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Armaments: new opportunities, new challenges

01 October 2003

The debate on how to reform Europe's armaments sector has a long history. However, since the work of the Convention on the Future of Europe, discussions have entered into a new phase. Firstly, (most) member states have given up their principle hostility vis-à-vis EU involvement in armaments. The draft Constitutional Treaty (stipulating the creation of an Armaments, Research and Capabilities Agency), the Commission's Communication on a Defence Equipment Policy (announcing new initiatives on market and research issues) and the Thessaloniki Presidency Conclusions (deciding to establish an Agency as early as 2004) illustrate that there is now for the first time a fair chance of bringing armaments into the framework of the EU.
Secondly, the debate has gained a remarkable dynamic. Immediately after its Communication, the Commission started work on a preparatory action in the field of security-related research. At the same time, it has begun to prepare a Green Book on defence procurement law and to explore options for a defence industry monitoring service. In parallel, COREPER has established an ad hoc Preparation Group to develop, by the end of the Italian presidency, a basic concept for the Armaments, Research and Capabilities Agency.
These are positive developments, because they indicate a growing awareness of two things. First, member states cannot avoid going beyond traditional armaments cooperation schemes if they want to maintain a viable defence industrial base and equip their armed forces adequately. Second, the EU offers a broad range of policies and instruments for action in those areas where reforms are needed: procurement, research and market.
However, all this is by no means a guarantee for success. Reforms in a field as complex as armaments are always slow and cumbersome. Moreover, member states still diverge on key issues like procurement philosophy, industrial policy and arms exports. These divergences will be particularly difficult to overcome in an intergovernmental decision-making process with 25 governments and numerous services and administrations involved. If one adds to this the usual bureaucratic inertia and the traditional reluctance of national defence establishments to surrender prerogatives to European bodies, one gets an idea of the difficulties in reaching efficient, effective solutions.
The first test case will be the creation of the Armaments, Research and Capabilities Agency. The Ad hoc Preparation Group has made a promising start, but the more detailed discussions become, the more difficult it will be to maintain the current consensus. Moreover, the Agency set up in 2004 will probably be only a light structure with a limited mandate (coordination of existing elements like OCCAR, ECAP and WEAO). This makes sense if - but only if - it is the first step towards a more ambitious project.
It will be essential, therefore, to ensure that the statutes of the new Agency contain provisions for a progressive build-up in the future. If the Agency is to make its weight felt, it must cover the whole procurement cycle, contain innovative elements (like permanent working groups and an autonomous budget) and provide in particular an effective link between military research and the harmonisation of capability needs.
Moreover, one should not forget that even a `strong' Agency will not be able to solve by itself all the European armaments sector's problems. Serious reform should therefore include: (a) the establishment of a European defence equipment market, based on legally binding commitments and a single set of rules; (b) the development of a comprehensive research strategy that allows for full exploitation of synergies between civil, security and military research.
These objectives can only be achieved through the combined use of Community and CFSP instruments, i.e. in close cooperation between member states and the Commission. This means that both sides must overcome their mutual mistrust and engage in a common learning process.
This is easier said than done, since important mental barriers persist that are deeply rooted in different philosophies, cultures and institutional instincts. However, if common sense is to prevail, there is simply no alternative. Within the Commission, all relevant directorates must fully recognise the specificity of defence and develop a greater readiness to adopt their practices and instruments accordingly. Member states, in turn, should finally accept the Commission as a partner committed to a strong European industry and overcome their defensive attitude vis-à-vis the use of Community instruments in armaments.
Granted, politics and common sense do not necessarily coincide. However, in armaments, the discrepancy between the two must not become too wide. Otherwise, the price for Europe's industry, armed forces and, last but not least, taxpayers will become too high.