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Address by President Charles Michel to the European Defence Agency annual conference

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Raad, gepubliceerd op dinsdag 7 december 2021.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you. Defence issues are a top concern for EU leaders these days.

We face countless challenges that make our world highly unstable and unpredictable: increasing geostrategic competition, terrorism, hybrid threats, cyberattacks, disinformation, the weaponisation of migration, and conflict and instability in our neighbourhood and beyond, just to name a few.

If that were not enough, global phenomena like climate change and pandemics act as threat multipliers.

In the face of these challenges, the European Council’s current strategic agenda clearly states as a priority: "Increasing our capacity to act autonomously to safeguard our interests, uphold our values and way of life, and help shape the global future."

The recent events in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific, and today’s complex security threats - like space security and emerging disruptive technologies - prove that we must act strategically, and increase our ability to act autonomously, when necessary, to defend our way of life and our common future.

That is why strategic autonomy, or sovereignty, is high on our European Council agenda - including at our recent meeting in Brdo, Slovenia, where we agreed to accelerate work on our Strategic Compass.

Since then, dear Josep, you have put forward your proposal for this Compass. I thank you, and the External Action Service, because this Compass provides a vision for our common security and defence policy in the future, and the means to make this vision a reality. I was pleased to see the initial reactions were positive in Member States.

The work must now be carried forward in the Council. The European Council will provide further guidance in December, and we hope to endorse it at our meeting in March, when we are supposed to focus on defence.

We also agreed to work towards the third declaration of EU-NATO cooperation. The EU and NATO are both staunch defenders of democratic values and rule of law. NATO is the cornerstone of our European security.

The EU-NATO strategic partnership is unique, and essential for the stability and prosperity of our nations and the transatlantic area. We want to deepen this relationship, and adapt it to today’s geopolitical reality.

2022 will be the year of European defence. I believe that for a number of reasons.

But before focusing on defence matters, allow me to address the broader picture of our European strategic autonomy. Because strategic autonomy is about much more than defence and security.

First, ‘strategic autonomy’ is understood differently in different places. Some prefer the term ‘strategic sovereignty’. Let us get beyond the term and focus on the substance.

The EU and its Member States want to be better prepared. We want to defend our values, to promote our interests, and to protect our citizens, in a world that we want open and interconnected.

Second, autonomy, or sovereignty, is about being stronger. It is about exerting greater influence, and having more control over our own fate.

Being strong starts with our economy. And the EU is strong. We are an open and highly competitive market of 450 million people, and a major global trading bloc. And we can strengthen our economy even more, by completing the banking union and with a capital markets union that facilitates investment in our companies. This will also reinforce the international role of the euro - one of our most powerful assets.

Our security and defence does not exist in a vacuum. It is linked to our twin transitions - climate and digital. Both are critical for our future security.

Succeeding in these transitions will require a paradigm shift - switching from the overexploitation of natural resources to a sustainable circular economy and maximising the vast potential of digital resources, while protecting the safety and privacy of our citizens.

Our climate and digital transitions both require efficient regulation. And here the European Union has the power to influence and determine global norms.

Our standards reflect our democratic values and our focus on citizens’ well-being and safety. Our European standards often evolve into global standards. That is what we call the ‘Brussels effect’, which is often seen more positively outside Europe.

Finally, the EU has wide-ranging influence across many sectors. But sometimes we underestimate this influence; we undervalue the power of our tools and their potential. This applies to our EU policies, programs, and budgets, as well as the policies of our Member States.

We could take fuller advantage of our instruments, by using them in a more coordinated manner to achieve our strategic goals in trade, development, neighbourhood policies, climate action, regulatory powers, visa regimes, and humanitarian aid. Greater coordination and coherence mean greater impact.

Just one example: Belarus. When the Belarus regime forced an international flight to land in Minsk, endangering the lives of civilians, we acted quickly and decisively. We agreed on measures to ban the overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines, and to prevent their access to EU airports. And other countries followed.

We are also working together with all European partners to fight the hybrid attack on our borders. The EU, and national leaders, reached out to leaders who exert influence on the Belarusian regime, notably the Russian president.

Together with you, Josep (Borrell), and Commissioner Schinas, we convinced countries from which flights to Minsk originate to build cooperation. And diplomats, including my team, convinced airlines to stop the sale of one-way tickets that lead people into misery.

We Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands. Cooperating with our partners when needed, and acting autonomously if necessary. To be a credible and efficient global security provider, and a soft geopolitical influencer.

European citizens are fully aware of today’s new reality. According to many opinion polls, they want the EU to contribute more to their security and to the security of the world. They want the EU to protect them. They understand that we must connect and coordinate the defence efforts of our Member States. And they recognise that security within our borders starts with security beyond our borders.

Allow me to focus on two crucial challenges: innovation and cyber defence.

First, innovation. Autonomy and sovereignty mean less dependence, more resilience, and greater unity. It means deepening our common security and defence culture. To achieve this, we need more innovation and better integration of our defence capabilities.

The next ten years will be crucial for our capability development. Your agency - the EDA - has a unique role to play, combining the lessons learned from missions with long-term technology trends and then integrating this concrete know-how into national defence plans.

Today we are seeing rapid advances across many sectors - artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and other digital technologies. We must take advantage of these developments to field cutting-edge military capabilities.

These innovations cut across the traditional silos of civilian and military use, with the potential to drastically change how we act and how we think, including on security and defence.

We must therefore make sure that Europe remains at the vanguard of innovation. Because this will guarantee our future credibility and our future capacity to act - as an autonomous security provider and a loyal and capable security and defence partner.

I am convinced that our Strategic Compass will guide our efforts to bolster our defence capabilities.

The EU and its Member States need to better coordinate our efforts and pool our resources, today more than ever.

European cooperation must become the norm. This will bolster the efficiency, competitiveness, and innovation of our defence industrial and technological base. That means encouraging greater innovation in defence. Not only in research and technology, but also in capability development, concepts and doctrines, services, and procurement, across all EU Member States.

We also need to foster innovation within our defence industry. This includes tapping into the potential of our civil industry, just as our global competitors do.

We should also reflect on the defence industry ecosystem as a whole. From concepts, services and products to innovative procurement, harmonisation of export control policies, and civilian-use innovation. This includes promoting engagement with non-traditional defence actors, such as academia and SMEs, to harness the full innovative potential of our societies and to stimulate creative solutions.

The European Union is fully committed to fostering innovation in defence. Our European Defence Fund, launched earlier this year, will do precisely that.

This fund is dedicated to developing disruptive technologies for defence over the next seven years. SMEs will receive incentives to drive research results to the development stage, and ultimately to the defence market.

Beyond this defence fund, the Commission is also looking into how to apply proven civil innovation concepts to the defence sector.

The upcoming roadmap on critical technologies in security and defence will help guide our efforts, as will the action plan on synergies between the civil, space and defence industries.

Finally, we have the new European Union Space Programme, with a record budget of 13 billion euros. This programme will ensure that Europe remains a leader in the domain of space. Copernicus and Galileo are two excellent examples of European space programmes that bolster the EU’s space ecosystem and security.

Being strong on security and defence means being strong on research and development. That means boosting our support for a competitive European defence industrial and technological base.

On investment, for example, 1.2% (2.5 billion euros) of the total defence expenditure of EU Member States went to research and development in 2020. Meanwhile, the United States spends 2% of its defence budget (14 billion dollars) on research and development every year.

We must also continue to link innovative technologies with their possible defence application.

I know we can count on you - the European Defence Agency - and your unique experience and expertise. Your work is key to facilitating the uptake of defence innovation by our Member States.

We must also avoid duplicating our efforts and wasting our resources. You at the EDA can help link Member States’ national authorities with each other, and with EU institutions, agencies, and bodies.

You help identify defence-related technologies, point to collaborative opportunities and provide a platform for cooperation. You need the budget to fulfil your growing role.

I am in favour of the creation of a European Defence Innovation Network. I also support the creation of a European defence innovation hub inside the EDA - an idea discussed at the last defence ministers’ meeting, in November.

It is vital to build strong cooperation between you at the EDA and the European Innovation Council. Of course, cooperation between the EDA and NATO is also indispensable, because this helps avoid duplication and strengthens our partnership. I welcome the adoption of a mandate for negotiations on an administrative arrangement between the EDA and the US Department of Defence.

Cybersecurity is now a major geopolitical issue because cyber threats impact our national security, our economy, and even our personal lives. They infiltrate every corner of our societies. And they often involve powerful third countries.

The European Union is bolstering our cybersecurity on different fronts: legislative, operational, diplomatic, and investment. At our last European Council meeting, in October, we touched on the ongoing work on cybersecurity.

It is worth reflecting on two areas of progress.

First, the EU’s cybersecurity crisis management framework. Since cyberattacks are often large scale, we must be able to respond on a large scale. To do this, we must reinforce our cooperation. The Commission has put forward a recommendation on establishing a Joint Cyber Unit. This proposal is being carefully scrutinised to ensure that Member States are adequately represented.

Second, cyber defence. This refers to both protecting our defence sector against cyberattacks and responding to attacks, which raises the issue of offensive capabilities. It includes strengthening the cyber protection of the EU security and defence infrastructure. The European Council will provide further guidance and oversight on this process.

Robust and long-term security will require political will and political courage. And we - the EU institutions together with our EU Member States - must act with urgency because the world around us is not waiting.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have a clear vision. And we know what we need to do now to get there.

I will make sure this crucial work is taken up by the European Council, with the invaluable support and engagement of High Representative Borrell. Thank you again, Josep.

In these challenging times, it is only by working together, by building this European spirit of security, that we will address the complex geopolitical and security challenges and keep our democratic societies secure and our citizens safe. Thank you.


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