The Commission’s latest budget non-paper threatens to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals. It was put forward on Friday (20 February) in an attempt to bridge the growing differences among EU leaders over the bloc’s next seven-year budget.
The Commission included fresh cuts in the technical document while offering up some “goodies” for the “Friends of Cohesion”, the 17 countries that reject any cuts to cohesion funding. The executive’s non-paper contemplated a ceiling of 1.069% or 1.07% GNI.
While the new proposal included substantial cuts in the Horizon Europe research and innovation program (down to €80 billion), a reduced budget for the EU’s space programme, one of the other most affected areas would be the EU’s defence portfolio, where funds for military mobility, one of the Commission priorities, could take the biggest hit.
Throughout the negotiation process, the proposed funding for military mobility has dropped from €6.5 billion under the initial Commission proposal, to €2.5 billion under the Finnish presidency negotiating box, to €1.5 billion under Council president Charles Michel’s proposal, to potentially zero funding in the Commission’s latest technical document.
Some EU defence officials declined to assess the document at this stage of the negotiations, but some of them pointed out the discrepancy between the EU executive’s ambitious announcements of a “geopolitical Commission” and the effective budget offers on the table.
Echoing the views of French President Emmanuel Macron, MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s subcommittee for defence, Nathalie Loiseau (Renew), said on Thursday that the future EU budget is under threat of “falling short of expectations”.
“In an increasingly dangerous world in which alliances have become more volatile and competition more intense, we must give ourselves the means to strengthen European defence,” Loiseau wrote on Twitter.
While many have been surprised by the EU’s proposed cuts for space policy at a time when global powers invest heavily in the future new frontier, the most striking decision in the defence portfolio has been the zero budget for military mobility.
Meant to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises by reducing physical, legal and regulatory barriers, military mobility has so far been hailed as one of the EU’s flagship defence initiatives with few political disagreements across the bloc.
It has been one of the initial projects launched under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), leading some to hope it could eventually create a “Military Schengen” as it is inspired by the EU’s Schengen Area.
France is the most vocal proponent of more investment in the EU’s common defence and security, but it is probably not the only country displeased by the proposed cuts.
While the margins for migration and border management change only negligibly, the complete reduction of military mobility primarily affects Central and Eastern European member states.
Meanwhile, funds for issues important for the southern member states, such as French-brokered European Peace Facility, which could potentially be used to boost EU presence in Africa, have been slashed from initial €10,5 to €4,5, but still remain in the budget.
With their eyes on Russia, Central and Eastern European states have prioritised military mobility as a future guarantee for securing their Eastern flank.
“Within the EU, this gives an impression that security concerns of the southern member states are more important than those of the eastern members and raises questions in whose interest a “European Defence Union” might be built in the future,” Justyna Gotkowska, a researcher at the Warsaw-based Centre of Eastern Studies, told EURACTIV.
According to the researcher, within the diminished defence budget, there is clearly a bias for where the savings can be done.
“Since military mobility is one of the most substantial topics of EU-NATO cooperation, this will also have an impact on the perception of the relations between the two organisations,” Gotkowska added.
So far, military mobility has been seen as the silver bullet for EU-NATO cooperation, especially in recent years when the bloc presented it as complementary element between the two organisations.
“This (the budget cut for military mobility) is unfortunate from a political perspective. Slashing it entirely would therefore undermine pragmatic cooperation between the EU and the Alliance,” security expert Niklas Novaky told EURACTIV.
According to him, NATO exercises have in recent years highlighted serious legal and infrastructural challenges that still need to be tackled.
“This is problematic, especially for NATO, because the ability to move forces effectively and without problems via land, sea and air is key to the Alliance’s ability to maintain credible deterrence,” Novaky added.
Experts also believe the existing infrastructure barriers might resurface this spring, when around 37,000 soldiers take part in the military exercise “Defender 2020” for the transfer of troops to Poland and the Baltic states, in what security officials have called “the most extensive transfer of US soldiers to Europe in the past 25 years”.