In the past five years, a wide array of European Union (EU) policy initiatives and institutional developments have given European defense new momentum. The goals have been to foster an innovative and competitive European defense technological and industrial base, to reduce capability development bottlenecks and dependencies in critical technologies, and to boost the EU’s strategic autonomy in defense.
Among such efforts, a few have been a true step forward. In 2017, the European Commission launched the European Defence Fund (EDF), an initiative to support homegrown and collaborative defense research and development under the EU budget. The EDF builds on the work of its precursor programs, the Preparatory Action for Defence Research and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme. The EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the area of security and defense, an integration effort driven by its member states, now numbers sixty joint capability development projects. Of particular note is the new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS), which will lead the commission’s work in the defense industry and space sectors. Many of these initiatives are geared toward the ambitious goals of creating a single European defense market and consolidating the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base.
So far, however, little attention has been given to the democratic accountability of these initiatives. EU institutions, member states, and European defense industrial actors have started working together to reassess funding priorities, streamline policy and industrial processes, and design EU-led security and defense research and development programs and projects. Yet during the negotiations over the EDF, various nongovernmental organizations and members of the European Parliament (EP) noted that the EU might not be providing enough oversight of the funding for the research and development of armament projects within the European defense industry. The lack of a common interpretation on arms exports rules across the union, and limited substantial mechanisms to monitor the export to third countries of military equipment developed with EDF funding, are areas of especial concern.
Recent high-level speeches about capability development in critical technology areas have focused on overarching concepts such as “European strategic autonomy” and “technological sovereignty.” This rhetoric has been shaped by strong links among a handful of key EU institutions, member states, European defense industrial players, lobbying groups, and organized defense expert bodies. Such EU defense technological and industrial policy activism has been setting the priorities for the ongoing European defense integration process. Yet this internal activism often happens in an environment of secrecy, characterized by confidentiality procedures, technological and technocratic opacity, closed-door meetings, and the absence of strong democratic governance mechanisms, as well as by little political and public accountability. Certainly, the EU’s security and defense policies remain tough areas for parliamentary scrutiny and democratic oversight. The EU’s policymaking institutional machinery has been finely tuned to mediate power; keep processes and procedures as technical and bureaucratic as possible; and, when it comes to security and defense, create package deals for certain defense industrial interests and a handful of member states.
Efforts to design a single European defense market along with EU-led defense industrial initiatives should, however, go hand in hand with a deeper discussion of how to guarantee their democratic accountability. This approach requires more than empowering the EP. National parliaments still have a crucial role to play at the heart of these institutional and policy transformations. The EU’s defense policy area has always been an intergovernmental affair under the political jurisdiction of member states. This new momentum in the EU’s defense integration process should also serve as a window of opportunity for strengthening the role of national parliaments in scrutinizing EU defense policy, as well as for enhancing interparliamentary cooperation. On the latter point, this might offer a pragmatic solution to move from the current practice of ad hoc exchanges of information and knowledge between national legislative bodies into a more structured approach and integrated culture of cooperation. Without systematic coordination and cooperation between national parliaments and with the EP, there is a risk that European defense integration will continue to be an obscure and opaque executive-dominated process, at best subject to ad hoc democratic oversight.
The Role of National Parliaments in EU Defense
In its 2020 annual report on the implementation of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EP stressed “the need to develop ever-closer cooperation on CSDP matters with national parliaments in order to ensure reinforced accountability, transparency and scrutiny.” Despite the EP’s “institutional coming of age,” its role in scrutinizing CSDP integration efforts has remained limited.
The CSDP is an intergovernmental decisionmaking forum, in which EU member states are the main players. When the Treaty of Lisbon, also known as the Treaty on European Union, entered into force in 2009, it set the overall framework for today’s CSDP, clarified its institutional aspects, and strengthened, to a certain degree, the role of the EP in this policy area. Nevertheless, member states, through the European Council and the Council of the European Union, continue to make the ultimate decisions relating to the CSDP. The greater part of these decisions must be unanimous, with some marked exceptions concerning the European Defence Agency and PESCO, to which majority voting applies.
The Treaty of Lisbon did not provide further guidance for improved scrutiny of an intergovernmental policy field such as that of the CSDP. The EP continues to lack the formal security and defense powers that are the prerogative of certain national parliaments. Within the EU’s institutional landscape, the EP’s role as a security and defense actor has been limited. Conversely, the CSDP policy field has been evolving rapidly since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, both politically and institutionally, and more recently as the EU has developed a more comprehensive CSDP toolbox. Both the EDF and DG DEFIS put forward innovative changes and redrew previously inflexible intergovernmental territorial borders in a policy area where supranational dynamics have been kept at bay. The commission’s increased powers in the European defense market and on industrial-related issues have raised questions about transparency and how decisions are reached.
Whereas defense policy innovations and supranational consolidation are advancing fast, insufficient public debate has been dedicated to the EP’s role in this policy area. Yet it is also unrealistic to place all the emphasis on the role of the EP as the sole guarantor of democratic oversight. Even though member state executives have had their policy autonomy curtailed as a result of the EU integration process, they still remain the central actors at the EU’s foreign policy, security, and defense bargaining table. In this light, national parliaments also have a role to play in guaranteeing oversight of their national governments. However, to strengthen national parliamentary oversight of CSDP affairs, national parliaments will have to overcome three main obstacles.
First, it has been widely documented and discussed how national parliaments across the EU vary in their authority when it comes to overseeing CSDP matters—and security and defense policies at large. This variation goes well beyond their constitutional decisionmaking powers. For instance, not all national parliaments have dedicated defense committees or European affairs committees. Neither do all parliaments have access to classified information or the right to question military personnel or defense ministry officials. Such differences lead to a situation in which oversight of CSDP affairs is in many countries predominantly government business, rather than parliamentary business. As a result, many parliaments are heavily dependent on information provided to them by the executive. Moreover, the crosscutting nature of many recent CSDP initiatives means that their work often falls within the remit of not only the parliamentary defense committees but also those committees dealing with European or foreign affairs. As a result, the diffusion of responsibility and problems of coordination within national parliaments is as complicating a factor as that of the variations in oversight powers between national parliaments.
Second, there is ample evidence that even if members of parliament (MPs) have the formal authority and institutional capacity to oversee CSDP affairs, that does not necessarily imply that MPs will also play their role as watchdog to the fullest. Majority-opposition dynamics and party discipline are well-known obstacles to true legislative oversight. Electoral calculations also tend to hinder parliaments from engaging in strategic foresight and long-term planning, which would be vital to the future of the Strategic Compass process and EU defense integration. Furthermore, MPs’ interest in the CSDP has long been low, a phenomenon that can (partly) be explained by the low domestic salience of CSDP affairs. As a result, parliamentary oversight of CSDP initiatives today mostly depends on a few champion MPs who are willing to go the extra mile to provide it, incentivized either by strong ideological convictions or by their personal or electoral linkages with defense-industrial players. One key example of this type of action can be seen in the EP, where the Greens/European Free Alliance successfully managed to ban the funding of lethal autonomous weapons systems, so-called killer robots under the EDF. Another instance can be found in the lobbying channels of the Kangaroo Group, which includes representatives from academia, business, the defense industry, and the European Parliament, Commission, and Council.
Third, EU defense technological and industrial initiatives are often highly complex bureaucratic and expert-driven dossiers. They require considerable technical, financial, military, and political know-how, and are mostly concentrated in the hands of industrial players and larger member states with strong national defense industrial bases. Moreover, the commission’s activism in defense procurement has led to the increased regulation of competitive tenders. MPs may not have the necessary time and expertise to meaningfully engage in these highly technical, legally complex dossiers. In many national parliaments, MPs operate with limited support staff, often without parliamentary in-house research services. For that matter, many parliaments do not necessarily have the means to attract this expertise externally, for instance by commissioning studies.
When it comes to the CSDP in general, and the EDF and European defense capability development planning and priorities in particular, significant capacity and expertise gaps affect national parliaments’ abilities to engage fully with the technical aspects. As a result, today’s legislative oversight of the CSDP is scattershot at best.
Strengthening Parliamentary Oversight
If the ambition is to create a single European defense market that is subject to thorough and diligent democratic oversight—as it should be—one much-needed point of discussion is how to credibly empower and sufficiently incentivize members of parliament, both at the national and European level.
First and foremost, any attempts to empower parliaments in their oversight capacity of recent defense market and industrial integration efforts should start with a critical evaluation of their sources of information. One way forward might involve the diversification of information provisions, beyond the input received from their national executives or European defense industrial actors—for instance, by more systematically engaging in interparliamentary information exchange. Doing so would possibly mitigate executive-legislative information asymmetries at the national level and curb the risk of partial or misinformation about potentially contentious dossiers such as major defense procurement decisions or initiatives. For instance, IPEX, the interparliamentary platform for exchange of EU information between the EP and the EU national parliaments, contains an important database of documents from the EU institutions and parliamentary documents uploaded by the national parliaments themselves. It also provides a calendar of interparliamentary meetings and conferences, as well as information about legislative debates in the EP and national parliaments. Although IPEX has much utility as a capacity-building and informative exchange, it nonetheless is only a database. IPEX was created in 2000 as the result of a recommendation made by the Conference of the Speakers of the European Union Parliaments in Rome. Its purpose was to act as one of the major pillars of interparliamentary communication on EU affairs and support other venues of interparliamentary cooperation. Yet even though this platform has been in operation for more than twenty years, the practice of coordination on EU security and defense affairs between national parliaments remains rather loose, which highlights the fact that existing procedures of and tools for cooperation are either insufficient or remain unused.
What is more, access to information without the expertise to interpret that information adds little to MPs’ oversight capacity or their power to weigh in on decisionmaking. In order to truly empower parliaments in overseeing defense affairs, MPs will need the tools to strengthen the expertise available to them. Particularly in situations where parliamentary in-house expertise is unavailable, MPs tend to rely heavily on party research services, or look for external sources of expertise. For instance, research on Belgium’s procurement of new fighter jets in 2018 illustrated that in the absence of parliamentary research services (such as those available in Germany, France, or Sweden), party-political capacities and political networks become essential tools if national MPs want to meaningfully engage in oversight and decisionmaking. To do so, however, MPs must be willing to make the extra effort to invest in such networks. In addition, the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation network, a community of parliamentary knowledge established in 1977, is a useful but perhaps too little known information exchange resource, whereby support can be provided to those parliaments with less in-house expertise.
Yet empowerment in itself is not enough to strengthen the democratic accountability of European defense policy. Strong formal powers, considerable institutional capacity, ample information, and available expertise do not explicitly guarantee diligent legislative oversight. Recent research on the EDF has also shown that there are difficulties and limitations when it comes to interparliamentary cooperation, as well as frequent disagreement and competitive dynamics between the EP and national parliaments. As mentioned earlier, CSDP affairs have not attracted much parliamentary interest in the past; and when these issues become subject to politicization, they tend to lead to polarization among MPs and a stronger executive grip on these dossiers, all at the expense of democratic oversight. Moreover, some national MPs from more Atlanticist-oriented EU member states have rather an interest in the United States and NATO-led defense efforts, which often translates into a veto point or less interest when it comes to more EU action on defense matters. Ultimately, new ways need to be found to incentivize MPs both in national legislatures and in the EP to act as watchdogs and engage in longer-term strategic planning debates.
Growing Interparliamentary Cooperation: Toward Strengthening Mechanisms
Parliamentary scrutiny in the EU governance of security and defense deserves more attention. Yet, for both the EP and many national parliaments, it is a challenge to hold EU institutions and member states’ executives accountable and ensure meaningful scrutiny of recent European defense initiatives and developments. National parliaments face an uphill struggle to enhance their power and engagement in order to have a greater impact on EU-level decisionmaking and policy activities. To increase their scrutiny remit, they will need:
- To play a more proactive role as watchdog. Security and defense oversight must be provided by all MPs, not merely those who have the direct incentives of ideological convictions or close links with defense-industrial players or lobby organizations. In this respect, MPs’ historical incentives tend to play an important role—if there have been controversial decisions in the past, then MPs may be more likely to take the time to review new dossiers. Yet in general, this dimension raises the question of how national MPs can be further incentivized to take a more active role in EU security and defense matters, within their particular constitutional and legal settings.
- To engage in strategic foresight and planning. Only by doing so will MPs be able to engage in the necessary future-oriented parliamentary debates about their countries’ longer-term security and defense strategies, their role in the EU’s security and defense initiatives and capability development projects, and the EU’s potential future role as a security provider both at home and abroad. To date, there is little evidence of any substantive parliamentary assessment of national defense capability gaps and needs.
The current discussions around the EU’s Strategic Compass, European strategic autonomy, and the new momentum in the CSDP integration debates, not to mention the changing geopolitical landscape, might motivate MPs to assume a more active role in this area. Moreover, an (informal) interparliamentary pooling of resources and expertise—both between national parliaments across the bloc as well as between the EP and its national legislative counterparts—would be the pragmatic way forward. In this respect, efforts to facilitate regular interparliamentary collaboration and discussions can help foster a sense of cross-border community of MPs interested in EU security and defense affairs.
Stronger interparliamentary cooperation, both formally and informally, offers promising avenues for advancing ideas. The Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees, created in 1989, has been the parliamentary forum par excellence for national parliaments to seek to act more collectively. It convenes biannually in the EU member states that hold the presidency of the Council of the EU, gathering members of national European Affairs Committees and a delegation of the EP. To date, COSAC has had only limited influence and political impact on EU affairs. Yet national parliaments could use it more strategically, going beyond its current function as a forum of information exchanges and best practices.
Another convening venue is the Interparliamentary Conference for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy (IPC CFSP/CSDP), which was established in 2012 and has operated under the successive presidencies of the Council of the EU. It provides a framework for exchanges of information and best practices between national parliaments and the EP in the areas of the CFSP and CSDP. The IPC offers the possibility for national parliaments to be more involved in security and defense policy discussions, and for the country holding the presidency to promote national priorities. Yet recent research has shown that the IPC serves primarily as a discussion forum rather than a policy-shaping group, and that the IPC’s meetings have had relatively low attendance levels.
To mitigate the above limitations of the interparliamentary conference formats, the leadership role of the EP, and its Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE) in particular, should be put to better use. The SEDE, for instance, could host regular defense integration conferences focused on scrutinizing and debating specific initiatives. These conferences could serve as a hub of expertise on which MPs can rely, open opportunities for public debate, and involve relevant civil society organizations and academia more systematically as sources of information and expertise. Such efforts would take advantage of the current window of opportunity of European defense integration to unify the scattered parliamentary playing field across the bloc.
As the EU continues its groundbreaking defense transformations, its initiatives have raised a significant question regarding democratic accountability. It is unthinkable to deepen integration in this field without giving greater decisionmaking roles to both the EP and national legislative bodies. Their voices have been sidelined or absent in recent debates over the future of the European defense project. The democratic clock is ticking for the EU to engender a legitimate integration of the “European Defence Union.” It is also high time to raise the difficult questions about the democratic scrutiny of recent defense initiatives.
Asking and answering such questions is not meant to discourage the debate over where the EU is headed as a more military-capable defense actor. On the contrary, doing so should help the EU address the uneven representation of interests and perspectives and make the process more accountable to European citizens. National parliaments and the EP greatly need a coherent cooperative strategy in terms of their oversight role.
Exchanges of information and best practices among EU national parliaments and the EP will be necessary to guarantee adequate democratic oversight of EU defense integration efforts. Yet MPs must be motivated to engage in such intensified cooperation. If the current international landscape and the momentum of EU defense integration are not sufficient encouragement, what, if anything, will prompt MPs to play their role in the CSDP?
Yf Reykers is an assistant professor of international relations at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University, where he works on questions of accountability in security and defense.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Open Society Initiative for Europe for the financial support of this project.