Picture credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The ongoing fiasco of European defence

Starry-eyed talk of continental cooperation obscures the grim reality of competing interests

European defence and the transformation of the EU into a full-fledged geopolitical player — these are the buzzwords constantly being repeated in Brussels. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have been told that nothing will remain the same and that hard power will become a priority.

When confronted with geopolitical threats, however, it is not European solidarity that intensifies, but rather the logic of sovereign interests. The Italian government has exercised a veto against the French company Safran, a measure previously applied only to Chinese or Russian entities. The French aerospace company is in the process of acquiring Collins Aerospace, which owns Italy’s Microtecnica. After consulting with Berlin, Meloni decided to oppose the deal, citing concerns for national interest.

What exactly was the reason behind the Italian-German veto? In Berlin and Rome concerns arose over Safran potentially halting the supply of Microtecnica-produced technology for the Eurofighter, due to its involvement in the Rafale project, a French fighter jet from Dassault. However, this argument seems fragile. Collins Aerospace, which owns Microtecnica, is a key partner of Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35 and it never gave rise to similar concerns. Furthermore, a company within the Safran group is a subcontractor for the Eurofighter, and so far, there have been no problems.

The issue, however, runs deeper, beyond the recent clash of Italian government and French defence company. Does the concept of Europe de la Défense, as the French term it, the cornerstone of strategic autonomy, stand any chance of success? 


With the Maastricht Treaty, a new pillar of integration has emerged: security. Since the 90s, debates around this subject led to the creation of additional bodies such as the Political and Security Committee, the Military Committee of the European Union, and, finally, in 2004, the European Defense Agency, tasked with enhancing defence capabilities of member states.

However, these initiatives have not arrested the rapid decline of European defence. The post-Cold War atmosphere led to the severe neglect of European armed forces, while the great financial crisis and austerity gutted military budgets. For instance, between 1990 and 2020, the number of main battle tanks decreased by 85 per cent. But the problems are even more profound than a superficial analysis of data suggests. When considering the combat readiness of European armies, not just their nominal strength, we encounter findings like those presented by the German Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces in 2018: only 39 per cent of Leopard tanks were operational due to a lack of spare parts, and just half of the Eurofighter jets were ready for immediate deployment. Naval combat capabilities have also significantly deteriorated; fleets are not only the smallest in decades but are continually ageing and shrinking — drifting, to steal a phrase from one expert, “into the abyss.”

Modern combat systems require highly trained personnel, yet European armies struggle with recruitment. Between 1990 and 2020, the number of military professionals in Europe fell by 57 per cent. After Brexit, the EU also faced a substantial decline in intelligence and reconnaissance assets, as the UK accounted for half of the unmanned surveillance vehicles and nearly 40 per cent of early warning aircraft. The lack of adequate capabilities in the Old Continent not only makes strategic autonomy a quixotic dream but also renders Europe incapable of fulfilling the territorial defence responsibilities incumbent upon it under NATO.

One of the recurring themes in the strategic autonomy debate is the concept of a European army. This idea first emerged in the 1950s with the European Defence Community, but was rejected by the French parliament due to fears of Germany’s remilitarisation.

In 2020, the idea of a European army resurfaced when a group of German MPs from the SPD prepared a report advocating for a “courageous step toward a European army.” The German Social Democrats envision these European forces under the authority of the European Commission, with oversight by the European Parliament. Beneath the haze of political fantasies, however, stark realities emerge: since 2005, “battle groups” of 1,500 soldiers each have been created, with the intention to respond on behalf of the EU in the event of crises. Yet, they have never been deployed due to the absence of unanimous agreement among member states. The few European missions, such as those in the Sahel, have stemmed not from EU initiatives, but from coalitions formed on an ad hoc basis. In addition to the lack of political will, operational challenges are often underestimated. Consider: while the US or Russian armies use a single type of tank, member states use 17 different types. The diversity in weapons and equipment makes it difficult for Europeans to create a unified military-strategic approach that meets their needs.

The hurdles of building a common defence industrial base are most evident in the Franco-German partnership, established by the 2019 Aix-la-Chapelle Treaty as a stepping stone towards strategic autonomy. A notable recent example involves the European missile shield. When chancellor Olaf Scholz chose to collaborate with the US and Israel without consulting president Macron, Paris was understandably surprised: Berlin disregarded without warning the joint Italian-French project. Natalia Pouzyreff, MP from Macron’s party and a member of the parliamentary defense committee, characterised this move as “aggressive, contemptuous, and hostile.”

The shield represents just another fiasco of “Europe of defence” in a series that includes the Maritime Airborne Warfare System (MAWS) project. Neither side appears willing to assume responsibility for formally cancelling the program. However, the Germans have sent a clear signal by opting for American aircraft instead of continuing with MAWS.

The situation is similar to that of the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), a new tank, which is intended to be complemented by drones and communication systems. Initially, the project was to be jointly developed by the French company Nexter and the German KMW. However, under pressure from the Bundestag, where industry lobbies campaigned vigorously, another German partner, Rheinmetall, was added. This has led to a somewhat contradictory situation, as Rheinmetall is now competing with Nexter to produce the tank’s cannon. The very concept of a common tank for countries with such divergent strategic priorities seems like a misunderstanding; the French seek a light tank suitable for environments like North Africa, whereas the Germans need a heavy tank adapted to European conditions. The MGCS has been stalled for six years, and members of Scholz’s party are now calling for its cancellation. It looks like their wishes have been heard, as the German press is reporting that Berlin will work with Sweden, Italy and Spain on the successor to the Leopard 2.

The Future Combat Air System must also be considered as a project driven more by political motives rather than by sound military calculation. This joint venture, aiming at developing a new fighter jet among other things, met with significant resistance in the Bundestag. MPs believed it disproportionately benefited French industry and predicated their approval on the transfer of technology to German firms.

Dassault, which is taking part in the project, is also the manufacturer of the Rafale fighter jet. Previously, the company declined to collaborate on the Eurofighter, chose to go it alone and created an aircraft that has outsold the Typhoon by a factor of two. Its clientele forms a constellation of non-aligned states, including India, Indonesia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco. As Dassault CEO Eric Trappier explains, “Geopolitics favors France, because a country that doesn’t want to buy from either the Americans or the Russians has a high-value French option to consider.”

Meanwhile, Berlin is pushing for EU-wide harmonisation of arms sales, which could result in the French arms industry being cut off from its important markets. As with German opposition to nuclear power, it is difficult to discern where the ideological moralism ends and the brutal struggle for interest begins.

German analyst Claudia Major accurately summed up French-German cooperation on armaments: “Meetings have taken place, officials have exchanged pleasantries, and joint declarations have been produced – but what are the results?”

The former is Eurocentric, whereas the latter is still attempting to play a global role beyond its means

In addition to the challenges of forming a European army and the fragmentation and tensions within the European defence industry, a third issue boils down to “strategic cacophony.” European capitals vary in their assessments of the threats facing the continent. Some emphasise the eastern flank, while others view the south as more critical. This discord is further exacerbated by differences such as those between Germany and France. The former is Eurocentric, whereas the latter is still attempting to play a global role beyond its means.

Where is the US in all of that? Although the concept of strategic autonomy seems to make Washington nervous, American experts tend to have a very low opinion of European agency. One analyst stated bluntly: the whole debate about European defence is simply a debate about the US involvement and nothing else.

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