On 3 May 2023, Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren will give a Europe Lecture in Maastricht at the invitation of Studio Europa Maastricht. Ahead of this event, we spoke to European defence policy expert Yf Reykers.
We need to be less ad hoc about crises and manage European defence with a clear long-term vision combined with diplomacy and development cooperation. According to Yf Reykers, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Maastricht University, more coordination is needed within the European Union’s defence strategy. He already considers the Netherlands’ recent pioneering role in bilateral defence cooperation a positive step forward.
Reykers’ research deals with European security and defence policy and, in particular, military operations and crisis response. According to him, the war in Ukraine once again highlights how dependent the European Union (EU) still is on the United States. ‘The bulk of arms deliveries still come from the Americans, and eastern European member states still want a US guarantee of protection’, he said. ‘The strategic autonomy that the EU talks about at the political level is far from a reality. However, we have to be prepared for the Americans to gradually withdraw as they become increasingly focused on other interests. The tensions between China and Taiwan, for example.’
‘The strategic autonomy that the EU talks about at the political level is far from a reality.’
The importance of NATO as a collective defence mechanism is indisputable for Reykers, but in addition, he stresses we need a strong European Union when it comes to crisis management. ‘That requires investment in a military headquarters, logistics, mobility and intelligence capacity. Moreover, effective EU crisis response is now hampered by the fact that military operations are limited by collective EU funding. Member states that contribute to military operations still bear most of the costs. Politically, this is obviously problematic for many countries.’
‘Additionally, defence policy is still a national competence which means that all 27 EU member states have to come together to do anything at all. This is complicated by the diversity of national interests and concerns. For eastern member states, the threat from Russia on the eastern border is the greatest, while southern member states are more concerned with migration. To become strategically autonomous, you would ideally have to transform the decision-making system of EU defence to the principle of qualified majority, but that will not happen any time soon.’
However, Reykers also sees positive developments within the EU as a result of the Ukraine crisis. ‘Across Europe, a unity and decisiveness has emerged that we did not see before. Now, serious work is being done on an autonomous European defence industry and almost all member states are boosting their defence budgets. The Netherlands, for example, wants to spend over 2% of gross domestic product on defence by 2024-25, compared to around 1.5% now. You can also see it in the increase in bilateral cooperation agreements, such as the recent Dutch integration of army combat brigades with those of Germany and the joint procurement of minehunters by the Belgian and Dutch navies. These are important steps that could set off a chain reaction in European defence cooperation. After all, if you invest jointly in certain industries, forge cooperation agreements and put troops under common command; it is very difficult to undo that again.’
According to Reykers, the Netherlands’ pioneering role in defence cooperation can set an example for the rest of the European Union. ‘There has been cooperation between EU member states for some time, for example between the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states; but putting certain capabilities under common command is really a striking and important step forward. It could be a tentative prelude to a common EU military headquarters, as there already is with NATO. I think the Netherlands can show that this is cost-effective and also fits with the historical responsibility of the EU founders.’
What Reykers’ research has led him to be critical of is whether such actions are coordinated enough. ‘We must ensure that we do not duplicate each other, but rather complement each other. National defence investments should therefore be coordinated within the EU, as well as between the EU and NATO.’ He also stresses how important a long-term vision is and that choices are not driven mainly by the threat of the moment. ‘In the past, certain choices have been made based on experiences with one crisis that then turned out not to work in another. One example: in 2003, the EU conducted an initial military operation in eastern Congo because the UN peacekeeping mission was unable to control the violence there. Partly because of this it was concluded that the EU could mount small, rapid interventions. In 2007, European battle groups of 1,500 soldiers were created based on this experience, but they have never been deployed since.’
‘We must ensure that we do not duplicate each other, but rather complement each other.’
The strong focus on Ukraine also has a downside which many underestimate, according to Reykers. Notably, that we risk losing focus on other problem and crisis zones. ‘For the period 2021 to 2027, the European Peace Facility has a budget of €5.7 billion intended for two pillars: partly funding European military operations and financing military support measures, such as training and arms supplies to countries outside the EU. That amount has been increased, but in the first two years more than 60% of the original budget went to support for Ukraine. We must be careful not to lose sight of other crisis areas. Look at the Sahel region, for instance, where several European countries have gradually withdrawn troops in recent years. Meanwhile, Russia is gaining influence there – under the radar; and instability continues to grow and violence is spreading to the region south of the Sahel, for example, to the Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin.’
Public awareness is also a key issue, according to Reykers. ‘It needs to be made much clearer what EU defence stands for, the usefulness of a strong European defence pillar within NATO and why we also still need national resources, budgets and investments.’ Reykers is convinced that the EU can make the difference in the long-term resolution of crises and conflicts because it has all the tools for an integrated approach. ‘Unlike NATO, the European Union can link its defence tasks with diplomacy and development cooperation. From these three D’s – defence, diplomacy and development – the EU can play a very strong role as crisis manager in areas outside the EU while NATO continues to collectively defend the EU’s external borders.’
Yf Reykers is Assistant Professor in International Relations (tenured) at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Maastricht University.
Reykers is also Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary Security Policy and co-Principal Investigator of the project “Ad hoc crisis response and international organisations (ADHOCISM)”, funded by the Research Council of Norway (2021-2025). His research is situated in the field of European defence policy.
Reykers mainly focuses on issues of decision-making around multinational military operations, rapid response capabilities and democratic control of defence.