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Call for defence fund to be major part of next EU research programme

Brexit is an opportunity to push for more coordinated defence R&D investment by the remaining 27 member states, Ana Gomes MEP tells Science|Business

Ana Gomes, Portuguese MEP
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A beefed-up defence R&D fund should be a prominent addition to the EU’s next research and innovation programme, according to member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ana Gomes. “We need to seriously invest in new military R&D,” she said. “I think because of the times we live in people understand that much, much better.”

Gomes, who sits on the Parliament's security and defence subcommittee, thinks a British exit from the EU will make it easier for countries to push for increased spending on joint research and equipment.

“I hate to see Brexit – I campaigned against it – but as the Chinese say, every crisis is an opportunity,” she said. Although the UK is one of Europe’s biggest defence spenders, the country is long ambivalent to EU-led defence plans.

“They participated in some EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions when their national interests were in line. But it was à la carte. The European Defence Agency will tell you, the British were the ones blocking new proposals,” said Gomes.

With the UK heading for the door, and a newly-assertive Russia, many feel the time is right for the EU to play a more active role on the global defence stage.

Voices in Brussels have been heard calling for a push to broaden European defense and security cooperation. Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, who announced plans to increase defence R&D spending in Parliament last month, foresees "a fully fledge defence research programme in the future, and a complete change of mindset at European level."

“National governments are spending taxpayer money lousily when it comes to military R&D. I want a more rational spending on defence. Not each country [with] its own model of tank or automatic weapons,” Gomes said. “We can’t buy second-hand stuff off the shelves from the Americans either. We need to build an industry.”

This sentiment will be well received in the US, where pressure on Europe to spend more on defence has been steadily rising. Both Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, and President Barack Obama, have said European countries are failing to invest enough.

“The role of Germany, which is taking a lead, is pretty important – they were always very reluctant in the past,” said Gomes. The country has tread softly in military affairs since World War II.

Europe as a whole cut military spending with the end of the Cold War, feeling the threat from Russia was declining.

Compounding this, austerity programmes have drastically cut defence budgets since 2008. “When countries are dramatically constrained, the first things to go are capacities in security and defence,” Gomes noted.

EU national spending on defence research is currently less than €8 billion per year, with almost all of this carried out in France, the UK and Germany.

European spending on R&D in defence is a fraction of the US R&D investment, which is projected to reach €67 billion next year.

Gomes did not suggest a figure for how much should be spent on defence R&D. However, a recent study argues that, “European defence research is coming close to an agonising point of no return” and recommends that the EU should spend between €500 million and €3.3 billion per year on defence R&D.

If current trends are not reversed soon, in 15 years Europe, “Will be no more than a mere customer of the US defence industry,” the report says.

It has not been confirmed whether the EU’s new defence programme will be self-standing or run under Horizon 2020’s successor, as Gomes would prefer.  

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Related subjects: Defence, R&D funding policy, Horizon 2020, Horizon 2020 budget, FP9

Research Strategies The next Framework Programme
In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.