Breaking the decades-old taboo: EU defence

Malta needs to come to terms with a new European Union and its place in it.

Since its establishment in 1952 of the predecessor of today’s European Union – the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC) – establishing greater cooperation on defence has always been one of the most coveted objectives of European integration. The proposal for a European Defence Community was rejected in 1954 by the French National Assembly, and despite greater cooperation having since been established, particularly following the Lisbon Treaty, a Defence Union has remained elusive.

However, the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed the EU’s international perspectives on many thorny issues, including enlargement, reforms, and defence. Indeed, in a speech at the European Investment Bank (EIB), European Council President Charles Michel stated in no unclear terms that the goal of the European Union should be a Defence Union. The EIB is also discussing whether to offer loans to boost the European defence industry, and there will always be a market if funds are available. As a testament to the EU’s drive for a Defence Union, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola was also unequivocal in an interview with Politico that the EU needs to invest in its defence, and that a defence union should be the ultimate objective. This was also echoed by the European Commission, which is said to be ready to appoint a Commissioner for Defence in the new European Commission.

A European Defence Union would complement NATO, as NATO is currently the guarantor for European security. All EU Member States – except for Malta, Ireland, and Austria – are NATO members after previously neutral countries Sweden and Finland changed their decades-old position.

In the academic world, the EU was described by scholars as a Normative Power. Ian Manners (2002) coined the term Normative Power Europe to describe the EU’s essence of power. He stated that the EU’s power emanated from its ability to spread its norms globally, as its power derives from its norms and not through the barrel of a gun. However, in an increasingly conflictual international order, where self-interest dominates states’ rationality and the invasion of Ukraine impinges on the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty as one of the foundations of international law, the EU feels constrained to act. The issue became more pronounced after Donald Trump stated that he would encourage Russia to attack NATO members if they fail to pay up for their defences, the famous 2% threshold. Therefore, the EU is finding itself increasingly between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the uncertainty of the US elections is sending shockwaves in EU circles, and on the other, the EU is ill-equipped to defend itself autonomously from the US.

If one had to follow the EU discourse, starting with the EU Global Strategy of 2016 and its concept of principled pragmatism to the Strategic Compass, the European Peace Facility and the recent declarations, there has been a transformation of EU discourse, moving away from the principles of normativity and embracing more contingent liberalism. If the EU establishes a Defence Union, the EU would be no different from any defence alliance. And the direction has been set. This is where the EU is heading.

What about Malta?

As a neutral country, we have to ask one simple question. In such an eventuality, where do we want to stand? Can we have the cake and eat it? Can we remain members of the EU and continue to benefit from its single market without being part of a Defence Union? What can we propose to solidify our position in the Treaties so that small member states are better protected in the decision-making process?

This is an important process that must be initiated if Malta is to be prepared for these future developments. We need to come to terms with a new European Union and our place in it. The issue will not be whether we want more defence or not. The scale must incorporate other elements such as market access, funding, and a host of other considerations which require a thorough exercise.

One thing is certain: the world and Europe are changing, and Malta cannot stop this process as the train has already left the station. More importantly, we cannot rest on our laurels and become complacent by relying on neutrality. It is not a blank cheque for security. The new warfare will not be done in trenches. In our case, Malta’s geographical location will not attract any occupiers as two centuries ago. However, in these new war games, Malta must have robust systems to ensure energy, food supply, and connectivity.

An internal assessment is long overdue, and decisions must be made accordingly.

Note: This article is not arguing for or against any position. It was written with the aim of triggering a debate on the need to be better prepared in such a conflictual world.

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