Europe’s growing military power —Your questions answered

1. Does the EU have a common defence policy?

Not really. The EU’s Lisbon Treaty defines a framework for a common security and defence policy. But filling this with actual unity is a very different challenge. Since member states have different interests and perceptions of threats, speaking as one on defence has been mostly impossible.

Most EU countries are members of Nato, and Europe relies heavily on the US for its collective defence. But the EU leadership has pushed for a common defence policy for years. The European Union External Action Service (EEAS) was created in 2011 to carry out whatever common policy the countries could commit to on foreign affairs and security. In his 2016 State of the Union address, former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called for a common defence fund, a “European headquarters “and a “common military force” to “complement Nato”.

In March 2022, member states agreed on the text of a so-called Strategic Compass, an action plan to strengthen the EU’s security and defence policy by 2030. The Compass has been under development for two years. Its text was sharpened after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “The more hostile security environment requires us to make a quantum leap forward and increase our capacity and willingness to act, strengthen our resilience, and invest more and better in our defence capabilities,” it says. But the underlying question is this: can the EU have a real common defence policy without first becoming a United States of Europe?

Promotional video of the Strategic Compass released by EAAS on 21 March 2022

2. What are the structures in the EU that finance military spending?

Since 2017, the EU has established several structures to help fund research and the development of military technology. This has dramatically increased EU budgets for defence.

Public financing of defence research has been happening through entities and organisations with acronyms like PADR (Preparatory Action on Defence Research), EDIDP (European Defence Industrial Development Programme), and EDF (European Defence Fund).

PADR was the first programme equipped with only €90 million, it was followed by EDIDP with €500 million. The current EDF programme already includes funding worth €7.9 billion.

Since March 2021, these programmes have been joined by an intergovernmental fund called the European Peace Facility with a budget of €5.7 billion until 2027. The EPF aims to beef-up the EU’s ability to “prevent conflicts, build peace and strengthen international security” outside of the EU. Its methods include providing money to help armies in other countries, and financing of common costs for military operations that EU states participate in.

3. What are the geopolitical reasons for a bigger military muscle in Europe?

The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 was a watershed moment. So was Brexit. With the UK out, one political opponent to developing a common European defence policy was gone. The increase in the number of refugees arriving in 2015-16 was seen by many EU governments as a security threat, helping to promote the defence agenda. The victory of Donald Trump in the US elections in 2016 was another shock to European governments. After Trump’s election, then German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that “Europe must take its fate into its own hands”. The fear that the US might not remain a partner to totally rely on strengthened German and French calls for more European “strategic autonomy”.

4. What has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed in terms of militarisation?

The war in Ukraine will force EU countries to further increase spending on defence. The most dramatic change was announced in Germany, which will spend an additional €100 billion on defence — twice the annual defence budget — and increase the budget to above 2 per cent of GDP from 2024 onwards. This two per cent has been a demand from the US government to all its Nato allies since 2014. In Germany’s case, the change is a sharp departure from decades of modest spending on the military. Although the Bundeswehr (Germany’s armed forces) has seen its budgets grow in recent years, the German military lacks weapon systems as well as combat boots and underwear.

For the first time, the EU is now sending weapons to a country at war: Ukraine. First, the EU agreed to reserve €500 million to support member states’ arms exports to Ukraine in late February, then with another €500 million. This happens within the new European Peace Facility, (see more in Question 2).

5. How are European states involved in the military industry?

States are the biggest owners of the major European arms-producing companies such as Airbus (France, Germany and Spain), Thales (France), Indra Sistemas (Spain), Leonardo (Italy).

These four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Spain — are also the biggest beneficiaries of EU funding for research and development in defence. The project that has received the most EU funding so far is the Eurodrone, a joint project between these four states. Before it was selected as a priority project within the EDF (see Question 2), the drone was a failed national project in France, and the subject of a never-concluded negotiation between France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

6. Who are Europe’s biggest arms exporters?

In the timeframe analysed by IE, Germany is the export leader among EU countries, with exports totalling €49.4 billion in eight years (2013-2020). It is directly followed by France with €48.7 billion in eight years. Number three and four according to IE’s data analysis are Spain (€30 billion) and Italy (€22 billion). 

Where did IE get these numbers from? There is a European overview for arms exports in the COARM database. However, the COARM data has a large blind spot: it lacks the export numbers from Germany, Cyprus, Greece, Belgium, as well as non-member UK. The German numbers were extracted by IE from a national report that is public and shared annually with the German Parliament. Countries report the value of the export licenses they have issued. However, licenses are merely the official authorisations for possible exports. So this data does not indicate which volume was actually exported.

Despite a weapons embargo towards Russia in place since 2014, Russia continued to buy EU weapons until at least 2020. Ten member states exported €346 million worth of military equipment, according to public data analysed by Investigate Europe. The top exporter was France.

 7. Did the EU as a political body ever deploy armies or finance armed conflict?

The EU has one type of common military force, called EU battle groups. Each consists of 1,500 troops from several countries, which rotate on stand-by and are supposed to be ready for deployment to crisis areas inside or outside the EU, within five to 10 days. However, the battle groups have never been sent anywhere. Member states have not agreed on when and what to use them for.

But individual governments have sent troops to military operations that are partly financed by the EU, now under the European Peace Facility (see Question 2).

A prime example of such financing is Mali. The EU has had a military training mission — EUTM Mali — in the country since 2013. Since 2020, there is also been the Takuba Task force — a joint operation supported by 11 European states including the UK and Norway — to bolster French military troops in Mali and to “counter terrorism”. These missions had questionable success (see Question 8). 

In 2021, under the Peace Facility, the EU  provided “non-lethal” military equipment to several other conflict zones. In February 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it also, for the first time, officially sent weapons to a country at war — Ukraine.

8. Has the EU military operation in Mali been a failure?

It seems so. The purpose of the operations and assistance has been to help stabilise the state by helping the Malian army beat jihadist insurgents. It has also been important for the EU to help contain migration to Europe through Mali.

These efforts have not had a lasting stabilising effect, either on the state nor on Malian communities.

Soumaila Diawara, Malian writer and political refugee in Italy, talked with Investigate Europe about his experience of persecution and about Europe’s involvement in Africa | Photo: Private

Critics say the EU has been so focused on short-term goals of border closings and counter-terror actions that, instead of protecting people, it fights enemies and protects the state in ways that  deepen the problems. The EU trainers teach soldiers about human rights, but there are no systems to follow-up or monitor any of the trainees.

Mali has had two military coups since 2020, carried out by a colonel trained by Europeans. Several hundred thousand people have been displaced, fleeing drought or caught between the army and insurgent groups. 7.5 million people need help to survive.

The relationship between the Malian and French governments has deteriorated badly. Western intelligence claims that the Malian military has begun to cooperate with the Wagner Group, mercenaries considered close to the Russian military. In February 2022, France declared it would pull out its Barkhane force, and also the allies said they will withdraw the Takuba force (see Question 7). The Malian government told them to go immediately. This withdrawal also put the future of the EU Training Mission in danger. On March 21, 2022, the EU’s foreign policy chief declared it had stopped combat training for soldiers in Mali until the government could guarantee that the trainees would not work with mercenaries from Russia.

9. Are there mechanisms of democratic control of EU money for military purposes?

Not nearly enough, according to critics. One of them is Hannah Neumann, a German Green member of the European Parliament. With a small majority, the European Parliament waived its rights to scrutinise decisions concerning the new EU funds, such as the European Defence Fund (see Question 2). This happened after heavy industry lobbying, according to Neumann. The only thing the parliamentarians could do about the billions of euros of public money that is now allocated to the military industry, would be to block the entire annual budget of the EU

The EU treaties don’t allow the use of EU money for military purposes. Instead, the European Peace Facility (see Question 2) is organised as an ‘off-budget instrument’. It means that it is controlled by member states’ top officials in the European Council, paid for by member states’ contributions, and managed by experts in the EEAS, the foreign and security policy arm of the EU.

10. Is a ‘European army’ a probable scenario? 

The EU treaties do not allow for a common EU army. That is the responsibility of the individual nation state. The EU line is that everything that happens in this field, happens in close collaboration with US-dominated Nato, where 21 of the 27 EU states are members.

European troops meet at the NATO training in eastern Norway | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

An EU army as such is not an issue. Investigate Europe asked all 27 member states if they are in favour of a common EU army. Of the 13 who replied (France was not among them), only Germany explicitly expressed support for this idea as a “long-term objective”. Neutral Austria responded that it is not an issue, but added that it wants the EU to be “able to carry out the entire spectrum of crisis management tasks independently”. There are the small and never used EU battle groups (see Question 7). EU’s new Strategic Compass (see Question 1) declares that it will establish a 5,000 strong EU Rapid Deployment Capacity for different types of crises, conduct regular live exercises on land and at sea, and improve military mobility. Some analysts are calling for a European “pillar” within Nato. Others note that not everybody is equally eager to distance themselves from the Americans, and see realism only in an EU force of the most willing countries in Nato. Some point out that Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, Finland and Sweden are in the EU, but not in Nato, and this means that an EU military infrastructure must be based on the EU and its institutions.

But an army under EU command would mean national governments would have to give up much more sovereignty. Meanwhile, the EU continues to show contradictory foreign policy strategies.

Greece and Turkey have a decades-long diplomatic conflict over the sovereignty of Cyprus and some islands in the Aegean Sea. This “cold war” is responsible for a high-tension situation that helps explain Greece’s high defence budget, even during its years of economic crisis. Both Greece and Turkey are Nato countries, and Greece is an EU member state.  But France is selling weapons to Greece, while Germany is a top supplier of military equipment to Turkey. The EU arms exports policy in general is undercut by national interests and is full of loopholes.

11. Who has been profiting so far from bolstering the EU’s defence structures?

The European military policy has been designed primarily to financially support the expansion of the European military industry. The five big companies (Airbus, Leonardo, Thales, Dassault Aviation and Indra Sistemas) that receive the lion’s share of the public funds are based in, and owned by, just a few European states: France, Germany, Italy and Spain. These huge arms producers are very much intertwined with governments and even with competitors. They are also partly owned by the same American funds that also own shares of their US competitors. Altogether, this creates a market concentration in the hands of a few industry giants, which, as experts point out, is a competition problem.

Read full data analysis here.