WASHINGTON — The last couple of years have seen a clear effort by the European Union to bolster regional defense and to encourage member states to function based on a playbook that encourages investment and common strategy. It’s similar to NATO’s own efforts in collective defense, which has inspired some tension between the two organizations.

Defense News spoke to Pedro Serrano, the deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, during a June visit to Washington.

You have pointed to foreign interference, including disinformation, as a threat to European defense. What is the European Union doing in response?

We have strategic communication teams looking at information coming from specific areas, including Eastern Europe and Russia, and then looking over at what kind of news is being published in our own media and trying to detect disinformation and fake news, and also to counter those by also issuing and correcting things that need to be corrected.

We also have created a rapid alert system with contact points in all member states, where member states inform others of any sort of disinformation or fake news that they are aware of or victim of, to raise the level of awareness.

This is also part of a broader approach to hybrid. We have also created a hybrid fusion center, which collects information from the intelligence sources but also open sources and any kind of additional information that can come through other EU channels, including diplomatic channels, where we try to detect any kind of actions of a hybrid nature, including disinformation that may be geared at the European Union.

We’ve put together quite a collection of means to be more aware and more resilient in terms of disinformation, and collectively engaging all our 28 member states.

So it is a matter of countering the information to the public, ensuring accurate information is circulated.

Yes. We’re also engaging with major internet providers and making them aware, and making them work with us, actually, to identify disinformation activities and to help promote a more critical approach to whatever content lies on the web.

European leaders pose during the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation defense and security initiative at the European Council on Dec. 14, 2017, in Brussels, Belgium. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
European leaders pose during the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation defense and security initiative at the European Council on Dec. 14, 2017, in Brussels, Belgium. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Similar to disinformation, Russia and others are operating just below what can be deemed acts of war. How are you going about countering some of those cyber tactics?

We have raised the standards that our member states have to request for internet service providers in order to ensure a greater resilience within the cyber information systems. We have a European Network Information Security Agency, and we are giving it greater powers to set standards, and also [to define] corrective measures required in helping member states raise the security of their information systems.

We are developing cyber response teams in order to assist member states that are under cyberattack, and a cyber response diplomatic toolbox, which helps member states coordinate actions when they are victims of a cyberattack, and different kind of reactions that can take place — this can go from diplomatic to martial statements, attribution, to even sanctions.

We have established a specific sanctions regime against cyberattacks and versus organizations that we have identified as involved in cyberattack. This is is an area where we have done quite a lot of work and hopefully increased our resilience and our capacity to respond to cyberattacks.

Where do the Permanent Structured Cooperation projects stand?

It’s not really about PESCO projects; PESCO is also about commitments — commitments to invest more, to invest more jointly, to deploy more jointly. And by the way, if you’re not responding to the commitments, you can even be [asked] to leave PESCO because PESCO does not include all member states, only those member states that have made a specific commitment to invest more in joint projects in defense and to defend more jointly together and put more resources at the service of the European Union in crisis-management operations. Member states who are not fulfilling their requirements can be asked to leave PESCO.

We are seeing that different mechanisms that we have put together have been already integrated into the planning of member states in defense, so that’s good progress as well there. But there are other issues on which much more focus is required; the projects themselves are still — many of them — in a very early stage, even some of them at a stage of major definition. And so what is required is implementation of the projects that have been agreed to — there are 34 of them. We have also agreed to a pause in identification of new projects in 2020. The second batch of projects have been more promising in identifying efforts that can be a good catalyst for broader defense cooperation.

What we certainly want is to ensure that projects that are viable go forward, and if there are projects that aren’t viable, we just remove them from the list. It was important to launch projects as we were launching PESCO to make it appear that this was not just a bureaucratic exercise. But some of [the initial projects] were less mature, and so what we want to ensure is that we do a clean-up exercise, and if there are projects that are not advancing or cannot advance for whatever reason, that we remove them from the list.

The U.S. sent a letter expressing fear of duplication between the EU and NATO, particularly for PESCO investments. How is the EU ensuring that member countries work in a direction that supports NATO objectives?

All projects that are identified within PESCO have to be identified as priorities within what we call the Capability Development Plan, which is the plan that member states have developed to precisely identify their priorities. This plan takes fully into account the NATO defense planning process and has been discussed with NATO colleagues as well, which means that all the projects we identify for capability development are projects that serve NATO goals as well. And it is one of the criteria for the selection of the projects themselves.

So there is no duplication at all, and there’s full transparency with NATO on what we’re doing. I know that we have some different understandings with the U.S. We received a letter, we replied to that letter and I’ve been discussing this as well in the last couple of days in Washington, and we have agreed to meet at more a technical level so that any misunderstandings are clarified.

There’s been talk in Washington of America’s interest in having access to some of these projects. Do you see that as part of the vision?

It’s an EU program, but there are openings for participation of non-EU entities in those programs or the participation of non-EU member states in the projects, and that’s what we’re currently finalizing in the European Union.

And again on these issues, there are a few questions where I think our American partners have not fully understood what we’re trying to do and maybe misrepresented some of the goals that we’re trying to achieve. In any case, all that we’re doing serves perfectly well the trans-Atlantic relationship and the NATO alliance; that is very clear, and that is our intent and this is what we have also clearly developed in terms of process. I think whatever other misunderstandings may exist between the European Union and the U.S. in this regard can be clarified through additional discussions, and we are very keen to have those.

The U.S. has released information about efforts and funds to help European nations move away from Soviet-era technology and systems. Is that disruptive for what the EU is trying to accomplish in terms of having a united strategy? Is the U.S. pushing its own manufacturers on Europe too hard?

I haven't received special information on it, so I really can't comment on it.

Are there efforts within the EU to try to do something similar in terms of supporting European allies that are still reliant on some of those Soviet technologies?

What we're trying to do is help member states develop a jointly stronger cooperation in developing capabilities. So one could say it goes in the same direction.

Our basic effort has been and will continue to be how we can mobilize resources within the European Union and member states in order to support world efforts in terms of international security, and we do believe that the United States is a key partner of the European Union on these matters. We are keen to avoid misunderstandings and keen also to have the United States understand what is it that we’re doing when it is not that clear on the U.S. side. We’re very eager to continue engaging with United States on these matters.

But we want to send as a message that the European Union is doing more in security and defense and will continue to do more in security and defense, and we believe that this is to the benefit of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

I read that the United Nations and the EU signed a framework on counterterrorism. What does that entail, and do you envision that transitioning into military investment?

What we want is to benefit from work that the United Nations is doing, identifying fragilities in terms of countries it is assessing, in order for us to be able to support better capability development in countries that are also bright-eyed in terms of a counterterrorism perspective. We’re also working with the U.N. on de-radicalization and prevention of radicalization programs, and having the best cooperation that’s possible in how we are supporting efforts taken on these matters.