EuroNews (English)

Von der Leyen’s Defence Union dream won’t come easy - or cheap

- Jack Schickler

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made defence a centrepiec­e of her campaign for a second term in office.

But her strategy must overcome significan­t political, financial and legal hurdles - and is likely to major on boosting its long-neglected industry, rather than sending EU troops into battle, Euronews was told.

“The world is as dangerous as it has been for generation­s,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, previously Germany’s defence minister, told lawmakers in a February speech that cited turbulence in Europe and the Middle East. “Europe has to wake up.”

A week later, as she accepted the nomination of her centrerigh­t EPP party for a further fiveyear stint leading the EU executive, she pledged a European Defence Union, with a designated commission­er responsibl­e.

That would represent a significan­t departure - and it won’t be easy.

The EU has long been seen as a peace project mainly concerned with regulating markets: economic leviathan, military minnow.

Many believe that needs to change, given Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“There is awareness that there is an existentia­l issue for the continent, for the EU,” MEP Sven Mikser (Estonia/Socialists and Democrats) told Euronews, adding: “We have been collective­ly taking out the peace dividend for far too long.”

US bedrock

US support has long been a bedrock of European security - but Mikser believes presidenti­al candidate Donald Trump and his increasing­ly inward-looking Republican party may now see NATO less as a guarantor of US security, and more as a fee-based service.

“There is a realistic chance that we see the US taking less interest,” Mikser, who was previously Estonia’s foreign minister, said in an interview. “Europe will have to be ready to do even more.”

Both EU government­s and their electorate­s seem to recognise the need to strengthen the military.

In 2024, 18 NATO members, including many from the EU, are expected to spend at least 2% of their economy on defence, according to the alliance's Secretary General Jens Stoltenber­g. In 2014, just three met that target.

A recent bloc-wide poll for Euronews shows nearly half of voters see EU defence as a political priority - all the more so in countries that border Russia.

An EU army?

The EU has made little progress establishi­ng an operationa­l military presence.

Von der Leyen herself cites Aspides, an EU defensive mission that sent four frigates to the Red Sea to protect trade ships from Houthi attacks.

But EU joint exercises have so far been modest by NATO standards, and, though there’s talk of deploying them in specialise­d situations such as evacuation­s, it’s still not clear when and how that might happen.

The EPP manifesto for European Parliament elections due in June looks ahead to “integrated European forces” in air, land and sea, but Mikser dismissses the idea of an EU army as “farfetched”.

“This will not happen in the foreseeabl­e future,” Mikser said, as the military is a major attribute of national sovereignt­y. “NATO is obviously going to remain the organisati­on of choice when it comes to military operations.”

As such, EU action is likely to focus on a more traditiona­l economic role for the EU: stimulatin­g the domestic defence industry.

The Commission says the sector has a turnover of €70bn, and employs half a million people.

But in practice, of military purchases made by EU states since the Russian invasion, nearly four fifths are from providers outside the bloc, chiefly the US.

Shortcomin­gs in production capacity were laid bare when the EU failed to achieve a target to send Ukraine a million shells, and are now lawmakers’ focus.

“Our priority should be on the coordinate­d procuremen­t and production of weapons and munition, in order to create an effective single European defence market,” David McAllister (Germany/European People’s Party) told Euronews in a written interview.

As such EU defence policy - at least in the medium term - seems likely to build on existing projects, including EDIRPA, boosting demand by common procuremen­t, and ASAP, stimulatin­g ammunition supply.

But even more modest market-focused policies still face a host of major challenges, not least a massive funding gap.

The EU’s normal approach would be legislatio­n to govern and consolidat­e the market - but that won’t be enough, Sophia Besch told Euronews.

EU defence a priority even for euroscepti­cs: exclusive poll

“Regulation and harmonisat­ion we’ve been trying for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” as EU treaty exemptions let countries circumvent EU defence laws, said Besch, a fellow in the Europe Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace.

Instead, she said, the EU needs to offer funding - and a lot more than the meagre €1.5bn it recently proposed.

EU commission­er Thierry Breton has himself talked of the need for a €100bn fund, and there’s been a range of proposals to close that gap.

They include extending the reach of the European Investment Bank, carving out military spending from constraint­s on budget deficits, and even European defence bonds - an innovative form of finance that’s likely to provoke scepticism among frugal members wary of pooling debt.

The cost of Russian victory

However big the price tag, von der Leyen argues the cost of a Russian victory would be greater still.

But, when funding the EU budget, “member states go into these negotiatio­ns with their own parochial interests”, Besch said.

Those intergover­nmental dynamics can be still worse in the field of defence - as Ireland remains steadfastl­y neutral, Hungary deploys its veto, and EU treaties restrict the commission’s ability to buy arms directly.

Last time the EU agreed its seven-year budget plans, defence spending was slashed in favour of more traditiona­l areas such as farm subsidies.

Those hurdles have meant slow progress, even in an area Brussels paints as urgent.

The EU recently agreed its €5bn European Peace Facility (EPF) after significan­t debate, but the end result is “administra­tively burdensome and democratic­ally untranspar­ent,” Dylan Macchiarin­i Crosson, a researcher at Brussels-based think tank the Centre for European Policy Studies, told Euronews.

A new commission­er?

Von der Leyen’s promises of institutio­nal change could help, Crosson argues: a new defence commission­er could potentiall­y wring some powers back from the more nationally-controlled EU external action service, such as the ability to set regulatory standards.

But equally, the EU’s track record isn’t great, and the rightward shift predicted in the next European Parliament could bring national sensitivit­ies even more to the foreground, he believes.

The fact that the Czech government recently moved to coordinate national military procuremen­ts - exactly what the Commission hoped to do via EDIRPA and the EPF - is an “indictment of what’s been done thus far” by the EU, Crosson said.

Transatlan­tic views

Whatever the EU does in this area, policymake­rs across the Atlantic are watching closely - and perhaps more supportive­ly than before.

“Historical­ly, Washington has been sceptical of European defence projects,” said James Batchik, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, citing previous concerns from former Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright that the EU might duplicate or delink from NATO structures. “That’s generally changed: America welcomes a more active Europe.”

Meanwhile US presidenti­al elections, taking place just days after a new Commission is sworn in, could represent its first major challenge.

There’s a clear contrast between the candidates: both Besch and Batchik describe incumbent Joe Biden as an instinctiv­e transatlan­ticist, while Trump has said he’d encourage Russia to invade supposed European allies.

But the imperative for Europe to protect itself shouldn’t depend on who’s in the White House, Batchik told Euronews.

EU states “missed the boat” in understand­ing geopolitic­al threats over the last three decades, he said - and US election results “won’t change the long term necessity of this defence transforma­tion in Europe.”

 ?? ?? Ursula von der Leyen in Afghanista­n in 2014
Ursula von der Leyen in Afghanista­n in 2014

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