EU Affairs

Air defence in Benelux and Visegrad: new dilemmas call for more trust among nations


Students of ethics love to discuss the trolley dilemma, which Wikipedia defines in the following way:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track.

You have two options:
(1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
(2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

I never thought this dilemma reflects anything happening in the real world. Only after attending the ELF seminar on the Air Defence Pact, I realized this dilemma could actually materialize. Here is how:


A civilian plane is high jacked by terrorists in Belgian airspace and with the ground speed of 900 km per hour, it is heading towards Amsterdam. There is a serious suspicion that the intention of the terrorists is to crash the plane into government buildings. Luckily, due to joint air space patronage, a Belgium F16 pilot is patrolling the plane and is ready to shoot it down. But here comes the dilemma. The Commander-in-Chief has to issue a command within a few minutes that the civilian plane with dozens of passengers shall be shot down in order to save an unknown number of potential casualties down on the ground. Which is the correct choice?

There is no easy answer. However, the approaches to this question must be legally defined in case air space defence is shared among several countries. The possibility of shooting down a renegade – that is how experts call a hijacked plane – has recently become legal in the Benelux countries. Germany, in contrast, has a ruling of its constitutional court that forbids such an act.[1]

Increasing sharing and pooling of military capacities


The Benelux case is based on a wider agreement signed on March 4, 2015, establishing a Common Air Defence (in operation since 2017). Inspired by the Benelux countries’ good practice, Ministers of Defence of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary (the so called Visegrad countries, or V4) reached a preliminary agreement on a similar cooperation in the Central European region in May 2015. Unlike in Benelux, the agreement only defined a joint vision. A concrete time framework and details of the cooperation remain to be defined.

Renegades might be a bit of an extreme example of current defence and security challenges in the EU. Nevertheless, there are a number of other challenges. Both Benelux and Visegrad initiatives are examples of the so called Sharing & Pooling of military capacities. Sharing and Pooling has recently become a buzz word in the EU. Co-operative way of thinking about generating the modern defence capabilities is nothing new and has been previously conceptualized in NATO as Smart Defence. The main aim of this policy is to make defence more efficient and also more cost-effective (under the pressure of austerity measures).

While the Russian aggression and war in Eastern Ukraine made many national governments increase their military budgets, money is not the only challenge when rethinking the European defence strategy.

Sharing and pooling: overcoming symbolic politics

The Prague seminar organized by the European Liberal Forum (ELF) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom aimed at identifying obstacles and challenges in Sharing & Pooling initiatives on the examples of Air Defence Pacts.

Laurens Bynens, Kenniscentre (Belgium)

How did the Benelux countries manage to overcome bureaucratic inertia and make a plan on joint air defence a reality? A presentation by Tim Vandenput, Belgian MP, and Laurens Bynens, representative of the Kenniscentre Think Tank, explained that in Benelux it actually took more than 20 years to transform the informal cooperation into a formal pact. The initial impetus came in the mid-1990s during the Yugoslavia war when in 1996 a joint deployable taskforce was created. This experience was helpful later for launching plans on joint air defence.

A member of the Czech Air Force Headquarters (who wished to remain anonymous) revealed a very different situation in the Visegrad countries in his seminar contribution. According to him, the current process of sharing and pooling resembles a political gesture and in reality is not high on the government’s agenda. This was confirmed by Mate Szalai, researcher from the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Hungary, who struggled to receive an official response by Hungarian authorities about the Visegrad joint Air Defence Initiative.

Ukraine conflict shows that similar threat perception is essential

Lack of trust among the V4 partners resulting from their diverging political trajectories is not the only problem. A common threat perception is needed, however, in the light of the Ukraine conflict the V4 are showing surprising differences in evaluating the current situation.

EU AgendaHungary is insisting on its “Eastern Opening” policy, which is based on good relations with Russia. A similar attitude, although in a less explicit way, is defining Slovakian foreign policy. No wonder that Poles, who try to drive forward various joint defence initiatives, often feel frustrated about the progress within the V4.

Essential precondition is trust

But the most intricate political dimensions of sharing & pooling are the following: are individual states willing to give up some of their know-how and share it with other states? Do Dutch people trust Belgian jet fighters to make their sky safe? Do Czechs have enough trust in Polish military schools so that Czech defence elites may be trained there? Can Hungarian politicians be trusted not to pass on know-how outside of NATO and the EU?

The Prague ELF seminar pointed out that no matter how much cost-savings sharing and pooling could bring, without mutual trust the concept of defence cooperation will never work. Defence cooperation is resulting in more inter-dependencies. Whether this makes us more vulnerable or stronger remains to be seen.

ELF Seminar in Prague on Sharing & Pooling in Air Defence will be followed-up by two more seminars in Tallinn (Estonia) on September 3, 2015 and in Brussels (Belgium) in October/November 2015, focusing on cyber-security and land-force reforms.




Václav Bacovský
Project Manager