Institutional stakeholders of the European defence: who’s doing what ? 2/3

Institutional stakeholders of the European defence: who’s doing what ? 2/3

The European defence is not only a defence policy, nor the protection of territory. It is above all a political project, in constant evolution, aimed at asserting Europe’s place in the world, in the service of its foreign policy.

This project is based on a decision-making structure that allows the EU to carry out crisis management operations, and which now wants to fully support the defence industry.

To understand how this European defence works, you have to know its key players.

In this background paper, Sierra Tango explains the role and competencies of European institutions.

The European commission

Our second article is dedicated to the administrative body of the European Union: the European Commission. 

The Lisbon Treaty gave the High Representative a right of initiative

Within the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the European Council (where the Member States sit) is the driving force and final arbiter of decisions. The European Commission does not normally have the power of initiative in defence matters, but rather a supporting role.

However, the Lisbon Treaty gives the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) a leading institutional role.

As Vice-President of the European Commission, he is given a certain capacity for initiative. “Each Member State, the High Representative of the EU” – on his or her own authority or “with the support of the Commission” – may “refer any question relating to the common foreign and security policy to the Council and may submit initiatives or proposals to the Council respectively”, explains Article 30 of the Treaty.

The High Representative has a threefold role: to initiate processes, to implement decisions “using national and Union resources” (Article 25(3), and to ensure European unity (Article 25(2)).

He chairs the Foreign Affairs Council in its Defence Ministers formation. He is responsible for submitting CSDP-related proposals to the Member States. The VP/HR is the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is the administrative linchpin for the preparation of all decisions of the HR or the Political and security committee (PSC). 

The European Commission has become an indispensable player in defence policy-making

While the EEAS has a key role to play in supporting the action of the High Representative, the European Commission has been able to play its part in the political game in Brussels and to take its place among the institutional players in European defence through its budgetary competences, its various financial mechanisms such as the European Defence Fund and the recent creation of a Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS).

This is most often done through the usual legislative process in which the Commission makes a legislative proposal, then the EU Council (where the Member States sit) and the European Parliament negotiate a final agreement. 

It is in shaping the texts that the Commission has taken the lead, for example in proposals to combat cyber threats, the establishment of military mobility, the launch of an instrument for joint European armaments procurement (EDIRPA), or more recently in boosting the defence industry’s capacity to produce the ammunition that Ukraine and European armies need. This phenomenon is accelerating with the war in Ukraine. 

Furthermore, the European Commission has not ceded control of the economic aspects of defence to the European Defence Agency (EDA). It has been particularly active through the European Defence Action Plan and the European Defence Fund, the latter clearly encroaching on the EDA’s mission to stimulate defence research and development.  

The European Commission has thus gradually established itself as a key player in European defence. As Fabian Terpan points out in his essay ‘Relaunching the European project beyond state control’:

“The idea that intergovernmental institutions exercise control over the institutional system at any stage of the decision-making process is questionable. Several decisions have partly escaped the control of the states, in particular the drafting of the Global Strategy, which was largely influenced by the EEAS, or the launch of the European Defence Fund, which owes much to the work of the Commission”.

An impetus given by Jean-Claude Juncker and Ursula von der Leyen

Although the idea of European defence is present in several Commission proposals over time (notably a communication for the defence industry of July 2013), it is under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker (2014-2019) that the impetus is given.

His “European Defence Action Plan” (EDAP) of November 2016 already lays the foundations for current projects. It was followed by a White Paper in March 2017, then strategic recommendations in May 2019 aimed at “moving towards a genuine” European Defence Union so that defence cooperation within the EU becomes the norm, not the exception. 

A few months later, in September 2019, her successor Ursula von der Leyen (2019-…) decided to continue down this path. “We must continue to work to develop the Security and Defence Union. This will be a task for this Commission. Because I want that, when there is a crisis and the EU agrees to act, that it must have the procedures and the means to really act”.

In 2021, she is even clearer. “In recent years we have started to develop a kind of European defence ecosystem, but what we need now is a European Defence Union.”