EU defence policy has traditionally been intergovernmental in nature: member states have typically adopted decisions through unanimity, while supranational institutions, such as the European Commission and European Parliament, have had little formal power. Pierre Haroche writes that recent developments are now changing this approach, with defence policy becoming increasingly supranational and politicised.

On 18 April, the European Parliament (EP) approved, by 328 votes to 231, the establishment of a European Defence Fund (EDF) for the period 2021–27. The programme aims at using the EU budget to finance cooperative defence research and to co-finance with member states the cooperative development of military prototypes. The European Commission has proposed a budget of €13 billion for the EDF.

The EDF was promoted in the context of the post-Brexit multiplication of EU defence initiatives, including, in 2017, the establishment of the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) and the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Many defence officials and experts argue that the EDF is the innovation most likely to represent a game changer.

Defence is a policy area that has always been in the realm of the intergovernmental method, with member states adopting decisions by unanimity and supranational institutions, such as the Commission and the EP, having no formal power. Yet, the EDF represents a major defence initiative that was proposed by the Commission, negotiated under the Community method – which involves qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council and codecision with the EP – and will be implemented by the Commission. In other words, the EDF is clearly a supranational policy.

This evolution is even more surprising considering that many EU governance scholars view the recent developments in European integration as being marked by the triumph of intergovernmental governance. How can we explain the EDF?

The ambition of a political Commission

When Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the European Commission in 2014, he claimed that his Commission would be more ‘political’ than that of his predecessors. Juncker meant that he could rely on the legitimacy provided by the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and that he wanted to focus his team’s action on a few key priorities. Defence was one of these priorities.

Dutch soldiers participating in a training exercise in Bavaria, Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Terry Rajsombath (CC BY 2.0)

This focus on defence was new for the Commission, but the international context was favourable for this evolution. The 2014 Ukrainian crisis had made defence a central concern again for EU member states. In 2016, the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump reinforced the incentive for the EU to launch new defence initiatives. Juncker was determined to seize this opportunity.

From a bureaucratic point of view, Juncker had also prepared the Commission by appointing Michel Barnier as his Special Adviser on European Defence and Security Policy in 2015. Because of his political authority, Barnier was able to diffuse the idea that defence should no longer be taboo for the Commission. Juncker announced the EDF in his 2016 State of the Union address. The initiative surprised not only member states, but also the Commission’s services themselves. Throughout the negotiation process, the EDF benefitted from unambiguous political support within the Commission.

The connection between defence and the Commission’s competences

How did the Commission manage to take the lead on a defence policy? It used an indirect strategy, by relying on the connection between defence issues and its own economic competences. Formally, the EDF is not a defence policy but a research and industrial policy. Since research and industry are traditional single-market-related policy areas in which the Commission has well-established competences, the EDF governance is supranational, not intergovernmental.

Why did member states accept this evolution? Because it provided them with a new solution to a long-standing problem: underinvestment in cooperative defence R&D. Until the Commission’s involvement, the main actor responsible for supporting European defence industrial cooperation had been the European Defence Agency (EDA). However, as an intergovernmental body, the EDA can only rely on voluntary member state contributions to finance its projects. In times of budgetary constraint, this task can be very difficult. In this context, using the EU budget as a complementary source of investment and as an incentive for stimulating transnational projects was an attractive option. Since Article 41.2 of the Treaty on EU forbids the use of the EU budget for defence, relying on the Commission’s economic competences turned out to be the most effective solution.

Under the EDF, the Commission can fund 100% of the costs of research programmes, 20% of development projects and 30% of PESCO projects. The EDF thus reversed the logic of defence industrial cooperation: instead of looking for money to finance a project, it is about looking for projects to be financed by a given budget.

The empowerment of supranational institutions

The EDF is not an isolated case of this logic allowing the Commission to intervene in defence through its economic competences. Capacity Building in Support of Security and Development (CBSD) is an EU assistance programme, established in December 2017, that funds the provision of equipment and infrastructure to armed forces of partner countries. In this case, member states chose to rely on the Commission’s development aid policy in order to open the possibility of using the EU budget. This also had the effect of empowering the Commission in a defence-related area.

Another example is military mobility. This policy, conducted in cooperation with NATO, aims at facilitating the movement of military troops across the continent. The Commission is a key player, particularly through the funding of transport infrastructure via the EU budget.

These new responsibilities could eventually affect the organisation of the Commission. The new Commission that will take office in November 2019 could establish a new Directorate-General (DG) Defence, including all its defence-related services. A Commissioner for Defence could even be appointed as a signal of the Commission’s commitment to this new task.

As EU defence policy is becoming increasingly supranational, the EP also sees its role strengthened, in particular through its budgetary power. Debates on the EDF adoption have shown that many members of the EP would have liked to have had an even greater say in the governance of the fund. EU defence policy, which used to be the exclusive domain of member states’ confidential negotiations, is likely to become an increasingly politicised issue.

For more information on this topic, see the author’s accompanying article in the Journal of European Public Policy

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Pierre Haroche – Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM)
Pierre Haroche is a Research Fellow in European Security at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM), Paris, France.

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