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Commission confirms the aim of new EU military R&D programme is to develop home-grown weapons

Research will support the modernisation and independence of Europe’s arms manufacturers, but the sensitive nature of the work means there will not be the usual oversight and scrutiny of the programme by experts or MEPs

EU Commission official Philippe Brunet
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The EU’s new military research pilot is fundamentally about developing Europe-made weapons, European Commission official, Philippe Brunet, director of defence in the industry directorate, told MEPs at a European Parliament defence hearing on Wednesday. 

EU funding will go to drone demonstrators and gadgets to help prepare “the soldier of the future,” Brunet said. “Should we seek to produce weapons in Europe or should we turn away from our industry and look to the US and places like India for our weapons? It is better for them to be produced in Europe. We have a mandate from EU governments [to do this].”

Brunet acknowledged that the pilot defence R&D programme, set to begin this year, will have to navigate “legal conundrums” due to restrictions on certain classified documents.

“It’s easy to see there are some sensitivities [involving military research]. The confidentiality of certain documents will mean we can’t use normal comitology procedures; we need special procedures,” he said.

In Brussels, “comitology” refers to the need to consult expert committees when implementing law.

Some files, which under normal circumstances would be put in front of experts, will instead be “member states-eyes-only documents”, said Denis Roger, European Defence Agency (EDA) Director of European synergies and innovation.

Defence ministries are expected to have the biggest say in choosing research topics for the pilot and also some input into the evaluation. 

Under questioning from MEPs, Roger said that while there will be secrecy over classified projects, the EDA, charged by the Commission with managing the pilot, would be held to scrutiny in the usual way.

“As soon as EDA receives budget, parliamentary control will apply. I would like to be very clear about that. Some member states were upset about this, but those are the rules,” said Roger.

The pilot will receive €25 million funding this year, with €65 million requested for 2018-2020. Officials hope the sum could eventually increase to €500 million a year between 2021 and 2027, the EU’s next budget cycle.

Roger said the new military pilot would lay the ground for an “internal defence market with competitive suppliers in Europe” and boost spending in an area which has seen investment decline by 30 per cent in real terms over the last decade.

“We are fragmented – we have lots of suppliers making the same things, which is cost-ineffective. We also have some under-capacity in terms of know-how, which leads to a dependency on third countries,” he said. 

The hearing saw a partisan debate that reflected the continent’s political divide on whether the EU should be taking on a bigger military role.

EU defence policy remains in the hands of European governments, rather than the EU executive, with the new pilot representing a step onto what Brunet called “terra incognita”, or unknown land.

Some MEPs applauded the new defence focus following terrorist attacks in Belgium, France and Germany last year, while others criticised the pilot for the involvement of industry and lack of transparency.

“I’m delighted we find ourselves here,” said French centre-right MEP Michael Gahler, who was part of the so-called “group of personalities” that advised the Commission on the pilot. 

Given the “outrageous comments made so far by President Trump” on the obsolescence of the NATO alliance, Europe needs to step up and protect itself, said Ana Gomes, a Portuguese centre-left MEP.

Trump has made it clear that shrinking European defence budgets have endangered the alliance’s viability. “If we look the other way we are doomed,” Gomes added.

Resistance

The Commission’s plans faced resistance from Sabine Lösing, a German far-left MEP who said, “I don’t think we can accept an industry-led programme”.

Universities may agree. Already, many are split on whether to allow their researchers to accept grants to make weapons.

“There was not a single representative of civil society or peace groups in the Commission’s group of personalities,” Lösing noted.

The advisory body included the CEOs of industry giants Airbus, Indra and BAE Systems, policymakers, think tank members and the president of Germany’s Fraunhofer research institutes.

“We’re going through a period in European history where we are on shaky ground,” said Bodil Valero, a Swedish MEP sitting with the Green group. “There would be many happy for us to walk away and let the EU collapse. So that’s why it is very important to work with transparency. When it comes to the EDA, our citizens don’t have access to [it] in a way that they would like,” she said.

Roger defended the transparency of his agency. “I do think we are very open. Go and look at our website, you’ll find press releases and regular reports.”

He added, “European public opinion is in favour of doing more on defence. The average European citizen would be happy about the EU doing more to protect him or her.”

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, Defence research