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With the new 2019-2024 European Commission came a change in its structure. Reinforcing the EU’s defence capacities as an area of priority, the department of the Commission responsible for EU policy on defence industry and space, DG DEFIS, was established. ESD had the opportunity to speak with Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, Director General of the European Union Military Staff (DGEUMS) and Director of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (Dir MPCC).

Photo: NATO

ESD: Referring to EU’s defence, how do you see the result of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) discussions?
VAdm Bléjean: As an optimistic person, for me the glass is half-full. One could see the €7Bn for the European Defence Fund as much less than the first proposal, but it is on the other hand much more than we could have expected five years ago. The challenge will be to deliver. Thus, the creation of the new Directorate General Defence Industry and Space is an important step in that direction and some funding is already on the table.

As far as defence is concerned: MFF is one issue. However, national funding is very important. I would expect Member States to be responsible in maintaining the right dynamic with national defence budgets.

ESD: Which are the most important challenges for EU’s security and defence?
VAdm Bléjean: Firstly, I would say there is the challenge of proving the credibility of the EU in security and defence matters and this is a twofold issue. There is the requirement to enhance efficiency for both the EU missions and the EU operations and here I only can speak as the mission commander for the three EU TM’s in Africa as I am not in the Chain of Command for EU Operations.

In order to improve efficiency, my vision is to have a more comprehensive concept for the missions and to increase collaboration with the civilian missions as well. We must be fully cognisant of course, that civilian and military missions have their own characteristics and specifications, which need to be preserved. However, we also have to work to improve the levels of coherence, building on what currently exists. For the first time, we are engaged in a holistic strategic review of the EU missions in the Horn of Africa – they include operation Atalanta, the military mission EU TM Somalia and the civilian mission EUCAP Somalia. What we need is a comprehensive picture and an integrated approach where the differing areas of responsibilities are coherent in achieving the strategic objectives. It seems obvious that putting all the pieces together is required; this is needed to show the coherence of each endeavour, only then will it be headed in the right direction.

Secondly, in my view, operational credibility includes the development of capability in military planning and within the MPCC – this means the ability to plan and conduct all the non-executive missions of the EU. In addition, it also means being able to act as an operational HQ for an executive mission of a Battle Group size. We need to develop that capability and show that we are able to fulfil that mandate.

What I mean is the difference between the political will and the concrete translation of this into a commitment of assets for operations and missions. Force Generation is a real issue and it affects the credibility of EU operations. Let us take Operation IRINI as an example; there was a significant gap in time from decision until there were sufficient assets to conduct the mandate.

My perspective is to start finding that convergence during the German Presidency. The way to implement it will be the Strategic Compass. It will provide the Member States with a strategic common vision on EU security matters. Much of the work in assembling the information to contribute to the necessary preliminary work already exists, especially in the capability field – PESCO, CARD, EDF. Now, it is time to put it together under the same overarching vision. The challenge is to get the vision of the Member States into a coherent one for the EU. This is where we are right now; gathering information to compile the picture and the substantial work on the Strategic Compass will start in 2021.

ESD: In these days, one cannot comment on EU without touching Brexit. What is your take?
VAdm Bléjean: In my previous assignment in Northwood, I had an in-depth personal experience of Brexit; it was both fascinating and painful, especially as I am a convinced believer in the EU. Because of this, I feel personally sad at seeing a member of the family willing to leave.

In the end, the EU is losing a heavy weight. We cannot discuss any matter of the defence of Europe without having the British included. The big question will be how we can manage their future participation, if they are willing to do so which I am sure they are. I think beyond the political limitations it will depend on an appropriate framework. There are existing examples, for instance, in Bosnia’s Operation ALTHEA, the UK provides the strategic reserve, and London is willing to continue this commitment. All we need is the proper arrangement. Unfortunately, defence and security is not included in the Brexit negotiations. Therefore, we will have to engage in those discussions when the situation permits. Thus, for me, a priority would be to secure the UK’s involvement in operations they are currently involved in. Subsequently, we have to look for the UK as a capability provider; this provides the issue of how to associate the UK as a third state and it will mean that we need to reach an agreement on 3rd state participation within PESCO. This will be one of the challenges of the German presidency but there are already some proposals on the table.

The European Union Training Mission in Somalia (EUTM Somalia) is a military mission of the EU to provide support to the training of Somali security forces. (Photo: Bundeswehr)

ESD: In view of the German Presidency – what are your expectations?
VAdm Bléjean: As I see it, there are strong opportunities for defence and security policy within the EU and we have to maintain the current momentum. I know that it is one of the German priorities to be relevant in this field. Thus, we must try to put all the pieces together if we are to set up the right conditions to enter the Strategic Compass discussion in the right way. We also need to succeed in achieving results and improvements by the end of the year in a number of areas such as the European Peace Facility (EFP) and Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD).

Knowing that one of the German priorities is to keep the momentum, I look forward preparing the ground for the Strategic Compass and to also develop those issues which are driven by events and crisis on the ground. Developing these will enhance European capabilities, for example in reinforcing medical support and medical evacuation. We have made significant progress here and I recently signed an agreement with the European Air Transport Command (EATC) on Strategic Air Medevac. This concrete result could be pushed and developed further by the German presidency.

ESD: Is Corona challenging the EU’s approach security and defence?
VAdm Bléjean: On a provocative note, I would respond that the EUMS is embedded in the EEAS of the EU’s institutions’, because of this, there is therefore a focus on operating outside of European borders. With COVID-19, we operated inside the borders. We therefore have to cope with the question whether we have the relevant military tools to look inside the borders in order to enhance solidarity and to strengthen resilience. It is a philosophical and political question that needs to be addressed by the Strategic Compass.

ESD: Finally – the EU’s maritime heart.
VAdm Bléjean: As an Admiral, I would like to remark, given the topics we touched upon, that I would like to see the EU to take full responsibility for its maritime dimension. The EU is a maritime organisation, in the sense that the sea is of vital importance to it. When I was Force Commander of Atalanta – I used the example when asked: What is the importance of the sea for the EU? The answer is that, eight out of ten of your Christmas gifts have been shipped and transferred through my area of operations. That illustrates the relevance of the sea for us Europeans!

We need to push forward the maritime dimension. The Coordinated Maritime Presence (CMP) initiative that is being tested in the Gulf of Guinea highlights this aspect and as a concept it needs to be further considered. But implementation needs to be taken seriously to show the relevance of the coordination of the information.

ESD: Admiral, thank you very much. Good luck – Fair Wind and Following Seas.

The interview was conducted by Hans-Uwe Mergener.