European Union

Last updated 4 December 2020

Quietly, with little attention from the media, the European Commission (civil service), governments and military industry have been organising. Although this has been going on for years, the pace has been intensifying recently and Brexit may accelerate it. The EU machinery is being adapted to assist military industry.  There is pressure for more money for military projects and fewer controls over transfers of equipment and technologies.

European External Action Service

The European External Action Service is responsible for implementing the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. It is headed by a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently Josep Borrell. He is also responsible for the European Defence Agency (EDA). This EDA seeks to improve the European Union’s military capabilities – a critical task in these challenging times. That the High Representative has these dual roles is a revealing insight into how the EU structure and Member States see the EU’s role in the world.

The EU and military industry

Historically, the EU did not fund military activities or research. However, years of persistent and discreet lobbying by the arms industry, with the support of several national governments, has changed this. In 2015 the EU Commissioner for Internal Market & Industry set-up an advisory ‘Group of Personalities’, more than half  of them industry representatives, to take charge of “helping the European Commission to shape” military research funding. In other words, the arms industry was advising the EU how it should subsidise the arms industry. It started with the concept of dual-use. The companies argued that EU funds should be used for civilian applications of dual-use research. In 2007 ‘security’ was included as an eligible research area in the main EU research programme. As many security companies are also active in the military sector, this gave many arms companies access to EU funding.

The European Defence Fund was launched by the European Commission in June 2017 to “boost Europe’s defence capabilities”. The Fund is made up of two main parts, the first of which was already under way. In December 2013,the European Parliament had agreed a €1.5million Pilot Project to begin direct military research funding, followed in December 2016 by a €90million European Commission initiated Preparatory Action covering 2017-19. The special status of Pilot Projects and Preparatory Actions enables the funding of new areas of work even when these are not allowed under the EU treaties. Its follow-up programme for 2021-2027 will see its budget increased to a minimum of €500million a year, and a proposed total of €4.1billion over 7 years.

The second financial package is meant to fund the development phase of military research and development through a European Defence Industrial Development Programme. This programme will channel €500 million from the EU budget to military industry in 2019-2020. Its follow-up programme for 2021-2027 would see its budget increased to a minimum of €1billion a year, and a proposed total of €8,9billion over 7 years.

Member States will decide the funding priorities: drones and autonomous systems, air-to-air refuelling capacity, satellite communication, cyber, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, autonomous access to space, Earth observation, and maritime security are currently suggested. The funds are additional to national military spending and will come from the EU budget, with Member States expected to complement this Fund with up to €2billion in 2019-2020, and up to €35billion in 2021-2027.

EU arms exports

EU countries vast amounts of weaponry every year. Each EU member state has its own export licensing system, but in 1998 a Code of Conduct on Arms Exports was adopted. Becoming a legally binding Common Position in 2008, it sets out eight criteria for the evaluation of export licence applications, including the human rights situation in the country of destination as well as its involvement in armed conflict and its economic situation.

While it might sound good in theory, in practice the Common Position leaves plenty of room for political interpretation, with Member State governments making arms sales decisions depending on their perceived economic, political and strategic interests. There is information about EU exports on the EU arms export licences browser.

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