Five reasons for European defense integration after the invasion of Ukraine – European Council on Foreign Relations
On May 18, the European Commission published a new set of proposals aimed at advancing the European defense “project”. Nothing new there, one might think: the past quarter-century is littered with the wreckage of previous repeated efforts to get member states to translate their words into action. So far, the overwhelming force of the case for greater European defense integration – “spend more, spend better and spend more together”, as the age-old mantra goes – has made little headway against the immovable object national inertia and vested interests. Could this time be different?
The proposals (a Joint communication by the Commission and the European Defense Agency) are responding to a mission from EU leaders at their March 11 emergency summit in Versailles, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The instruction was to “propose an analysis of defense investment gaps by mid-May and propose any new initiatives needed to strengthen Europe’s industrial and technological base”.
Analyzing capacity gaps will have been relatively easy – after all, the agency has been pointing out what is missing for years. As head of the agency and high representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, observed when launching the proposals, “the European Defense Agency has worked over the last few years to explain these gaps, to explain how we can and must fill these gaps. But to be honest, we weren’t very successful and nobody was listening to us. The lessons emerging from the war in Ukraine have mostly confirmed the previous analysis, while underscoring the particular urgency of restoring air superiority (air defense has been neglected and drones underutilized), countering the Russian long-range artillery and to develop new command and control, surveillance and data-sharing systems on which the effectiveness of all-arms combat depends.
But it is not only the shock of Ukraine and the attention of European leaders (alas, history shows that such attention can be short-lived) that gives hope that, this time, people can listen. Other reasons for optimism include:
- Many of the old reasons for fruitless disputes between Member States have disappeared. Europeanists and Atlanticists no longer need to argue over whether the emphasis should be on expeditionary warfare or territorial defence, or whether the goal of all of this is a stronger NATO or European “strategic autonomy”. The potential NATO membership of Finland and Sweden will further reduce the differences between NATO and EU membership; and everyone now agrees that the European armies must put themselves more at the height of the Russians. (It would be pointless, and perhaps premature, to suggest that after Ukraine the Russians might need a long time to lick their wounds before they become a threat to anyone again.)
- Luck or judgment, the mission of Versailles focuses on the “back office” of European defence. Capabilities and industry are less sensitive to theological disputes than the “front office” issues of operations and deployments, which drive all this anxiety about European dependence on the Americans. (The unspoken but widely understood truth is that the Americans will eventually refocus on the Pacific, expecting the Europeans to increasingly shoulder the burden of their own defense – but that the Americans to dictate the timing and methodology of this transition, which will help avoid intra-European squabbles.)
- Defense budgets are increasing, with more and more allies meeting or targeting the NATO target of 2% of GDP spent on defence. This means fiscal space – how will the Germans spend their new A defense fund of 100 billion euros? – which, in turn, leaves room for new projects, most likely shared with other Europeans. (The opposite effect was evident in the years of defense budget cuts after 2008: away from defense ministries embracing more pooling of resources and efforts to get more money for their depleted euros, spending on defense were renationalized and collaboration fell off a cliff.)
- The new proposals frame what is needed in a sensible and manageable way, with three phases envisaged. First comes the restoration of combat readiness – taking training seriously and “stocking the shelves”. This applies not only to the replenishment of ammunition, equipment and spare parts sent to the Ukrainians, but also to the “emptying” that always affects unused servicemen – the practice of concentrating resources on maintaining a “showcase full of apparent assets even if it means depleting stocks of ammunition and spares (there is little point in having, say, a squadron of a dozen planes if the majority are unserviceable at any given time) . The second phase consists of augmenting existing forces and capabilities by filling the most urgent identified capability gaps and increasing numbers if necessary. Third, the future needs to be addressed by putting in place a longer-term modernization program, requiring the integration of new technologies.
- Finally, the Commission proposes to deploy an extraordinary financial strike force. It offers to support a coordinated war stock replenishment exercise as it has done with covid-19 vaccines – with €500m offered as a grant to incentivize member states to participate. Beyond that, he proposes that member states interested in collaborating on new equipment capability should form themselves into European defense capability consortia – which, under a new Commission regulation, would be exempt from VAT. . And this tax exemption would not only apply to the initial supply, but also to all costs throughout the life cycle (operation, maintenance and decommissioning). The Commission has also hinted that the European Investment Bank may need to increase its support for the European defense industry and joint purchases (6 billion euros are mentioned).
This new cascade of “incentives” comes, of course, on top of the more than one billion euros per year already on offer for shared R&D projects via the European Defense Fund (EDF) – which, the Commission points out , also aims to increase . With so much “free” money on offer, even the most blindsided Department of National Defense must now join the queue, however counter-cultural the condition of having to collaborate with others may seem. (Hopefully national finance ministries won’t notice that such generous reliance on the EU budget means member states are actually being bribed with their own money.)
So – could this really be a turning point on the long and arduous road to a more cohesive European defense effort? The Commission clearly believes this, and that it will be in the driver’s seat – it “envisions” a future joint European programming and procurement function (i.e. centralized coordination of investment planning and procurement defence), which will rely on their EDF and joint purchasing programmes.
Time will tell whether this confidence is justified or whether Member States will manage to help themselves with subsidies and then return to their old solipsistic ways. But it is certainly not unreasonable to hope that once lured by the benefits of “spending better and spending more together”, EU national defense establishments might eventually succumb to doing the right thing.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.