Reinvigorated by the 2016 EU Global Strategy, defense has risen to the top of the European Union’s priorities. A series of bold initiatives were recently launched to boost defense cooperation through improved joint planning and prioritization, development, procurement, and operation of capabilities among member states. The Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) are all central pieces of a new political and institutional puzzle in the making, which, if correctly assembled, can provide EU nations with better and more interoperable defense capabilities.

Inventing new tools alone will not suffice. Equally important will be how they are used and implemented. In other words: even though CARD, PESCO and EDF are separate initiatives spearheaded by different actors (member states for the first two, the European Commission for the latter), they must be used together in a coherent and coordinated manner. Ultimately, they must lead to collaborative projects and outputs that genuinely respond to member states’ commonly identified capability priorities. The ambition cannot be to cooperate just for the sake of cooperation, but to fill existing critical defense capability gaps in Europe. It is of the utmost importance to ensure smooth cooperation between all stakeholders, especially at such a time when the cards in the European defense realm are redistributed.

Outlook 2018: Perspectives from global thought leaders

This is where the European Defence Agency, or EDA, comes into play. As the secretariat for both CARD and PESCO as well as the central operator in EU-funded defense activities, like the EDF, the EDA will leverage its expertise, knowledge and networks to ensure coherence, efficiency and a steady focus on capability priorities.

The CARD’s trial run is currently underway. Its ambition is to foster a gradual synchronization and mutual adaptation of member states’ national defense planning cycles and capability development practices in the hope this will lead to more systematic defense cooperation in Europe. For CARD to provide real, added value, it’s crucial to have the most updated and detailed information possible collected from national defense ministries on defense plans, including spending. The responsibility for the information gathering lies in the EDA as the CARD secretariat with operational inputs from the EU Military Staff. Once collected, the information will be assessed by the EDA in a comprehensive CARD analysis report to be discussed with member states, followed by a final report to ministers. Lessons learned from the trial run will be incorporated into the first full CARD cycle scheduled to take place from 2019 to 2020.

Directly linked to CARD is PESCO. As of November, 23 EU member states notified their intention to participate on Nov. 13, and more may join, which is an unprecedented and historic step toward European defense. Here, too, the EDA is to act as a secretariat with a supporting role at various levels. First, in close cooperation with the EU Military Staff, it will serve as a platform where PESCO nations can identify, assess and consolidate possible projects; the agency can notably provide a view on contemplated projects’ impacts on the capability landscape.

Second, the EDA will support the practical PESCO project implementation. This role is particularly well-suited to the agency, as the two-layer approach envisaged for PESCO is similar to the project governance structure in the EDA: Member states have full control of the project content, with the agency serving participating nations as a facilitator and service provider. Thirdly, the EDA will play a leading role in the annual assessment of PESCO nations’ contributions and respect of the binding commitments undertaken.

A third cornerstone of the future of European defense is the EDF. Closely intertwined with CARD and PESCO, the practical implementation of the fund also relies to a large extent on the EDA, both in the research and capability domains. The research window of the fund will use the lessons learned from the ongoing Pilot Project and the Preparatory Action on Defence Research, both managed and implemented by the EDA (with a European Commission mandate). Regarding the fund’s capability window, the EDA is already called to play a key, upstream role in programming the work plan of the European Defence Industrial Development Programme. The role will involve strong synergies with the agency’s prioritization support role in PESCO and CARD, closing the circle.

The EDA is indispensable to carrying forward all three initiatives (CARD, PESCO and EDF). This was recognized by EU defense ministers at their meeting on Nov. 13 when they explicitly encouraged the agency “to further support the coherent development of the European capability landscape, considering also the link between CARD, PESCO and the European Defence Fund.” In their 2018 guidelines for the EDA, adopted on the same day, ministers also supported “the reinforcement of the Agency as the intergovernmental platform of choice within the EU institutional framework, supporting Member States in capability development serving the EU level of ambition.”

At a time when the institutional framework for EU defense cooperation is being reshaped, such recognition by ministers is encouraging, as it confirms the central role and place the agency must have in European defense in the future. We are committed and ready to take up this challenge.

Jorge Domec became the European Defence Agency’s chief executive in February 2015. He previously served as an ambassador of Spain to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and to the Philippines. He has held several positions within the Spanish ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence, as well as at NATO.

More In Outlook