Alfred Sant | Malta should stay away from deeper European defence cooperation

Since 2016, an expanding core of proposals fleshing out a common security and defence policy entered the mainstream of EU discourse

The “imminent” departure of the UK from the European Union triggered initiatives to ramp up a common security and defence policy for Europe.

In the past the British had frowned on such ideas, arguing that European defence needed to remain embedded in NATO, period. Brexit gave EU defence proposals a new impetus.

France had always been at the forefront to promote a European defence policy, with Germany attentive but cool. As the Union enlarged to twenty eight members, some entrants from the east wanted to see a substantive posture of European solidarity emerge in their regard.
Whether justified or not, they feared Russian intentions.

Since 2016, an expanding core of proposals fleshing out a common security and defence policy entered the mainstream of EU discourse.
In addition to Brexit, what gave them political steam were the stand-off with Russia over its annexation of the Crimea, plus the arrival at the White House of Donald Trump and his cavalier treatment of the NATO connection.

The linkage with anti-terrorism cooperation on a European scale also gave traction to common security and defence proposals.


A framework for coordination of security and defence matters dubbed PESCO, formalised in December 2017, had been functioning for quite a while though its impact was less than game changing. However it promoted coordinated joint interventions outside the EU by member states, in exercises that ran mostly on a civilian basis while really being tied to military goals, as in sub-Saharan Africa. Arguments that such approaches needed to be consolidated and upgraded now became more insistent.

So, the Juncker Commission proceeded to develop a “new” strategy, starting from the competences inherent in the European single market project.  Over the years, defence research, production and procurement had continued to develop along national lines, making for uneconomic choices when member states bought military hardware.

By promoting a unified market for research and development in the first instance, cross border cooperation in development and purchasing matters would be promoted. The resulting economies of scale, besides making better sense of defence projects, would automatically help member states converge towards a common defence policy. To this end, the Commission set up a defence fund that should really take off in the twenties, intended to underwrite military R&D projects. For 2019-2020, 500 million euros were allocated, much of which went into funding for military drones.  

In parallel, further plans were laid out to deepen military strategic arrangements between EU defence ministries with a view to having a fully blown European defence policy in place by the mid-twenties. Unsurprisingly, the French remained at the forefront of these efforts. The Baltic states, Greece and Cyprus among others seemed to be just as interested...


However, beyond considering how the goals set for a security and defense policy are going to be achieved, we need to evaluate the rationale for a European defence and security policy. Palpably, a European rationale exists for a security policy that covers terrorism and border surveillance and control. The open internal borders that exist, given the free movement of people inside the EU as well as Shengen, make terrorism and irregular immigration two issues which can best be tackled on a European basis.

But what beyond them, justifies a stand-alone “European” dimension to defence?

The EU is made up of countries which are NATO members (the majority) and others which are neutral. The NATO connection obligates all its members to rally behind any member which is threatened by acts of war. Should a European defence policy have a similar commitment covering all EU member states? If the answer is no, should there be an arrangement by which those member states which favour a defence policy do so within a subset of EU institutions? This after all, is what happens with the eurozone and Shengen, among others. However, doing the same in such a sensitive area of policy as defence, risks enhancing the likelihood of future rifts, possibly to a greater extent than for other policy areas.

Moreover, the question remains as to how to define the interests that a European defence policy would stand for. Independently of the overlap with NATO, different member states will define their interests in terms of, naturally, their contingent concerns, rather than a European perspective. I met MEPs from the Baltic states whose focus was – Russia; from Greece and Cyprus whose focus was – Turkey; and from France whose focus was – central Africa. Such disparate perspectives do not make for a coherent security and defence policy over the long term. They might indeed increase the probability of an incoherent military doctrine to implement stated and implied objectives – which would compound the risks of conflict, not contain them.

Maltese perspective

From a Maltese perspective, my personal view is that the cornerstone should remain neutrality. This approach has to be carefully modulated to reflect the changed circumstances since the first time the island’s neutrality policy was framed. As such, I disagree that Malta should join in a unified EU security and defence policy, excepting where anti-terrorism and surveillance of EU frontiers are involved. It would be in our interests to have this policy segment managed in an autonomous manner nationally, but in close, participative fusion with other EU national authorities.

By contrast, we should stay away from moves intended to deepen cooperation and pan-European policy making on defence matters. We could do so without raising any objections to their establishment among the willing. Nor should we object to measures that seek to promote cooperation and convergence among providers of EU defence systems. True, we will get little to no benefits from this, since we make no significant inputs to the European defence industry. And our contribution to the EU budget would theoretically also be “financing” such an initiative.   

Though out of it, we should still monitor closely how any European security and defence policy shapes up. Quite likely, as new emergencies crop up, the unintended consequences of future developments will affect our security status in ways that we cannot now gauge precisely. So we need to be cautious. In this sector, quick decisions like the one taken in the past to tie us to the eurozone had best be seen as highly questionable.  For much more than in the eurozone narrative, a defence and security policy has the potential to open up scenarios that cannot be clearly foreseen.  

More in Europe 2019