From Syria to Iraq, from Daesh [Islamic State] to Libya, and the flows of migrants and refugees, the unrest in the Mediterranean represents a geopolitical priority for Italy. Repeated attacks by Islamic terrorists throughout Europe remind us that domestic and international security are different aspects of the same challenge.
We face a threat both inside and outside our societies that generates fear and uncertainty. The EU must find effective answers to our citizens’ security concerns. This will require an integrated approach that includes increased cooperation on intelligence, police and justice, preventive diplomacy, crisis management and — crucially — a leap forward in a common European defense strategy.
We cannot improve the EU’s capacity to project stability in regions crucial to our security if we do not move our cooperation on defense to a new level. In addition to numerous practical benefits, such an effort would have a strong political impact, as it would underscore our readiness to relaunch the process of European integration.
Following the British vote to leave the EU, the debate over the future of European defense has regained momentum. The United Kingdom’s exit will deprive us of a member state with considerable military capabilities. And yet Brexit opens up new possibilities precisely in this sector. The strengthening of European defense is a key element of the Global Strategy for the European Union, unveiled just a few days after the British referendum. And it will be discussed at this week’s summit in Bratislava.
We must acknowledge that in the past we have found it difficult to make significant progress as 28 member states.
We are all aware that defense lies at the core of national sovereignty. Any step towards a more integrated European defense requires an immense amount of trust, as well as careful attention to different national histories, constitutional systems and security priorities. Close coordination with NATO will be crucial; the transatlantic relationship is and will remain the bedrock of our common security.
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This is why a pragmatic strategy and, above all, political will is so necessary. In Italy’s vision, there are three main areas worth exploring in the pursuit of a common European defense.
The first concerns a comprehensive approach to regional crises. We should work to create a more streamlined and integrated civilian-military structure, in order to ensure a more effective response to complex emergencies. The establishment of a permanent civilian-military headquarters — as has also been suggested by France and Germany — would represent an ambitious step forward in the EU’s capacity for crisis management.
The second area regards the development of defense capabilities. Europe has to acquire the defense capabilities needed to be a prominent player on the international scene. This will necessitate common EU efforts to support the Continent’s defense industry and broaden its industrial and technological base.
The third area involves multinational forces: the establishment of a division-level European Multinational Force, able to carry out a set of pre-determined missions and operations. This initiative would differ from the multinational forces already in place, such as the battlegroups, in the size and composition of the military units. It would also possess a unified strategic command, the endowment of permanent forces and a common budget for operations.
These three areas are not entirely new. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that in the past we have found it difficult to make significant progress as 28 member states. Today, at a time when decisive external action is required, we need to move forward rapidly.
Italy proposes that a core group of EU countries accelerate their integration in the area of defense, leaving others the option to join at a later stage through an inclusive exercise. Rather than advancing ready-made solutions, this would be the beginning of a political process.
In theory, the Lisbon Treaty provides for stronger integration among a restricted group of consenting member states, via the so-called “Permanent Structured Cooperation.” Italy will continue to take an active part in the debate on how to best employ these provisions. However, the decision-making system to apply them remains especially complex.
That is why we should consider a different path as well, outside the current treaty framework — a policy scheme that, together with Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, we have called “Schengen for Defense.”
Under this approach, a group of like-minded countries would begin sharing military capabilities and resources on the basis of an ad hoc agreement. The initiative would then be opened to all interested member states, under procedures similar to those adopted in the original Schengen Agreement.
Italy is ready to discuss these and other proposals for the future of European defense with other EU members. The need for political action following the Brexit vote and in view of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March 2017 provides us with a window of opportunity. It is time to move toward a common European defense.