Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Foreign Policy

Ukraine war pushes Brussels to break a taboo with joint arms spending plan

Press play to listen to this article

The European Commission will on Wednesday put forward a plan under which it would acquire a groundbreaking new defense role by helping the member countries co-ordinate their increasing military spending.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered sweeping changes in European defense policy, pushing Sweden and Finland toward NATO membership and forcing countries to ramp up their spending on munitions. In a historic shift, even Germany — long lambasted for low defense spending within NATO — has vowed to increase its military budget and has chosen to send heavy weapons to Ukrainian forces locked in battle with the Russians.

Faced with this remilitarizing Continent, officials and diplomats said that Wednesday’s “Defense-EU” plan would seek to give Brussels a role in ensuring greater efficiency in arms expenditure by allowing European buyers to club together for market leverage. Dovetailing with Europe’s ambitions for wider “strategic autonomy,” EU officials insisted that the package would have a strong industrial component. A centerpiece of the announcement is expected to be an assessment by the Commission of Europe’s “defense investment gaps.”

Europe’s needs are pressing. Diplomats say that the deployment of €2 billion-worth of weapons that the EU has so far agreed to provide to Ukraine means that, in many cases, member countries, especially those with Soviet-era munitions in the East, have emptied their stocks that now need to be refilled.

In a succinct summary of what the EU was out to achieve, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “The Europeans need to spend together, more and better.”

Although the financial firepower and effectiveness of Wednesday’s Defense-EU package remain to be seen, even venturing into such territory is likely to prove contentious. Some European countries have historically been very apprehensive about straying into defense policy because of any potential overlap with NATO, and fears of angering the United States, which leads the Western security alliance.

“It is new, and we are breaking a taboo,” said a European Commission official, who acknowledged that a treaty obligation “prevents us from financing elements that touch upon defense operations.”

In an attempt to get round that legal obstacle, the official suggested that Brussels could focus rather on the broader manufacturing ecosystem rather than immediate “defense operations.” The new Defense-EU program, the official said, “would focus on ‘investment with industrial ambition.'”  

“Whatever is related to industry is not necessarily linked to operations,” the official added.

The Commission official said the program would be financed through the EU’s regular budget, potentially testing some legal boundaries. The EU treaties have long been interpreted as barring the Commission from using its common budget to buy weapons. Other officials and diplomats said that the joint purchases could be financed using a new off-budget fund.

Details of the Commission’s Defense-EU plan were first reported by the French news site B2.

Orders from Versailles

The plan is the Commission’s response to instructions from the 27 national leaders at a European Council summit in Versailles in March, where the Council tasked the Commission with acting on a lengthy wish-list for better security cooperation.

The general concept of joint procurement was briefly discussed during a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels on Tuesday. The EU already has a European Defense Fund (EDF), which is used to finance joint research-and-development programs. There is also a European Defense Agency (EDA), which helps coordinate security policy. Rounding off the list, there is an off-budget European Peace Facility, which is used to provide military aid, including weapons, to partner countries. Ukraine, since the start of the war, has been the prime beneficiary of it.

But the EU has never previously coordinated joint defense spending across member countries.

At a briefing following Tuesday’s meeting, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said that the next steps — including how much money might be put into a joint spending program, and the legal mechanisms governing it —  would largely depend on the security needs identified by the Commission.

“I think tomorrow, the Commission is presenting a report on the capability gap,” Ollongren told reporters. “So that was really something that European leaders in Versailles asked.”

Ollongren said that better coordination, and more efficient spending, were urgent imperatives given the return of war to Europe and the threat posed by Russia.

“I think that’s really important that we try,” she said. “Now we have the EDF — so it’s on the research and development side. We have already, I think, found the right mechanisms to better coordinate that and to have a better cooperation between countries. And if you want to step that up also to procurement, well there has to be some kind of solution, also from the treaty perspective. But I think the basis in the Versailles agreement is important because it says: ‘Yes, we must have a European security and defence policy and it must also include some way of doing procurement.'”

Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said that the next steps would largely depend on the security needs identified by the Commission. Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Time to start spending

Ollongren noted that the European Peace Facility operates under an intergovernmental agreement between member countries, outside the EU’s regular budget.

“Of course now with the EPF, for instance, and helping Ukraine we are doing that in an intergovernmental way,” she said. “That’s also quite possible. So it doesn’t have to be something that is on the level of the European Commission. But it should be in a way, it should make sure that also from here you get the right incentive like in the EDF to cooperate.”

Ollongren added that ministers’ needed the results of the Commission’s assessment to take further steps. “We couldn’t really discuss it because we didn’t really have the material on our table,” she said. “But we’re taking steps in that direction. And I think the first movement in that direction is first to see what are really the capability gaps.”

At the meeting on Tuesday of the European Defence Agency’s Steering Board (a body composed of EU defense ministers) “we went to the analysis on the defense investments gap that we will present tomorrow, together with the Commission, in response to the tasking from the leaders in Versailles,” said EU foreign policy chief Borrell, during a press conference at the end of a meeting of defense ministers.

The analysis, he added, “looks at gaps in the short term. The first thing to do is to refill our stockpiles of military material. In the medium term, we have to augment our existing capabilities and, in the long term, we have to reinforce and modernize.”

“The … expenditure which has been done, let’s say in a common approach, has been decreasing. Against any rationality, it has been decreasing. So it is time to turn this trend up and to do otherwise.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology


Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights


Customized policy intelligence platform


A high-level public affairs network

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Europe

Press play to listen to this article This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities....

Europe

Press play to listen to this article Ukraine is looking to Turkey for security guarantees that would unlock a deal with Russia to allow...

Europe

EDINBURGH WHEN IT COMES TO J.K. ROWLING, even some of the children’s author’s biggest fans are finding it increasingly necessary to separate the work...

Europe

Press play to listen to this article Ukrainian intelligence said on Wednesday that 144 Ukrainian officers and soldiers were returned home from Russian captivity in...

Europe

Alessio Satta is the coordinator of the coalition MedWet, the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative.  Today, the Mediterranean Basin is a climate change hotspot.  The region...

Europe

FRANKFURT – German inflation eased to 8.2 percent in June from 8.7 percent in May, data released by the German statistics office showed Wednesday. Analysts...

Foreign Policy

MADRID — Italy “will be supplying” Ukraine with heavy weapons “similar” to the howitzers that Germany and the Netherlands are sending to the country,...

Europe

Nearly half of Northern Ireland voters trust the European Union to represent their post-Brexit interests — and almost none of them trusts the British...