European Union’s Defence Ambitions Still Showing Signs of Life

Foreign Affairs

Cologne: The defence plans of the European Union are back as revealed in a new budget proposal as the continent pushes to revive its economy following the Coronavirus crisis.

Two flagship programmes — the European Defence Fund and the Military Mobility initiative — are set to receive €8 billion (US$9 billion) and €1.5 billion (US$1.7 billion), respectively, in the seven-year plan beginning in 2021, according to a proposal unveiled this week by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The figures are lower than the initial proposal of €13 billion and €6.5 billion for the two budget lines. But they represent an uptick compared with recent negotiation positions that envisioned defence-related spending slashed even more.

Defence spending remains a subject not very much liked in many European countries, and there is no dedicated political narrative around building military prowess in the context of the bloc’s recovery plan, dubbed Next Generation EU during a May 27 speech by von der Leyen.

However, as the European Defence Fund — designed to foster intra-continental defence cooperation — remains in the mix is in itself a statement, say analysts. Defence-spending advocates in Europe believe a robust military can strengthen the EU’s hand in trying to assert its role on the world stage with other players like China and Russia.

The new proposal of €8 billion for the European Defence Fund may not seem like much, given the high, upfront costs for multinational military equipment projects, said Sophia Besch, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform. “But it’s a win for the [European] Commission in the current political context,” she added.

“COVID-19 has shifted the priorities, and even before the crisis there were signs that defence was losing ground in the traditional budget battles,” Besch said. Given that, the new proposal is “better than nothing,” she argued.

At the same time, the de facto reduction would make it harder to prove for the commission that the intended effects can be achieved with the amount envisioned, Besch predicted.

“Allocations to the EDF have the potential of triggering more defence cooperation, as those funds will be used to finance collaborative research and common capability development projects,” said Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, an Athens-based defence analyst specialising in the emerging European defence-cooperation framework PESCO, or Permanent Structured Cooperation.

The cut to the budget line for military mobility means member states stand to pay more of their own money for updating bridges, roads and rail networks to ensure military equipment can quickly move along the continent in the event of a standoff with Russia.

“Unless we have the full costings of how much bridges and roads will cost, it is hard to evaluate whether the funds are sufficient,” Efstathiou said. “What is easy to predict, however, is the dissatisfaction of the Eastern European states.”