A refreshingly honest discussion on European defence

Fleishman-Hillard hosted a riveting roundtable on the outlook for defence in Europe this week. Moderated by FH Senior Vice President and Partner Dan Baxter, the discussion was led by two distinguished speakers: former European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry Guenther Verheugen, also a member of Fleishman-Hillard’s International Advisory Board, and General Sir Rupert Smith, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR).

No discussion on the future of European defence could take place without first addressing the political and economic context in which the continent finds itself at the moment. Solving the financial crisis is Europe’s number one priority, which translates into budgetary constraints for the foreseeable future. Calls for ‘more Europe’ (such as the recent letter sent by 11 foreign ministers stressing the need for renewed attention to CSDP) was seen as a “no-go” as governments are unwilling to transfer more sovereignty to the EU as long as it would likely lead to electoral losses. Rather than fire-fighting, Europe should seek answers to what its role will and should be in tomorrow’s world.

As the debate moved to the subject of European defence, some familiar points were raised. European defence forces lack capabilities, adequate budgets and staff and Europe’s technological and industrial base is eroding rapidly (see recent comments by EU Military Committee Chairman Hakan Syren.) But rather than dwelling on these points and calling for a return to the past, some participants argued that the entire debate should be framed differently. The different notions of security and defence have become mixed and are often used interchangeably, whereas they should be clearly separated. Unlike defence, which can be seen as a binary (win/lose) and military concept, security is a preventative concept of a subjective nature. Security should be about determining and addressing your own vulnerabilities whilst also assessing risks and rewards. As such, the context around the debate surrounding European defence naturally becomes less about protecting physical sites and more about protecting people. And we have to get our act together in defence before we can tackle the more complex security environment.

‘Pooling and sharing’ is an all-too-commonly-used phrase here in Brussels. Reducing the duplication in capabilities across several member states could theoretically lead to more efficiency and power, but clearly national sovereignty slows down any initiatives which are seen as too ambitious. The European Defence Agency is a good example of an institution which provides a platform for Member States to cooperate more, but there is a fundamental unwillingness to change in the defence world that remains a barrier to moving cooperation forward. The best case scenario for the foreseeable future therefore would continue to be a ‘coalition of the willing’ – i.e. Members States picking and choosing where, when and in what areas to cooperate. (Industry might even be ahead of governments in that regard, as recent news of a pending merger between BAE Systems and EADS illustrates.)

Can we get out of the rut? Some argued that the EU should formulate a clearly-stated objective or even a vision, shared by Member States, that would allow progress. Others thought that without an identifiable threat or ‘red arrow’ on the horizon (a parallel was drawn with the financial crisis), member states will not be compelled to act. One thing looks painfully certain: until we begin to fit strategies, capabilities and budgets to purpose, we will continue to live in a world of insecurity…