David Cameron to challenge EU over surveillance drone programme plans

David Cameron to challenge EU over surveillance drone programme

, chief political correspondent

David Cameron was involved in a row with the European commission after Downing Street announced that the prime minister would challenge plans for an EU surveillance drone programme at a summit in Brussels.

A spokesperson for the commission said it had no plans to own or buy drones after No 10 said there could be “no question” of the EC owning military assets.

The row broke out after Downing Street said the prime minister was planning to amend the conclusions of the final EU summit of the year, which opens in Brussels on Thursday afternoon, in two areas on EU defence co-operation. Cameron will demand that the EU makes clear the “primacy of Nato” in upholding security in Europe and he will make clear the commission cannot start a drone programme.

A No 10 source said: “The prime minister will be making clear the primacy of Nato. We see NATO as the bedrock of our collective defence. Any EU action should be complementary to that, but not duplicating it. We should be very clear that defence is a member state competence and we don’t want to see an extension of EU action in this area. What the EU does do should be focused on practical action, facilitating what member states may want or choose to do together.

“Take drones as an example. There can be no question of the commission owning dual use military capabilities such as drones. Defence kit must be nationally owned and controlled and that should be clear to everyone.”

The No 10 pre-summit briefing prompted an angry response from the commission. A spokesperson said: “The European commission has no intention of owning or procuring its own drones.”

Downing Street was alarmed by an early draft of the summit conclusions calling for the development of “remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS)” by 2020-25.

The draft conclusions say: “The European Council welcomes and supports the multinational programmes developed and approved by the concerned member states and supported by the European Defence Agency to deliver key capabilities and address critical shortfalls through concrete cooperative projects: the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in the 2020-2025 timeframe: preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS; the establishment of an RPAS user community among the participating Member States; close synergies with the European Commission on regulation (for an initial RPAS integration into the European Aviation System by 2016); appropriate funding from 2014 for R&D activities; the development of Air-to-Air refuelling capacity: progress towards increasing overall capacity and reducing fragmentation of the fleet, especially as regards the establishment of a Multi-Role Tanker Transport fleet, with synergies in the field of certification, qualification, in-service support and training.”

Downing Street was alarmed by the call in the draft conclusions for “close synergies” with the European commission on integrating the system into the European Aviation System. Sources said that the EU would have a role in approving drone flights across EU airspace but should have no role in running drones.

Under the plans drawn up for the summit, the research programme would be run by member states and by the European Defence Agency, whose chief executive Claude-France Arnould told Reuters she expected EU leaders to commit to the project.

Arnould said that Europe was in danger of weakening its defence industry if it did not make an early commitment to such programmes. “It would be a tragedy if we emerged healed from the financial crisis but having lost in the meantime all of our industrial and technological defence capacity,” she told Reuters.


The EC expressed astonishment that No 10 thought it would be involved in a drone programme. It said the European Defence Agency, which is answerable to member states, would have a role. It also said the plans envisage civilian drones to monitor migrants seeking to land by boat from the north African coast on the Italian island of Lampedusa or for humanitarian crises elsewhere.


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