European democracy and the military-industrial complex

Photo by Brejnev via Wikimedia

In her report “The EU’s Defense Ambitions: Understanding the Emergence of a European Defense Technological and Industrial Complex” for think-tank Carnegie Europe, Raluca Csernatoni writes about the rise of the European military-industrial complex based on political and economic actors and networks, and what that means for European democracy and political integration.

Csernatoni’s paper is not based on what she presents as a “traditional state-centered approach” as regarding national-level institutional aspects regarding security and cooperation on military industry and technology. Instead, the paper analyzes the European Commission’s growing supranational role in security and military, facilitated by what Csernatoni describes as the “privileged relationship” between various EU institutions, European military-industrial actors, transnational interest, lobby groups, and organized expert bodies.

Csernatoni also explains that the development of the European military-industrial complex is facilitated by a set of circumstances and factors as the geopolitical pressures of Brexit, an “unreliable” transatlantic partner in the United States, concerns within European military industries regarding dwindling national military budgets, and fierce global technological competition in high technology areas.

Csernatoni explains that the European military-industrial ecosystem encompasses many transnational actors beyond the political, military, and industrial groups typically present in national military-industrial complexes. The European military-industrial complex consists of a dense, multilevel network of EU institutions and agencies, security and industrial stakeholders, national public authorities, and interest and expert groups, competing and cooperating to shape and set policy agendas.

She argues that “these transformations have the potential to make the union a more capable and strategically autonomous global defense technological actor” and also “at the same time, they challenge existing EU democratic governance structures and processes.” Csernatoni argues that the EU’s security and military policies remain tough areas for parliamentary scrutiny and democratic oversight.

Older history

Csernatoni argues that even before the 1990s:

“The European Commission recognized the need to preserve the European defense industry’s edge and competitiveness in strategic sectors. It has pushed for closer coordination between defense industrial players and EU security, for dual-use technological innovation, and more recently for defense research initiatives.”

According to her paper, the historical development of closer European security and military-industrial and technological cooperation is a complex affair involving highly networked and transnational EU-state-industrial relations across various EU institutions and agencies, interest groups, and security military-industrial actors.

Historically seen, security and military policy fields have always been fundamental elements of national sovereignty. In contrast, governments traditionally have endorsed and subsidized the military industry and R&D for national strategic interests, yet recently, these areas have faced significant funding cuts.

Current development

In Csernatoni’s analysis, the European military industry is at the crossroads of military technological development, owing to the lack of national-level investment and unprecedented technological advancements in the civilian sector at the same time as the military industry has had a growing role in setting EU policy agendas and in shaping security and defense R&D initiatives.

Regarding democracy and democratic oversight, despite an increased role for the European Parliament, Csernatoni argues that the EU lacks transparency, has little substantive public debate, and falls short on political accountability concerning the surge in European defense technological and industrial integration.

She mentions that various policy documents as from think-tanks have pointed out that for the EU to become a more strategically autonomous global defense actor, it will need a stronger European military industry and market. Civil, security, and military applications increasingly draw on the same technological base by creating new synergies between different research sectors.

Csernatoni states that while Europe has high-quality research institutes and a substantial and diverse industrial base from which to address technology requirements in the security domain, there are also structural deficiencies at the institutional and political level that hinder Europe in the exploitation of its scientific, technological and industrial strength — for example as the absence of specific frameworks for security research at the EU level, the limited cooperation between Member States and the lack of coordination among national and European efforts, and the lack of enough public research funding.

European Defense Union and Global Strategy

Csernatoni writes that “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” is an important milestone in expanding European military cooperation. The 2016 Global Strategy emphasized that a sustainable, innovative, consolidating the EU’s international standing as a global defense actor and as a leader in technological innovation and this realization carved out a new role for the EU and especially the European Commission to support defense research and to become now the biggest investor in collective defense research and technology in Europe.

According to her, this turn toward supranationalization cannot be easily reconciled with the fact that the governance European Defense Fund (EDF) is subject to a “double comitology system,” through which member states retain influence in the form of a “work program committee” composed of member-state representatives.

For example, the EDF regulation also provides that the EDA and the European External Action Service, the diplomatic service of the European Union, are invited as observers to the committee's meetings. Csernatoni writes that with the EDF, it will no longer be taboo to spend EU money on defense capabilities and their R&D and that the EU institutions and agencies have begun to gear up to fully embrace their new role in military matters, with the European military industry taking center stage in the EU’s and member states’ drive for more strategic autonomy in defense by filling in dual-use and military capability gaps.


Historically, even though the EU research and innovation policy has been a civil program, the policymaking processes on security and military research increasingly have been transformed by the growing convergence of interests from EU-level industrial, political, and policy elites. According to Csernatoni, these factors have created a community of socialized elites who contribute expertise and collaborate in policy legitimation practices but, most importantly, benefit from these policy outcomes.

Moreover, as she describes it, the overwhelming concentration of technological and technocratic expertise within interest and advisory groups, including in terms of high-level public-private EU networks, has been a significant obstacle for meaningful public scrutiny and democratic oversight and conversations.

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Vladan Lausevic

Vladan Lausevic

I am active as a social and policy entrepreneur. SEEDS ambassador. Motto: I have no identity, I have only identities.

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