The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the issue of European security and defence to the top of the EU agenda, fortunately or unfortunately. The need for closer European cooperation in this domain is not only evident and crucial – but also complex, controversial, and politically sensitive. The question is gaining in urgency and importance and will remain a priority for the EU in the years, if not decades, to come.  

To discuss the current and upcoming challenges and priorities of the European defence agenda, ELF has brought together the key representatives of academia, politics, and industry, as well as our Member Organisations from across Europe. This first meeting has kickstarted our policy and research work on this issue, which we will expand on to provide policymakers from the liberal family with evidence-based insights and timely suggestions.  

The Working Group that took place within the scope of our General Assembly in Paris on May 4-5 has gathered 15 representatives of the ELF Member Organisations and three speakers. Dr Thierry Tardy, Head of Policy from the NATO Defence College, has presented his Policy brief on the future of European Defence after 2022, recently published by ELF. His insightful speech was followed by a video presentation by Mr Bertrand de Cordoue, Head of Policy on Defence and Space at Airbus, who provided a view from the European defence industry. Finally, Daniela Morales, Senior Policy Officer at the ALDE Party, has outlined the policy priorities of the party with regard to this question, including its place in the ALDE Manifesto that is currently in the making. The presentations were followed by Q§A with the participants, which allowed us to bring up a variety of related issues.  

Below are the key takeaways of the meeting that will lay the foundation for our upcoming work in this domain.  

When it comes to the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine, the EU has delivered. Compared to the reaction (or lack thereof) to the Balkan war, the bloc has been fully involved from the first days on all possible fronts: politically, militarily, financially, and in terms of humanitarian support. The EU’s active and unified political stance has not only demonstrated it as a geopolitical actor but has also set into motion a major reconsideration of the scope and functioning of the European and national defence policies, industries, and priorities. In this regard, the main issue to address is how to make sure that the ad-hoc reaction and short-term solutions are in sync with a long-term common strategy, which is yet to be defined on the EU level. 

On the political level, the main dilemma yet to address concerns the US involvement in matters of European security. On the one hand, the heavy reliance of Europe on the US as well as the benefits of the US involvement, have become evident, thus discrediting any previous discussions about European Strategic Autonomy. On the other hand, the need for such autonomy has also become as prominent as ever before, especially considering possible changes in American political leadership and/or geopolitical focus. While both perspectives are currently strong in the discourse, the need to find a balanced way forward is the major task for the EU.   

Any discussion about the concept of European Strategic Autonomy is closely related to Europe’s own defence capacities: in terms of both military coordination and arms production. Thus, the need for a European defence market, joint procurement, unified standards, and coordination is difficult to ignore. However, the practicalities of how to move forward on these matters will likely take a very long time to be elaborated, considering traditional national sensitivities and discrepancies on defence-related affairs, especially among the bigger member states. A more secure and reliable defence industry requires a long-term vision on the European level, followed by numerous policies that will allow for its implementation.  

Speakers also identified a series of challenges and controversies to address. Firstly, will the unprecedented European unity on security and defence matters persist or the war fatigue will eventually prevail and sow division among the top European decision-makers? Secondly, how should the EU find a balance between more reactive vs proactive approaches to peacebuilding? Thirdly, how will the future of EU-NATO cooperation look like, and will both parties manage to find approaches and policies that are complementary instead of being in competition? Finally, how ready is the European defence industry to support the creation of European Strategic Autonomy? 

This kick-off meeting has allowed for the initial discussions of policy priorities and outlining the key issues to be addressed in the coming months. We will soon follow up with further expert exchanges and publications – stay tuned!  

Check out our position paper in collaboration with Renew Europe Group, ‘Towards a European Defence in 2030’. It outlines the main elements of a real European defence union. 

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