In Brussels, no one can hear you scream. At least it feels like that if you’re a keen believer in a stronger European defense, frustrated by the EU’s lack of military punch or political will. Yet cynics should not be complacent. Jaded EU watchers can often wake up to find that the crisis-ridden union has suddenly acquired impressive new functions, with officials acting as if it was part of their grand design all along.

One such moment happened on April 1 in defense policy. Just as the EU seemed powerless to prevent the rise of an aggressive Russia, a series of new EU security plans began leaking to the Brussels foreign policy crowd. The ideas, collected in a 73-page paper co-authored by the European External Action Service and the European Commission’s enterprise directorate, are dynamite.

The document, titled Smarter Defense: A Public-Private Partnership for CSDP, sounds like a regular, low-key “nonpaper.” But it reveals a shocking shift by European mandarins in their increasingly desperate attempts to boost the union’s lackluster military capabilities.

The paper states:

The EU member states, the European External Action Service, and the European Commission welcome the pledges by leading European corporate entities to boost EU defense capabilities through targeted, high-volume financial contributions. . . . These contributions will enable the EU, within the period of its forthcoming budget, to build, train, integrate, and deploy its own supranational military task force.

In other words: since governments won’t buy the EU its own army, big business will. What nations seem incapable of offering will now be provided by a consortium of Europe’s capitalists, who are worried that EU political structures are unable to locate and defend the continent’s business interests around the world.

Smarter Defense (note the poke at NATO’s Smart Defense initiative) is a radical set of ideas, defined with unusual precision and seemingly approved in secret by all relevant players in the EU—except the European Parliament, because of its perceived affiliations with human rights NGOs.

The core of the new initiative will be a Friendship Projection Force (FPF), comprising up to 31 naval vessels. Each will carry the name “EU Security Ship” or EUSS. The first batch of ships will come from the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, originally earmarked for sale to Russia but now available as a corporate donation to the EU. They will be named EUSS Strasbourg and EUSS Heligoland.

Plans for additional ships, including a helicopter carrier and four German-built submarines, are at an “advanced stage,” according to EU officials. After a long, heated debate about where to put the EU flotilla’s naval base, the Ukraine crisis tilted the decision toward the historic former Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland, home of the anti-Communist Solidarność movement.

A second, smaller naval headquarters will be built in Malta to cover the union’s southern flank. It is rumored that the force may also be deployed to support the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to counter illegal immigration. Special forces units, tactical and strategic airlift, and command and control capabilities will also be part of the initiative.

The document does not reveal all the companies involved in the new scheme, but Germany’s Siemens, Spain’s Telefónica, Italy’s ENI, and Gaz de France seem to form the core of the consortium. They will function as “shareholders” of the new force, with no say over operational matters but some input into strategic discussions on individual countries and thematic priorities. (Although corporate sponsorship may be allowed on the sides of some vessels, if done tastefully.)

The deployment mechanism for FPF missions is likely to prove the most controversial aspect of the scheme. The force, which should be fully operational by early 2017, can be deployed by a newly formed European Council Security Board. This body will bring together the heads of government of those countries willing to match corporate donations with taxpayers’ money.

The EU’s military staff would run a privately financed command-and-control facility, built into the palace that currently hosts Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. A Corporate Oversight and Steering Team (COST), staffed by the shareholding companies, will have no formal right to vote on deployments. But it will be free to feed intelligence and cost-benefit analyses into the EU’s military planning structures. COST will also remind Eurocrats and top brass to stay within budget.

The EU paper reveals that officials have been mulling over plans for an FPF for years. The EU strategists in charge of the project have taken some cues from historic models such as the British and Dutch East India Companies, as well as the early commercial strategies of imperial Portugal and Spain. It is even rumored that a future EU aircraft carrier will be named Henry the Navigator.

Sources close to the deal stress that the switch to a commercial approach was necessary to finally get Germany behind the idea of a beefed-up European defense. They also claim that the idea was not so unusual within the broader European context. “Remember the Single European Act?” said one bureaucrat. “Chief executives practically wrote that. Now we are taking the logical next step in an area of EU policy that needs a boost. And it only took us thirty years to join the dots.”

Human rights activists and NGOs are deeply skeptical, however. “We are shocked,” exclaimed one exasperated, rainbow-flag-clad demonstrator. “The FPF is nothing more than a commercial Death Star. With this, the EU as a peace project is over. This is its new, morbid raison d’être.”

Think tankers and security analysts are keen to temper such concerns, believing that the new force will be “more Star Trek than Star Wars.” One Brussels-based analyst notes, “There’s no doubt that it is a deeply unconventional move. But look at Ukraine, look at moribund NATO, look at last year’s EU defense summit. Maybe we’ll get a better and stronger EU foreign policy if we make it a bit more about guns and butter, not just about values.”

 

Hugo Brady is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.