In early April Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, travelled to Northern France for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lys. The ceremony has prompted a reflection on contemporary Portuguese defence policy at a time when European solidarity is being tested by domestic terrorism, Russian posturing, and a shift in US military policy.
The Battle of Lys is considered one of the bloodiest combats in modern Portuguese military history. The conflict took place near the end of the First World War as Germany made a last-ditch effort to push the allies back from Ypres, Belgium. The French and Portuguese militaries worked together to block Germany from advancing. General Gomes da Costa, who would later become Portuguese president, commanded a battalion of 20,000 Portuguese soldiers. Unfortunately, they were underequipped and outnumbered by the Germans, resulting in a 5-mile retreat and more than 7,000 casualties before French reinforcements arrived and Germany finally called off the offensive.
While the First World War may have occurred a century ago, the military ties between France and Portugal are just as strong today. For example, last year, the Portuguese government joined The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a decision that was seen as domestically controversial, especially on the part of the government’s left-wing coalition partners. PESCO is part of Mr. Macron’s vision of a European military intervention force. It involves a binding commitment to increase national defence spending to 2% of GDP with a particular focus on investment and research and development in new military technology. The overarching goal is to enhance the cooperation and integration of Europe’s military forces.
Prior to Brexit, EU initiatives that might have lead to the establishment of a European army had been steadfastly blocked by the UK for fear that it would undermine NATO. However, Brexit and United States President Donald Trump’s less than enthusiastic endorsement of NATO’s article 5, which enshrines the principle of collective defence, have convinced Portugal and 24 other EU member states of the need for closer European military cooperation. The military cooperation includes all Union members save Britain, Denmark, and Malta.
Portugal’s military partnership with France also extends into the realm of cybersecurity. In 2015 Portugal and France became co-leaders of the EU’s Military Training Group Cyber Defence Discipline. The two countries have also worked together on projects relating to the NATO’s Multinational Cyber Defence Education and Training initiative. These projects have focused on developing the necessary information and communication technology (ICT) skills amongst military personnel in order to identify, manage, and defend against cyber-attacks.
Unfortunately, spending cuts introduced during the financial crisis dealt a particularly harsh blow to Portugal’s defence budget. In 2017, Portugal spent just 1.32% of its GDP on defence, far below the 2% target set by NATO. While the 2018 Portuguese budget allocates €2.151 billion for military spending, it’s only a 0.09% increase from 2017. Moreover, around a third of this will go to paying military pensions.
Portugal’s allies have remained cautiously optimistic about the country’s ability to meet its defence commitments. While NATO has asked Portugal to take on a more prominent role in countering Russian activity in the North Atlantic, it has acknowledged that financial restrictions may limit Portugal’s contribution.
During a trip to Portugal last January, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that while he welcomed the rise in Portugal’s military spending, he hinted that the country had a ways to go in meeting NATO’s expectations. “I also expect that you [Portugal] will continue [to increase military spending] because we need more investments from many NATO allies to make sure that we are delivering on the promise and the pledge we made back in 2014.”
Indeed, as its economy continues to recover steadily, there are more signs that Portugal is serious about strengthening its military capabilities. The 2018 defence budget saw a 9.3% increase in funds for future procurements. The government intends to acquire 12 mini unmanned aerial vehicles, six military cargo planes, and has announced plans to invest €32 million in anti-aircraft equipment by 2026.
As a geographically smaller country, Portugal’s military capacity should not be expected to match that of a country like France or some of its other neighbours, who also weathered the recent economic storm, but emerged less unscathed that Lisbon. However, this week’s commemoration is a reminder that Portugal still has an important role to play in ensuring Europe’s defence, and it is indeed rising to the occasion as its economy settles. With Brexit on the horizon and US support for NATO at an all-time low, Portugal and other Southern EU countries will be required to shoulder more of Europe’s security burden in order to keep the continent a safe place for all its inhabitants.