tasking to assess the implications of the changing geopolitical environment (in layman’s terms: to produce a strategy).

Clear  and  quantifiable  long-term  capability needs can then be derived from this strategy by the EU Military Committee, to guide future cooperation via the EDA. The aim is not to create an “EUDPP” alongside the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP), but to insert the collective European level of ambition into the NDPP priorities, which can then steer both national and common European defence efforts.


There are architects who have achieved international fame despite the fact that hardly any of their projects ever left the drawing board, but they are few and far between. The EDA must ensure therefore that its designs are implemented. That in turn requires that those who have commissioned the architect must be on board and invest: the Member States. That first indispensable step has yet to be taken. It is a risky expression perhaps, but this really is “l’heure de l’Europe”. On both sides of the Atlantic pragmatists have come to realize that the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), through the EDA and the Commission, with the EIB, offers the best chance of creating more European capabilities through European cooperation. But if that chance is lost, patience with European structures, and in the US, with European  capitals,  will  quickly run  out.  We may find ourselves not just without a CSDP, but without the US as well. The assignment is clear:   capabilities   now,   capabilities   in   the future, and a common idea on when to use them.

By Jo Coelmont & Sven Biscop

Brig-Gen. (Ret.) Jo Coelmont, former Belgian Permanent Military Representative to the EUMC, is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont Institute.

Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop directs the Europe in the World programme at the Egmont Institute and teaches at Ghent University and the College of Europe. 

The authors thank the many academics and national, EU and NATO officials who have greatly contributed to their thinking, in particular the participants in the informal brainstorming on European defence that Egmont hosted on 2 April 2014. 




Participating Member States

  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Czech
  • Germany
  • Estonia
  • Ireland
  • Greece
  • Spain
  • France
  • Croatia
  • Italy
  • Cyprus
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Hungary
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Austria
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovenia
  • Slovakia
  • Finland
  • Sweden
  • UK