US, Norway among first foreign countries to join EU military mobility project

EU defence ministers on Thursday (6 May) agreed to allow the United States, Norway and Canada to join the bloc’s project on military mobility, seen as the ‘silver bullet’ for EU-NATO defence cooperation and designed to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises.

“Their expertise will contribute to the project and, with it, to improving military mobility within and beyond the EU,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief and meeting chairman, Josep Borrell, said following the agreement.

“It will make EU defence more efficient and contribute to strengthening our security,” he added.

Soldiers pull a ropes as they practices the crossing of the river Elbe at the crossing point between Storkau (Elbe) and Hohengoehren, in Hohengoehren, Germany, 23 October 2020. [EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

It’s the first time that the EU will allow outside countries to join its so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework of 46 military projects and is a sign of improving EU-NATO cooperation.

Formally established in December 2017, the PESCO framework was created with the intention to deepen defence cooperation among the 25 participating EU member states, help fund, develop and deploy armed forces together and make the EU’s defence sector more flexible and independent of the US.

It does not amount to a joint military force, but some EU members have raised fears of duplication and solo-runs.

Military mobility aims at improving the exchange of information between EU countries and cutting red tape at borders, including harmonising customs rules to allow for swift deployments and easier transport of military equipment, diplomats said.

More than 70,000 US military personnel are stationed in Europe, partly to help reassure Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland that they will be defended in case of aggression from Russia.

Canada is currently leading a NATO battlegroup stationed in the region, while Norway is considered as the key to security in Northern Europe, and especially the Arctic region.

With the decision, the three countries will join the Dutch-led project aimed at easing bureaucratic procedures that slow troop deployments considerably, whether by land, sea or air.

“We are very pleased (…) to welcome three important NATO countries to this EU project. I will send the official invitation letters soon,” Dutch Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld said in a statement.

“Currently, there are administrative and infrastructural barriers that make it difficult for military personnel and equipment to move through Europe. Often, it is easier for a tourist to travel through the EU than it is for military personnel,” she added.

The EU has designated €1.7 billion over the next seven years to help bolster the bloc’s military mobility” including by upgrading infrastructure like bridges, rail and roads.

A new dimension of the EU’s current Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) policy addresses the implementation and development of a Europe-wide network of railway lines, roads, inland waterways, maritime shipping routes, ports, airports and railroad terminals.

Dual-use (civilian-military) co-funding of transport infrastructure projects has also been proposed within the next Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

“We need standardisation as much for civil projects that fulfil military requirements as for the latter themselves,” Jörg Vollmer, commander of NATO’s Joint Force Command Brunssum, urged in March.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer described the move as “a quantum jump in our concrete cooperation.”

She said bringing the countries in is “an enormous step regarding the practical ability of the European armed forces. And we see this as another big step regarding trans-Atlantic connectivity and in the cooperation of EU and NATO.”

“The EU’s road to developing a stronger, more sovereign, more united and more strategic defence and security policy must reinforce and under no circumstance undermine transatlantic cooperation and NATO,” MEP David McAllister, head of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee told EURACTIV.

“As the example of military mobility shows, it is possible to build up meaningful structures in the EU framework and pave the way for stronger and more ambitious defence cooperation with partners,” he added.

More members to come?

While there have been no specific talks with Britain, which along with France was one of the EU’s biggest military powers, more foreign countries can seek to join, diplomats say.

“It is also very important for transatlantic cooperation, good cooperation between EU members and NATO allies,” said one of the diplomats, who spoke under condition of anonymity.

As EURACTIV first reported in late October, the EU27 agreed on conditions to allow countries outside the bloc to participate in joint defence projects.

Under the deal, brokered by the German EU presidency, a third country can only apply if it meets a stringent set of political, legal, and “substantive” conditions.

The political conditions for third countries limit their participation to cases where they provide “substantial added value” to the military project and share “the values on which the EU is founded”, meaning that they do not contravene its security and defence interests.

Many EU diplomats agree that the set of political conditions effectively excludes Russia, China, and Turkey.

A certain outsider

As EURACTIV reported in November, NATO member and EU candidate Turkey is likely to remain outside the PESCO framework, at least until the dispute with Cyprus over activities in Eastern Mediterranean is resolved and tensions in the standoff with Greece and France are defused.

The EU has kept Ankara at arm’s length from its initiatives although Turkey, with one of the largest militaries in Europe, has been an associate member of the Western European Union (WEU) and its Armaments Agency (European Defence Agency predecessor). It is also a member of NATO and participates in the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation.