The European Commission on Thursday (10 November) proposed a plan for ‘better connected and protected infrastructure’ aimed at allowing swift and seamless movement of troops and military equipment across the bloc.
For member states, military mobility has gained fresh urgency since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, with countries looking to raise the preparedness of their armed forces and the bloc’s military and humanitarian aid having to be quickly provided across the EU’s border into Ukraine.
“The security environment in Europe has changed dramatically since last February war is back to our borders,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
“We have to adapt our defence policies to this new environment,” he added.
The EU’s military mobility ambition does not amount to a joint military force but aims at easing bureaucratic procedures that slow troop deployments considerably, whether by land, sea or air.
It is also meant to improve the exchange of information between EU countries and cut red tape at borders, including harmonising customs rules to allow for swift deployments and easier transport of military equipment.
According to the EU executive, the newly proposed plan is meant to help European armed forces “to respond better, more rapidly and at sufficient scale to crises erupting at the EU’s external borders and beyond.”
It would see member states evaluate whether their transport infrastructure – from roads and bridges to airports and ports – can also be used for moving heavy military equipment across the bloc.
One of the more prominent related issues has for example also been the different widths of the railway gauge between European and former Soviet countries like Ukraine and Moldova.
The plan foresees identifying possible gaps in the infrastructure and also integrating fuel supply chain requirements.
“For military forces to make a real difference on the ground, they must move fast. They must not be blocked over bureaucracy or a lack of adapted infrastructure,” Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager told reporters in Brussels.
“It takes at least five days for cross-border military capacity, from one country to another – that’s too long […] because it has been done not in a digital manner,” Borrell said.
“We are trying to develop digital systems shared by all member states in order to facilitate the movement through the borders,” he added.
EU funding would then be channelled to plug significant gaps with an emphasis on dual-use infrastructure, meaning they can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
However, it remains to be seen whether the demand can be met with the amount of available funding.
In the EU’s current multi-annual budget, €1.69 billion has been earmarked for dual-use transport infrastructure projects, a sum that had initially been intended to be higher, but was subsequently slashed in the budget negotiations.
In addition, under the European Defence Fund, the Commission said it will provide €9 million to support the development of a Secure Digital Military Mobility System (SDMMS), meant to enable direct and secure exchange of information between governments requesting and approving any military movement
Europe's military mobility: latest casualty of EU budget battle
The Commission’s latest budget non-paper threatens to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals. It was put forward on Friday (20 February) in an attempt to bridge the growing differences among EU leaders over the bloc’s next seven-year budget.
Military mobility has been seen as the silver bullet for EU-NATO cooperation, especially in recent years when the bloc presented it as a complementary element between the two organisations.
After Canada, the US and Norway joined the EU’s Dutch-led project last year, the UK, a key NATO ally that after Brexit had been left out of the EU’s security frameworks, could soon be the fourth non-EU country to participate in the scheme.
Back then, it was the first time that the EU allowed third countries to join its so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework of military projects.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Borrell confirmed the bloc has accepted the UK’s application to join the project.
EU ambassadors had given their green light to London’s accession in October, paving the way for the decision to be formalised, without debate, by EU foreign and defence ministers during their regular meeting in Brussels next week.
UK moves closer to join EU's military mobility scheme
EU ambassadors on Wednesday (19 October) unanimously approved the UK’s application to join the EU’s project on military mobility, which aims at improving the rapidity of troops and equipment movement across Europe, should the need arise.
With the approval in November, some EU diplomats expect the step not to be a stand-alone decision of closer security cooperation between London and Brussels.
Under the deal, brokered by the German EU presidency in 2020, 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.
NATO member Turkey submitted a formal application letter to participate in the EU’s Dutch-led military project on military mobility in May last year, despite the request being met with apprehension amid tense relations with Greece and Cyprus. Sources involved in the matter stressed that the “internal process at project level is ongoing.”
Asked by EURACTIV whether under the current push on the matter others could potentially join the project soon, Borrell confirmed that “the request from Turkey is moving forward”, without giving further details.