The most important thing is that the topic of common defense is on the table, Mihkelson says, and that the understanding of the EU’s members in this area goes beyond the recent behavior of Russia as well as the question of U.S. president Donald Trump’s attitudes towards Europe’s security.
There are great differences not only in the equipment and capabilities of the European Union’s members, but also in policy and ideology. This has made it necessary to keep contributions to common defense efforts voluntary, even though the new PESCO framework (short for “Permanent Structured Cooperation”) set up for this is aiming at including as many member states as possible.
A common position in defense matters is particularly important to the Baltic states, which is one of the reasons their integration of defense efforts is ahead of other parts of the union.
The challenges are enormous, even at the practical level, as NATO’s 2016 Sabre Strike exercise showed, when the U.S. Armed Forces in Europe moved a lot of their equipment and personnel from Germany to the Baltic states and Poland. Then as now, defense policymakers are calling for a kind of “defense Schengen” that would make things easier.
Marko Mihkelson (independent), chairman of the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is one the Estonian parliament’s foremost experts both on foreign policy and defense. ERR News had the chance to talk to him at the interparliamentary conference on the EU’s common foreign and security policy, held in Tallinn on Friday and Saturday.
ERR News: There are plenty of legal, political and technical obstacles to defense cooperation. How are these being addressed?
Marko Mihkelson: Within Europe things are happening smoothly. In our region we’re better off at the moment, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, but perhaps other members haven’t seen it as necessary because there hasn’t been a practical need.
If there’s a greater need for exercises and to move units from one country to another, that will tell the politicians, okay, there’s a problem we have to solve.
The member states of the EU often disagree, right now some are more cautious when it comes to steps taken against Russia, for example. How much agreement on military operations is at all possible in the union?
I would that the recent history, specifically since 2014 and the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the decision of the EU member states to show strong solidarity and putting up sanctions against Russia and also upholding them for three years, that’s something that was not expected by many, especially perhaps also by Russia, used to finding the weakest link in the EU [and working on it].
Today we’ve made it further with these sanctions, and there is very little doubt that we shouldn’t change our position for instance until the Minsk Agreements are implemented. This is the common position and the common security policy of the EU towards Russia.
Of course there are different views how to tackle the current situation, and how to find a modus vivendi with Russia, because we understand that the Russia we have in our neighborhood will stay this way for many years, while of course the key understanding of most member states is that we can have meaningful dialogue with Russia if we play by the same rules.
The defense landscape of the EU is extremely fragmented, there is a lot of duplication, and plenty of policy differences from country to country. What will future integration of the EU’s armed forces have to look like?
This kind of enhanced cooperation in the fields of defense capability as well as defense interests is a key element in PESCO and in the discussions here. I would say that this is of course a very sensitive area, because there are a lot of national sovereign interests in play.
But yes, there is fragmentation, also fragmentation in terms of members’ commitment to allocating [funding] to defense. This is going to be a very interesting debate over the next few months, and one where Estonia as the current holder of the EU presidency has its own views, but we’ll see how we manage. This depends a lot on the German elections as well, of course, on the views of the bigger countries in terms of militaries and military interests.
One of the EU’s strengths has been harmonization through financial incentives. This is now being done for defense cooperation as well. At the same time, member states’ militaries don’t have the programs in place to absorb rapidly increasing defense budgets. Estonia has some experience in this area, having faced rapid growth also in terms of the defense budget in the past. What are the most important points here?
One is general commitment. Of course we understand perfectly that the gross domestic product varies from country to country, and that their armies’ capabilities are different, take Luxembourg for instance. Even during the Cold War they didn’t spend 2 percent GDP on their national defense. At the same time, what they have done and what has been very much appreciated is that they allocated some amount [of funding] to the development of cyberdefense in Estonia.
Perhaps this is a way also how other countries can cooperate in terms of building up capabilities that perhaps aren’t linked directly to their own national profile. This is also a very critical moment here: If we create a common platform for the EU’s defense, we shouldn’t create the kind of situation where politicians see that it’s done like in NATO, where every member pays for their participation in operations themselves, but one where they see that it’s either cheaper or somehow easier to find the funds at the EU level. This is actually a part of the discussions we’ve had here in Tallinn with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.
The most important thing here is that the topic is up. Two, three years ago, at the NATO parliamentary assembly the discussions we had were very similar, the understanding that we have to—and that was before Trump!—that we have to allocate more money to defense and of course use it more efficiently. That wasn’t taken seriously before.
But today the topic is up, and perhaps we can now focus on the deliverables that really matter.
As President of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor (SDE) pointed out in his opening remarks earlier, integrating again and again is of particular importance to the Baltic states. How are they going to continue investing in this kind of integration now?
This is something we take seriously, defense matters to us, and not only in terms of our national interest. Yes, the 2.2 percent [defense investment] are there and will stay, but international cooperation is equally important. We understand that we are much better off in terms of our security, our long-term security if we’re with our allies both in NATO and the EU.
NATO must very clearly remain a defensive alliance, with sort of simple goals, to defend the territories and the members that it has. The cooperation within the EU is an additional benefit for operations within NATO, but there are operations to be carried out that are in the interest of the EU, for example Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean.
Estonia is active there, and this is going to remain one of our priorities also after the end of the presidency.
Editor: Dario Cavegn