France holds the EU presidency for the next six months, and European defence is one of the government’s top priorities, although the subject is less discussed in the media. French President Emmanuel Macron poses as the spearhead of a ‘strong’ and united Europe, but in practice it is mainly a matter of promoting French strategic and industrial interests. Far from the current concerns of citizens…

By Laëtitia Sédou – ENAAT project officer,  Tony Fortin – researcher at l’Observatoire des armements and Karina Knight Spencer – Stop Fuelling War chair

Since January 1, France has held the presidency of the European Union for a period of six months.
European defence is one of the government’s top priorities for this presidency. In particular, the executive has imposed on its ‘partners’ the requirement of concluding the discussions on the Strategic Compass project in March 2022. Yet this text proposes a major evolution towards a future Defence Union by defining a common strategic vision for the 27. Such a document should therefore be the result of calm negotiations, not of a timetable imposed for internal political reasons. Behind the pro-European discourse, is it not a question of making national, or even partisan, interests prevail, or to put it more bluntly, of using the EU as a showcase and source of subsidies for French military power? The most striking example is that of the European Defence Fund (EDF)1, for which France has promoted its own interests since its conception.

There have been ‘well-placed’ Frenchmen within the European Commission from the very beginnings of this Fund, such as Michel Barnier or Fabrice Comptour, ‘defence’ advisors to its initiators (Jean-Claude Juncker and Elżbieta Bieńkowska), as well as at the intermediate levels of the department responsible. The commissioner currently in charge of the space and military industry is none other than the Frenchman Thierry Breton, a former minister close to Emmanuel Macron, at the head of a super-portfolio for Internal Markets, Industry and Space, imposed by France. His appointment in 2019 had raised criticism in terms of potential conflict of interest, as a former CEO OF ATOS.

As a result, France is now by far the largest beneficiary of the Defence Fund’s pilot programs: it is participating in 149 projects with its military industry capturing 26% of the allocated budget that has been made public, far ahead of the three other military powers of the Union (Italy, Spain and Germany receive between 13 and 10% of the budget). We can better understand the pressure from Paris to maintain the Fund’s budget at its initial level of €13 billion during the 2020 budget negotiations2… The EDF covers the entire spectrum of armaments (missiles, land vehicles, drones…), but certain trends are emerging: It gives a particular emphasis to satellite surveillance research projects (such as Nemos or Padic), a prerequisite for monitoring and investing more in the seas; it supports research on naval anti-mine drones, promoted by Naval Group and Thales, or the marine version of the future Patroller drone proposed by Safran…

Beyond the industrial spin-offs, including in the longer term a boost to arms exports, such research and development projects also serve the geopolitical interests of France, one of the powers with the largest maritime surface area due to its colonial possessions.
Innovations such as those mentioned above would represent valuable gains for future French military capabilities, for example for the planned construction of 20 ships equipped with maritime drones in a context of militarization of the Indian Ocean, against the backdrop of offshore gas exploitation3 and the desire to control shipping.
The EU’s support for this French regional strategy is not just in terms of capabilities but also in political terms, notably through European military missions such as Atalanta4 in the Gulf of Aden, where France and Total also have energy interests, or more recently in Mozambique under Portuguese and French leadership. A new European “coordinated maritime presence” should also be established in the Indo-Pacific region in 2022, an area of particular interest to France, while several countries would prefer Europe to focus on its own neighbourhood. These European projects risk aggravating the war in Mozambique and Tanzania as well as destabilizing Madagascar, against a backdrop of hydrocarbon exploitation.

It is to be feared that these examples of Franco-French interests pushed to the European level are only the tip of the iceberg, as European defence policy escapes transparency and democratic debate: the European Parliament has only a consultative role on the EU’s external missions, for example, and does not even intervene in the discussions on the future Strategic Compass. Even the European Defence Fund, although financed by the Community budget, largely escapes the usual parliamentary control; an exemption passed by a majority of MEPs in a decision-making process largely dominated by French elected officials. The concrete implications of European military projects should be seriously debated, and citizens should be consulted on the increasing militarization of a Union initially founded on peace.

1 The EDF, including its pilot programmes, is devoting €8.5 billion to industrial R&D for the development of advanced armaments over a decade (2017 – 2027).
2 While Finland held the Presidency of the EU it proposed reducing the EDF to €6 billion, but Florence Parly lobbied to keep the budget at 13 billion: “we need more, that’s why France, Germany, Spain and Italy have written to the High Representative and other Defence Ministers of the EU: we need an ambitious EDF, and now more than ever”.
3 Total announced the signing of new contracts in Mozambiquem South Africa, Namibia and Kenya.
4 Or “EUNAVFOR Somalia” in the jargon of the EU.