When less is more

Europe needs to amalgamate the defense industry, if it wants an EU army

Mehr Geld für Verteidigungsministerin von der Leyen
The Europeans are coming. Source: DPA

The future comes by itself. But progress only comes through us. That was the motto of a past party congress. Basically the idea is you have to want it! That’s politics.

For example, anybody faced with the ongoing deterioration in trans-Atlantic relations, who now wants “more Europe” needs to plan to make progress in this area. They need to propagate it and fight for it. The idea of “more Europe” when it comes to defense is surprisingly popular today with many voters in the 28-member bloc. Between 50 and 75 percent of those surveyed on the topic liked the idea.

In their policy platform, the Social Democrats here in Germany even talk about the long-term aim of a “European army,” instead of many smaller national militaries. Even in the coalition agreement that forms the current German government, the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats all explicitly recognize an “army of Europe.” The official global strategy of the European Union in 2016 also strives for “strategic autonomy.” So the will is there.

What counts now is action. That is why the many small multi-nation projects being arranged everywhere right now are correct and important: Things like the Framework Nation Concept within NATO, with 20 European states and 16 projects, and the Permanent Structured Cooperation, within the EU, involving 25 countries and 17 projects. There is also the joint German-French weapons program. Everywhere the groundwork for closer military cooperation is being laid.

No willingess to consolidate arms industry?

But there is still one important thing that appears to have been left out of this apparent European awakening. When it comes to defense technology, everything is the same as it ever was: The majority of the European weapons industry is nationalized and fragmented, only occasionally organized into consortiums for multinational programs, and only on a case-by-case basis.

Experience has taught us that this antagonistic kind of industrial cooperation doesn’t bring faster delivery times, lower prices or even guarantee quality, to put it mildly. That’s not good for expeditious improvement in Europe’s military preparedness.

What is missing above all today is politicians’ willingness to tackle this topic. Those who want “more Europe” in defense, should not be timid about consciously supporting industrial policies that will establish Europeans as leaders in military technology — in the same way that Airbus achieved this in civil aviation. A unified policy on weapons exports is also part of that.

For Germany, such industrial policies could begin on the national level. It doesn’t make financial sense to have four different shipyards build different parts of the navy’s corvettes. The fact that German panzers have to be put together by two leading German companies doesn’t make anything simple, faster or cheaper.

But the problem is this: Who in Germany wants to be responsible, politically speaking, for the consolidation of our arms industry? In 2000, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried national consolidation. Senior members of the German navy and military agreed with Mr. Schröder’s goals.

When your flight is delayed. Source: DPA

But apart from some changes in how submarines are built, we have not come much further since then. In fact, there are even more companies competing for military tenders in some sectors. So everyone gets a little bit of the defense budget. The burden that capable companies put on the budget is weighty. After all, they can rely on the government not allow them go empty handed for long. Jobs, expertise and local factories are on the line. There’s a logic to that — but there are also costs. Whether the government wants to or not, whether they are doing it consciously or not, they are actually practicing a kind of industrial politics in this sector — and it is one that is all about maintaining the status quo.

If Europe really is serious about joint defense, then we need an efficient, robust, supranational infrastructure that sets new standards. We don’t need three different kinds of European fighter jet prototypes, 20 types of tanks and five varieties of surface-to-air missiles. That doesn’t guarantee full operational military capability. Less would be more.

Traditionally the German Ministry of Defense likes to keep a careful distance between itself and its main suppliers. They remain intensely neutral and disinterested, pretending that their commissioning decisions won’t have a fundamental impact on the combat readiness, and the everyday lives, of German soldiers. That is whether a new warship arrives a year past deadline, or whether a flight into the theatre of operations is days late because we have to rely for the US Air Force to help.

Doing nothing also has consequences — it would be better to try something new. The German government could, for instance, invite neighbors to a European defense summit and add the subject of military integration and industrial policies in support of that, to the agenda. It’s clear that nothing is going to happen by itself. You have to want it.

This commentary was originally printed in Handelsblatt’s sister publication, WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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