The European Commission wants to be sure troops, tanks and other heavy military equipment can deploy speedily across the Continent, and it seems willing to steamroll the European Council and NATO to make it happen.
In a communication published Friday, the Commission announced an action plan “to facilitate and help to expedite military mobility,” which effectively amounts to a pre-emptive strike by the Commission ahead of a meeting of defense ministers at the Council on Monday, where they are to officially sign on to a new military cooperation initiative.
The Commission communiqué also caught NATO off guard, prompting Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to stress the alliance’s own efforts to improve military mobility in Europe, and to call for greater cooperation from EU governments.
The Commission’s move, while acknowledging national sovereignty over troop movements, nonetheless puts pressure on EU defense ministers to prioritize mobility in their new cooperation venture, and on NATO to explain why obstacles remain despite years of discussions about eliminating them, particularly in the face of new security threats from Russia.
“The swift movement of military personnel and equipment is hindered by physical, legal and regulatory barriers,” Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc said, unveiling the seven-page document, drafted with Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs and security chief, and addressed to the Council and European Parliament.
NATO allies sharply reduced their military drills in Europe after the end of the Cold War, and for decades there was little expectation of a need for land deployments across the Continent. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014 changed the calculation.
Individual countries must grant approval for military convoys and hardware to cross their territory and the process is often time consuming.
U.S. Army Europe, for instance, has a 40-person logistics team working on approval processes for moving assets around the EU. Getting U.S. troops to cross from Germany to Poland can require up to a five-day notice period, for example.
“It was much simpler during the Cold War,” said a NATO official. “Nowadays the line of potential confrontation goes from Norway to east Turkey and the band of instability in the Middle East and Africa.”
Now the Commission said it will develop its own full action plan on how to proceed by March.
Key will be finding cash to buttress roads and bridges around the bloc to make sure they can bear the weight of tanks and heavy machinery. A commitment by NATO allies to increase spending will likely help on that front. Infrastructure is especially creaky in the east, and agreeing to invest could help some meet their 2 percent NATO defense spending target.
NATO’s expansion since the fall of the Berlin Wall has also effectively shifted the frontline of the logistics chain at least 1,000 kilometers from the old Iron Curtain to Russia’s border with the Baltics.
Bulc said Friday that cash would not be siphoned from other funding mechanisms to prop up infrastructure for military purposes.
Stoltenberg, at a news conference Wednesday, said NATO had made strong progress on mobility but more was needed from EU governments. “We need enough transport capacity at our disposal, which largely comes from the private sector,” he said.