Friday, November 28, 2008

The EU takes on defence procurement

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

The EU is in the middle of a little noticed – but potentially important – debate about defence markets. For the first time, the European Commission could be authorised to help reduce barriers amongst the EU’s segmented national defence markets.

European defence markets remain drawn along national lines. Defence-related goods are exempt from EU single market rules. These exclusions were designed for only the most sensitive components of weapons, material and related technology. The trouble is that governments have used the national security argument to exclude everything, from bullets to uniforms, from open competition. And often national security has been little more than a cloak for protectionism.

Moreover, it is difficult to move defence goods from one member-state to another. Each country has cumbersome administrative procedures for export controls. As a result, defence companies with plants in several member-states have to negotiate different sets of national requirements when they want to move their components from one plant to another. The Commission has estimated that, within the EU, the direct and indirect costs of such barriers to transferring military goods amount to €3.16 billion a year. Since requests to move goods within the EU are hardly ever rejected, the value of such extensive and diverging national checks is questionable.

As Europe's paltry defence budgets are barely adequate to maintain today’s spending programmes, the current system makes little sense. So the Commission has proposed two new directives. The first is designed to open a substantial amount of defence procurement to EU competition. The Commission suggests new procurement procedures, specially tailored for defence needs (while recognising that some goods, like nuclear technology and cryptology, will always have to be exempted due to national security). The second proposed law aims to simplify procedures to move goods around the EU. It would encourage member-states to use so-called general licences. (Broadly speaking, goods which benefit from a general licence can move across borders without importers having to ask for specific licences to do so.)

The two draft directives have the potential to bring about significant improvements. Defence companies would get access to previously closed markets, while ministries of defence, and European taxpayers, would benefit from cheaper defence goods. Easier transfer of goods across the EU would make life a lot easier for defence companies. And delays in importing new kit needed by national militaries would be reduced.

In practice it remains to be seen what difference the directives, if agreed, would make. Member-states are trying to maintain maximum control of the initiatives. They get to decide what military goods are considered safe for general licences, and it is likely that only the least sensitive goods will qualify at the outset. In addition the cut-off point for military goods that are considered too sensitive to be subject to open procurement procedures has been left very vague. Here, too, member-states are likely to be very conservative for the foreseeable future.

The impact of the proposals, and particularly the procurement directive, will depend on the willingness of defence companies and the European Commission to contest decisions by member-states, and take them to the European Court of Justice. It is unlikely that large high-tech defence programmes will be open to competition for many years to come. Large defence companies will probably be unwilling to contest decisions made by their biggest customers: national defence ministries. But it is not unreasonable to foresee that in the medium term the directive could have a substantial impact on less sensitive defence sectors, low-value, high-volume goods such as rifles, tanks or even military catering. Defence ministries will have stronger incentives to open up such non-sensitive sectors as a way to cut costs. In addition, such goods are produced by a multitude of smaller companies across the EU that are not always dependent on one defence ministry. Some might conclude they have less to lose and be more willing to take a ministry of defence to court.

The most important impact of the directives would be the cultural shift they would represent. By adopting the initiatives, member-states would be accepting the Commission's oversight in an area they have hitherto jealously guarded. Defence ministries would no longer have the final say in their defence procurement.

The directives would be a minor but incremental step towards improving Europe's defence market. But it is far from certain that they will come into force. The timetable is tight. (The directives need to be agreed before the European Parliament’s term ends in spring 2009, otherwise the turnover of experts in the Commission and Parliament could postpone an agreement by several years.) In addition there are still serious stumbling blocks which member-states and the European Parliament need to agree on. Amongst other things some smaller member-states fear local industry might lose out from more open markets. The big defence companies are concerned about the impact on national research budgets and large-member states, in particular the UK, are trying to defend their case. Some member-states have admitted they will shed no tears if the whole package collapses. But it would be a mistake not to agree the package. With current defence budgets, Europeans cannot hope to maintain a proper defence industrial base without a new approach to their defence market. And if the EU really wants to reinforce its global role, it has no choice but to improve its military muscle.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a load of tosh - all based on the premise that we should be closer Europeans .... We are still soveriegn nations and so we need our own industrial bases for national defence. The only rationale for this idea is to get rid of the nation state - which the EU is too dishonest to concur with ...