Economic crisis: Crisis boosts European military cooperation

12 August 2010
El País Madrid

The Airbus A400M military transport aircraft produced jointly by several European countries.
The Airbus A400M military transport aircraft produced jointly by several European countries.

Blocked by national interests, European military cooperation is still at an embryonic stage. However, the economic crisis has encouraged member states to break new ground in their quest to take advantage of synergies and share common resources and defence infrastructure.

Defence budgets will be hard-hit by the wave of austerity sweeping across Europe. Germany is planning to put an end to obligatory military service and to cut military spending by one billion euros over the next four years. France aims to reduce its budget by 3.5 billion by 2013. In the United Kingdom, the government has announced that the cuts will be painful, and experts in the sector expect the budget will be diminished by close to 10%. The same trend prevails everywhere on the continent: defence is perceived as an easy target for cutbacks that are less socially explosive than they would be in other fields.

Now that they are forced to scale down spending, governments in the bigger EU member states are beginning to explore new avenues for cooperation that will optimise resources and preserve the operational capacity of their military forces. In July, the French Minister for Defence, Hervé Morin announced that France and Germany have recently established a working group to study "areas where resource sharing and pooling could be initiated" with a view to "budget reductions and economies of scale." And Paris and London have also set up another bilateral commission. After years of stalling, it now appears that real progress is on the horizon.

"Reservations about the EU’s role have not suddenly vanished, but I believe that the current situation will lead to definite progress over the next few years," explains former European Defence Agency director Nick Witney.

Room for manoeuvre away from the front

The main motivation for governments is to avoid spending money on duplicate infrastructure and equipment. Of course, leaders want to retain full control over resources deployed at the front, but there is plenty of scope for rearguard cooperation.

"The consensus is that the closer you get to the front, the more difficult it becomes," points out Witney. “I’m personally sceptical about multi-state units, however, there are sectors where reinforced cooperation is politically acceptable, for example in research and development, and in defence infrastructure. There is no reason why each country should have its own structures to maintain and repair equipment. The same applies for weapons testing, munitions and explosives evaluation, wind tunnels used for aircraft design and warship testing basins."

Bi-lateral relations could result in even greater progress. "There is even greater scope for cooperation between the United Kingdom and France,” says Witney. “The right-wing of the ruling Conservative Party remains very sceptical about EU defence policy and prefers to channel everything to NATO. But even they are ready to boost cooperation with France, a country they perceive as willing to share costs and ready to fight."

Fewer financial resources

Europe may never reach the point where different member states share warplanes, but there is no reason why there should not be pooling on the level of infrastructure – development, maintenance, and training centres – and on the level of transport. "Several studies have shown that cooperation could result in savings,” points out Elisabeth Sköns, Leader of the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “Progress has been slowed by the desire to protect the industrial and military technology base in individual countries, and divergent views on defence policy. These problems have yet to be resolved, but today harmonisation within the EU has meant that they are less of an obstacle."

The budgetary die has been cast, and Europe will have to decide if wants to optimise military resources which are now more limited. In 2009, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain – the five main European powers, whose collective GDP is almost as big as the GDP of the United States – devoted 165 billion euro to military spending: just a third of what was spent by the United States. In the same year, China increased its defence budget by 217%, and India augmented military funding by 67%. In contrast, the average increase in defence spending in the five major European military powers was much lower at only 10%.

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