Hannah Neumann, MEP “The EU Parliament is shut out of defence decisions”

Excerpts from an interview:

The EU was created as a peace project and was even awarded the Nobel peace prize. Do you agree with those who say that now it is time for the EU to become also a military power?

For the EU to be a peace project, it remains crucial to be a global actor for crisis and conflict prevention. However, we also need to be able to defend ourselves, and sometimes also to help those who need military support, because they defend the universal values that are constitutive for peace. So yes, sadly we will need to become a military power to safeguard peace. 

Shall such a defence structure result in a common European army?

I believe a European army is the right idea. It would ensure that European countries will never again wage war against each other, and besides, we would be saving lots of money. But to get there, we need to answer a few very concrete questions regarding the rules and regulations under which this army would be established and used. We would have to discuss the decision-making processes, control rights of the European Parliament, the mandates and conditions under which we send troops elsewhere, the provisions for collective security and also the ability to use nuclear weapons. My final assessment of whether I support a European Army or not depends on the answers to these crucial questions. I would, for example, never support a European Army that comes without extensive parliamentary control rights.  

But that means we need to negotiate deep changes of the European treaties which currently do not allow a common military.

Absolutely. When looking at the treaties, we are not ready. There is so far no genuine EU responsibility for foreign and security policy – this still lies with the member states. Indeed, it only makes sense to speak about considerable steps towards a European army if we also have decision-making power at the EU level. That is why I think that instead of having a long discussion about a potential European army – which will only materialise once member states are eventually ready to transfer sovereignty rights to the EU level – we should, as of now, rather improve what we have and fully implement what we are able to do within the framework of our current treaties.

Does that mean to become more independent from the US and establish sort of a common military capacity outside the NATO?

I do not want us to become independent from our allies, because if we stand together and pursue the same goals, we are stronger, as we can see now in the conflict with Russia. However, the case of former US president Donald Trump has shown that we cannot be sure whether we can count on the US, in any case. Trump even called into question whether we could rely on NATO in case of a Russian aggression against us. Therefore, we have to make sure in the medium term that we would be able to defend ourselves and solve crises in our immediate neighbourhood alone, if necessary.

The German government has now dedicated 100 billion Euros for the modernization of the Bundeswehr. Would it not make more sense to put this money in the construction of the needed European military in the first place?

Everyone in EU politics, including the French and the Poles, are very happy that the Germans finally invest in their military, because they know: The stronger the Germans are, the stronger the European military capabilities become. Nevertheless, it is urgently necessary that all member states which increase defence spending now assess what the European Union as a whole actually needs to improve its defence: Are we missing tanks? Or planes? Or satellites? Afterwards, we can agree on a division of labour, and procure and purchase with a coordinated approach. In this way, we could save many billions of Euros by making the producers compete to provide such technologies to EU member states as a whole instead of them playing the member states off against each other and raising prices, as it used to happen in the past. Therefore, we should make an “EU shopping list” rather than 27 national ones. As long as we do not even agree on these obvious steps, which must be taken immediately, discussions about treaty changes are not worth the effort.

The historian Adam Tooze thinks that there is no chance to create an EU army, not least because the Poles would never trust such an undertaking with the Germans. To create instead a semi-autonomous “European pillar of the NATO” would be the more realistic option. Do you agree?

The problem with this “European pillar inside NATO” is: We have several EU member states that are no members of NATO. For me it is clear: If Russia or any other country was to attack Finland or Sweden, we would defend these countries as if they were NATO members. The same goes for Ireland or Austria. That is why our security infrastructure has to be organized in coordination with our NATO allies, and at the same time be linked with and based on the EU and its institutions.

Provided we get some sort of a European defence structure: How shall this be governed? As long as every decision needs to be taken unanimously, how can this work, while military decisions often need to be taken in hours or a day, but not in a month …

This is the discussion we need. Do we want to transfer decision-making powers and authorities to the EU level? Or, alternatively, should it be the goal to build a structure that allows us to work closer together in ad hoc coalitions, while decision-making remains national? If member states opt for the latter, we should not whitewash this move and trick ourselves with terms such as “strategic autonomy”. Until now, I have not heard a clear definition of what this actually means or how it shall be made to work. We have to credit the French for being the only ones who pushed the debate about a European foreign and defence policy in the past. But far too often, they have come up with beautiful language and concepts but then jeopardized concrete steps forward – everything that would lead to more permanent EU structures, such as the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity. This force initially was supposed to be a standing capacity and now, once more, shall only be an ad hoc facility. At least we now are discussing the Strategic Compass. Maybe the Russian invasion in Ukraine makes everyone realise that down the line, we might have to defend the EU, and not every country its own borders. Therefore, we need European structures and not national ad hoc coalitions. 

What we have is an ambitious EU funded research programme for the European arms industry, the EU defence fund and its predecessors. Here we have found that most of the money goes to the biggest five companies of the sector in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Does this fit to the declared aim of the respective programmes?

The purpose of these programmes is to distribute the money amongst all member states and also have smaller companies benefit. But the defence sector is very concentrated and a few big companies have a lot of influence. As for the EDF, implementation has only recently started. We must carefully scrutinize if the EDF is just a programme to subsidize companies with big lobby powers that know how to work the rather non-transparent funding system – or if it is really used to foster more competition. But I am pessimistic: The arms lobby representing the big companies is very strong in Brussels. We could track in the past how they dictated entire paragraphs of the EDF regulation. Those who influenced the regulation in such a way now receive most of the funds. At the same time, the lobby for diversity and transparency is weak, Parliament remains shut out, so most of this happens in secrecy behind closed doors. We will continue to put pressure regarding these issues in the European Parliament, but as of now, some member states and the arms industry do everything possible to safeguard their privileges.

The first of these defense research programmes, the EDIDP, was explicitly designed in favour of SMEs, but the big companies won almost all contracts. Isn’t this worth a parliamentarian inquiry?

Yes, absolutely. This is part of a diffusion of responsibilities, bypassing parliaments and the public discourse, impeding scrutiny and making lots of money. In this way, we will not improve EU defense, but rather only the shareholder value of big arms companies. The same problem of limiting parliamentary control happens with the European Peace Facility …

… the common fund of the EU member states used to fund arms exports to crisis countries …

… even my colleagues from the German Bundestag tell me: “This is a European programme, you have to look into this!” But we do not have any right of scrutiny at European level, because the EPF is an intergovernmental fund and not part of the EU budget. This is the case with many instruments targeting the defense sector. 

How come that all these hot issues are not really discussed and voted in your Parliament?

This is the problem. We, the European Parliament, are deliberately shut out of these decisions. It is obvious: If we want EU defence, we need a European debate about it and the place to have this debate is the European Parliament. Regarding the EDF, we already see the consequences of the current lack of scrutiny: Member states are lobbying internally for their narrow national interests. An overall strategy in the common European interest, common decisions on which kind of capabilities we need as an EU, on how to spend the money: all of this is missing. Because of this, ridiculous debates take place behind closed doors, where, for example, Italy and Spain lobby for funding smaller warships for the Mediterranean, the French for funding bigger ones for the Indo-Pacific, and the Poles against a commonly funded ship project.

But it is money from the EU budget for which the treaty foresees full parliamentarian scrutiny.

This is correct. However, the arms industry lobbied hard many parliamentarians, in particular my conservative and liberal colleagues. Lobbyists warned that, if new EU funds, such as the EDF, come with too many strings attached, the industry might not want this money at all. This lobby campaign worked: Parliament, with a small majority of conservatives and liberals (EPP, ECR and Renew) waived Parliament’s rights to scrutinize decisions in this area. This is outrageous! If, as a regular citizen, you organize a cross-border school exchange using EU money, you have to do an enormous amount of paper work to have those funds granted to you: every detail will be checked. On the other hand, the defense industry gets billions of euros and we as parliamentarians only have the option to either block the entire programme or do nothing at all.

Let us be clear: the EDF is strengthening EU research and development capacities. The EU gets involved in an entirely new policy area, and this involvement can lead to the production of lethal and destructive technologies, which raises serious ethical and security questions. That is why we would need an extra level of parliamentary control! 

What then can you do to get it back under control?

I can ask questions, insist on answers and stand my ground, and, in this way, foster public discourse about these issues. In the current situation, given that member states and the European Commission want to increase the fund’s budget, we can also relaunch the debate about parliamentary involvement in the selection of defence projects that will be funded. I very much hope that the German government sticks to its promise stated in the coalition agreement to give the right to scrutinize those expenses back to the European Parliament, to make sure that Parliament gets involved through delegated acts. In my opinion, this is not only a matter of principle. I want us Europeans to cooperate on defence, but the money has to be spent in the right way and these decisions need to be transparent and democratic.