WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, U.S. and European Union officials are preparing a new meeting later this month officials hope will tie the two global players closer together on defense.
The event is meant to open an additional trans-Atlantic channel on security matters and complement similar communications already happening via NATO, officials have said. Having such a forum specifically for the trade-minded European Union would energize the bloc’s defense ambitions and signal Washington’s link to the continent on yet another level, the thinking goes.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council think tank earlier this month, Charles Fries, a senior official at the EU diplomatic service, said the “dialogue on security and defense” would happen later in April in Brussels. The specifics end there, however, with spokespersons at the U.S. State and Defense departments declining to name who would represent their respective agencies until closer to the event.
European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the “dialogue” format in early December 2021, to happen sometime in early 2022. American diplomats so far have led the charge on the initiative, leaving open the question of who from the Pentagon would lend the affair the requisite defense credentials.
Since the announcement late last year, Russia’s war on Ukraine has fused Western nations, through NATO and the EU, on sanctions as well as humanitarian and military support to Kyiv. But the assault also has shown only the United States can ultimately muster the kinds of military deterrence measures in Europe taken seriously by Moscow.
That dynamic introduces the conundrum of how best to expose the European Union’s own capability-development schemes and military funding streams to American policy and business interests without smothering the bloc’s hope for autonomy.
Fries said six U.S. companies are already plugged into the nascent EU defense bureaucracy by way of their membership in industry consortia led by European companies. In addition, he said, the Pentagon is prominently involved in a Dutch-led project to ease the flow of troops and military equipment across European Union member nations.
“Of course it’s European taxpayer money,” Fries said. “So you can understand that when you have European taxpayer money it must be above all used for European companies and European products. But it’s an open instrument; I insist on that.”
Previously, officials on both sides of the Atlantic had wanted to finish negotiating a key document on their defense relationship, a so-called administrative arrangement between the U.S. Defense Department and the European Defence Agency, before holding the first “dialogue” meeting.
But as of earlier this month, negotiations were still ongoing, according to Molly Montgomery, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, who spoke alongside Fries at the Atlantic Council.
The pact would allow routine interactions between American and EU institutions on defense issues and open the door for U.S. defense contractors to participate in the bloc’s growing defense spending under certain conditions.
The specifics remain thorny, but finding common ground is considered paramount on both sides of the Atlantic.
“These are can be difficult topics, and they get into questions of competition, industrial bases that have often been challenging in the past,” Montgomery said. “Having a forum to discuss these issues and a commitment that we will work together as closely as possible, particularly at a time when it’s so important for us to get the maximum value that we can for that increase in defense spending that we’re seeing, it’s really crucial that we work together as constructively as possible.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.