Low defense spending puts strategic autonomy at risk, EU review says
Governments put national and NATO priorities ahead of EU, officials say.
EU countries are not spending enough on defense research and technology, calling into question their ability to achieve European strategic autonomy, according to a study by the bloc’s defense agency.
The review was presented to EU defense ministers on Friday amid a growing debate over whether Europe can and should aim to operate independently in military terms from the United States.
The discussion over strategic autonomy — an idea championed above all by French President Emmanuel Macron — has intensified following the election of Joe Biden, as the U.S. president-elect has expressed a strong commitment to NATO and to working closely with America’s European allies.
But the study presented on Friday — the first annual Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) — revealed that the debate risks being largely academic, at least for the moment. A summary of the report said: “The outlook for Defence Research and Technology (R&T) spending levels continues to be insufficient, putting the EU strategic autonomy at risk.”
The review found that when it comes to defense planning, EU countries put European priorities only in third place — after national and NATO interests. And it also found there was “an uneven understanding of the concept of strategic autonomy.”
Carried out by the European Defence Agency (EDA), the study is an overview of 26 EU member countries’ national defense planning and capability development efforts. (Denmark has an opt-out on defense.)
Officials also noted that defense spending in Europe has yet to rebound fully from cuts made during the last financial crisis.
“Collectively, we got back to the 2007 aggregate level of defense spending only last year,” EDA chief executive Jiří Šedivý told journalists. However, he said, even that recovery did not apply to research and technology: “The share of R&T in defense budgets is still substantially lower than it used to be as the share in 2007.”
The EU has increased its common defense ambitions in recent years with the launch in 2018 of a new military pact, called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco, that envisages 47 projects.
The bloc has also set up a European Defence Fund, meant to foster cooperation on research and development of military technology and equipment. However, its allocation of just over €7 billion as part of a broader seven-year budget deal agreed by EU leaders in July was some 40 percent lower than the figure proposed by the European Commission.
Friday’s report said “the recent EU defence initiatives have yet to produce a significant and positive impact on the European defence landscape.”
It also highlighted the fragmentation in the EU when it comes to weapons systems.
Presenting the report after the ministers’ videoconference, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stressed that “if the biggest army in the world, the United States, only has four types of warships and only one type of main battle tank, it does not make a lot of sense that here in Europe we have 30 different types of warships and 16 different types of main battle tanks.”
The report identifies, among other things, “six next-generation capabilities” on which member countries should focus, including the joint development and acquisition of new battle tanks (with 11 member countries “expressing an interest in cooperation”) and “replacing coastal and offshore patrol vessels within the next decade.”