European defence games split the EU Member States

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On October 9, 2023 the European Council (EUCO) gave a green light to new rules to boost common procurement in the EU defence industry. ’Today, the Commission, in close cooperation with the High Representative, is launching a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process to inform the new European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS), reads a press release dated October 27, 2023. Following the announcement of the project, the Commission has scheduled three months of preliminary informal consultations on the strategy.

With a budget of €7,2 billion for the period 2021-2027, the European Defence Fund is the EU’s key instrument to support defence R&D cooperation in Europe. The Commission has proposed to enhance its funding by €1,5 billion as part of the mid-term review of the Multiannual Financial Framework which was approved at the EUCO meeting on February 1. The EDIS is expected to be presented in February 2024.

A Ukraine-focused European defence

The avaliable background papers on the new EDIS give the general impression that Brussels is not trying to develop a defence industry strategy of the EU, but rather to launch an international assistance programme for Ukraine, with mandatory contributions from member states. From this point of view, the EU seems to be creating a long-term defence industry strategy with Ukraine as its main focus, which ultimately sends the implicit signal that it intends to maintain the current war situation.

The strategy-makers make no secret of their Ukraine-oriented approach, referring to the fact that they see the strategy as a response of the EU and its member states to the immediate challenge of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

The member states and Ukraine are mentioned together as one a number of times in the consultation papers, despite the fact that Ukraine is a candidate country at the stage of accession talks, light years away from a future accession. Even if hypothetically, it’s incorrect to include Ukraine in the bloc, especially when it comes to the most sensitive defence issues. On the other, it’s also a mistake to require the EU to support Ukraine not only financially but to provide it with ammunition and weapons.

With the new Ukraine-focused EDIS, Henry Kissinger’s nightmare comes true, who, last year, speaking about Ukraine, criticised EU and NATO members for provideing weapons and financial assistance to a country at war outside the two blocs. Unfortunately, the contradiction outlined by Kissinger has not yet been resolved, but the respected former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, unfortunately, can no longer express any further constructive criticism.

A for the EU’s defence policy, a solid French position is against a firm Swedish stance

It’s also necessary to point out that there are differences between the EU member states’ views on EU defence policy: while France, with a strong defence industry, advocates giving priority to the EU’s defence industry in the programmes, Sweden, also with a considerable defence potential and, on the doorstep of NATO, together with the Baltic states and some Eastern European members argues that this is incompatible with the urgency of war needs and replenishing stockpiles. In addition, Macron pushes the EU member states to develop weapon systems independent of the US.

Taking all the above factors into account, it’s no mere coincidence that strategic talks between these two nations recently took place on the occasion of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Stockholm at the end of January. Besides the EUCO meeting in early February, which focused on financial support for Ukraine, the visit was also motivated by the issue of Sweden’s accession to NATO, which Hungary continues to block. According to media reports, the Swedish-French talks were clearly focused on European defence issues.

A French-Swedish consensus on Ukraine

At the EUCO meeting on February 1, in addition to economic support to Ukraine, Charles Michel stressed the need to urgently address military assistance to Ukraine. Ahead of the meeting, some European leaders issued a letter calling for the EU to increase its military support and arms deliveries to Ukraine. This call was welcomed, in particular, by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. It should be added that, Macron also expressed the EU’s need to support Ukraine with ’whatever it takes’.

US and EU may part ways on support of Ukraine

As the 2024 US presidential elections are on the horizon, tensions are growing in the Congress over the issue of assistance to Ukraine. There are many indications that the US would prefer to remain the main arms supplier to Ukraine in the future (to the benefit of the US arms industry), while leaving financial assistance the responsibility of the EU. Such American plans may also motivate the EU to try to shift to a profitable arms trade, while gradually reducing burdensome financial support. At this point, it’s also worth quoting Macron, who in his speech in Sweden stressed that the EU must defend Ukraine even if the US reduces its military support.

Crucial issues still remaining up in the air

The authors of the new European strategy focus on issues such as ’how can we achieve a better coordination of defence spending at EU level’? In this respect, they criticise the member states in an area of action that falls under national competence, arguing that member states are not efficient enough in their defence spending.

No national leader would dispute the statement that defence is crucial, just as no one disputes the argument that, defence in Europe should be a collective duty and a common responsibility.

Since the EDIS is supposed to be the EU’s most significant response to the war in Ukraine, a measure that affects the security of the region as a whole, it’s important to raise the question whether the EDIS is indeed the adequate reaction to the geopolitical situation? Moreover, isn’t the EDIS is just another symbolic step by Brussels, presumably at Washington’s request, to demonstrate the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine?

When it comes to real-life defence issues, something more than EDIS would be needed -something like a renewed major European defence strategy with an internal focus which can fully guarantee the safety of EU citizens.

Thinking strategically is crucial. That’s why it would be worth asking Brussels why exactly did it take two years to start thinking about a new defence-related strategy? Russia’s agression in Ukraine has begun in 2022. In the meantime, most EU member states have become arms suppliers to Ukraine to the extent that their own stockpiles are slowly but surely running out. What happens if Europe faces a real external attack? Will it be able to react quickly, adequately and, collectively?

Finally, when it comes to the basic question of who will defend Europe, nobody knows the answer which is really worrisome.

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