In the past four years the European Union has become an increasingly important actor in the field of defence. One key development, the establishment of a European Defence Fund (EDF) with a budget of 7.953 billion EUR for defence research and development for the period 2021–2027, has generated much interest in academic and policy circles. For some researchers like Tardy, this new actorness marks a welcome break with the past, as it shows that the EU is taking defence seriously and responding to a more threatening external environment. Others see the EDF as the outcome of supranational entrepreneurship by the European Commission over decades. Haroche for example considers it an example of neofunctionalism, while critics of the EDF like Goxho see the EDF mostly as the outcome of gradual lobby capture by the defence industry.
The core argument of our JCMS article Sociotechnical Imaginaries of EU Defence: The Past and the Future in the European Defence Fund is that the EDF is better understood as an outcome of a long process through which certain beliefs about defence technologies and industrial innovation became institutionalised in some EU networks, particularly within the European Commission. We trace the development of a particular narrative on security, innovation, research, and economic growth based on fears of technology gaps with, and dependence on, the US. We show how this narrative became deeply embedded in successive policy initiatives and research programmes, arguing that this sociotechnical vision or imaginary of the future, in existence since the late 1960s, is now materializing in the EDF.
Theoretically, we draw on Science and Technology Studies to deploy the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries to analyse how political outcomes are shaped by collectively held visions of desired futures that are attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology. We build on the six elements of Jasanoff’s definition of the imaginary: 1) a vision of a desired future; 2) collectively held; 3) institutionally stabilized; 4) publicly performed; 5) animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order; 6) attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.
We show how the ideas about a desired, future EU defence emerged in the 1960s and how several initiatives tried to enact them, how these ideas were promoted for decades and stabilized in the early 2000s, and how the EDF constitutes the materialization of these ideas, through public performance and institutional anchoring in both industrial and defence bureaucracies. Using an historiographical methodology, we draw on these insights to argue that current EU innovation, industrial and defence policies are entwined in wider political and social understandings about the past, present and future.
Bringing the history back in allows us not just to provide a richer account of the emergence of the EDF than currently exists, but also to critically analyse the contemporary materialisation of the sociotechnical imaginary. By putting technology and innovation at the centre of our analysis, our theoretical and methodological options enable alternative understandings of key contemporary defence policies in the EU and expand our views on the growing role of the European Commission in defence matters. Centring the sociotechnical imaginary enables us to understand the EDF neither just as an industrial policy, as its legal basis suggests, nor just as an instrument at the service of Europe’s strategic autonomy in geopolitical issues, as some commentators highlight, but rather as a complex combination of both.
Our contention is that from the 1970s onwards a particular view emerged of how the EU should support defence technology. The view is deeply rooted in the beliefs of that time that investment in defence technology drove civilian technological innovation and thus economic growth, and that the EU needed to bridge the transatlantic technological gap. Yet, these dynamics are, in many ways, a story of the past. Understanding how ideas about the future have created a stable sociotechnical imaginary of EU defence is relevant to comprehend the past and the present of key EU defence initiatives. We would take this argument further and claim that the EU’s vision of its future sees technology and innovation as performing central roles, and that research into the EU’s tech-based political orders of the future would gain from critical engagements with the literature that puts the socio-politics of technology at the centre of the analysis.
In the context of current discussions on the need for the EU to increase its strategic autonomy, it is important to understand that this need has triggered a wide array of initiatives since the 1960s both in the domains of industry and innovation, on the one hand, and defence, on the other. The logic, has argued by Marcum already in 1986, has been to prevent ‘a deep political and technological dependence on the United States’ (Marcum, 1986: 35). In other words, the possibility of strategic autonomy being viewed as a desirable policy outcome in these policy areas is not a new idea, and our article sheds light on the roots of the geo-political and geo-economic visions of the current Commission.
This blog post draws on the JCMS article “Sociotechnical Imaginaries of EU Defence: The Past and the Future in the European Defence Fund”
Jocelyn Mawdsley is a senior lecturer in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University UK. Her research focuses on the political economy of defence and the interplay between defence, innovation and industrial policies. Twitter handle @JocelynMawdsley @nclpolitics
Bruno Oliveira Martins is senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), where he coordinates its Security Research Group. He researches developments happening at the intersection of technological developments, security practices, and societal change. Twitter handle: @BrunoOMartins7 @PRIOUpdates