Defending Europe: Brussels must be the cornerstone of EU security

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt reports on the looming battle between the EU Commission and Member States over the EU’s precise role in reviving Europe’s defences

Brussels is on the warpath, and not before time. It has become painfully obvious that the EU institutions must play a significant though unaccustomed role in the rearming of Europe.

But exactly what role, and with what powers and resources, is an open question. It’s also disputed within Member States and inside the Commission itself. The complexities of the EU’s decision-making and its inexperience in defence matters are cited as reasons to soft-pedal the idea of a more battlesome Brussels.

For once, the timing is opportune. The run-up to June’s European elections is a perfect opportunity for these issues to be thrashed out between the main political parties and groupings. What’s needed, therefore, is a clear framework of proposals to be debated.

There has been much talk of a defence portfolio in the next European Commission, although little clarity as to its scope

Ursula von der Leyen, whose prospects of a second term as the Commission’s president seem assured, is backing the idea but has emphasised this would chiefly concern the defence industries.

An EU defence commissioner could not be an opposite number to NATO’s Secretary-General, but the portfolio would need extraordinary new powers to be worthwhile. Optimising the massive increases in EU governments’ defence spending now under discussion would be just a small part of what’s required. Europe’s defence sector is a political minefield in which member states’ rival national champions collaborate on some projects and are cut-throat competitors in others.

Yet a Europe-wide defence industry plan that would somehow include the UK is badly needed. It should arguably be presided over by an EU armaments czar able to knock heads together and coordinate planning. Multinational partnerships have been essential to the financing, technological development and global sales of hugely expensive defence projects, mostly but not exclusively in the aerospace sector, but are also the source of much bad blood and intra-EU suspicion.

Soured armaments partnerships have been inevitable when governments exert financial controls over their defence companies while also pursuing divergent foreign policies

Recent conflicts of interest have involved France, Italy, Spain, the UK and Germany. The most current example is Germany’s refusal to allow the smart technology ‘bunker busting’ Taurus missile from the multi-national MBDS consortium to be supplied to Ukraine.

This is reportedly because Berlin fears a dangerous escalation of the conflict with Russia if the missiles were used to destroy the Kerch Bridge, which is the key link between Russia and Crimea.

The idea of empowering the EU to play an honest broker role in such disputes is probably anathema to many of its member governments. But without greatly increased powers it’s hard to see how a more cohesive – and therefore more credible – European defence policy can be achieved.

Parallel to European rearmament, there’s the equally important question of rethinking the EU’s security strategy. The 2003 analysis by pioneering foreign policy chief Javier Solana was for a bygone age. Its 2016 update talked about ‘strategic autonomy’ but amounted only to a call for bigger budgets. Fresh agreement is vital on Europe’s security goals and commitments when America’s devotion to NATO is increasingly doubted.

Europe’s integration ambitions have at best sputtered in the 21st century. Successive crises – monetary, migratory, health – raised hopes of a political reawakening, only to be disappointed.

Member governments turned their attentions to domestic politics at the expense of shared threats

Now the Ukraine war is facing the EU with fundamental questions about its own future. Although transforming Europe’s seriously weakened defences may well take a decade or more, the geopolitical reality is that there’s no time to loose in presenting a common front, whether it be to the Kremlin or the White House. The looming elections to the European Parliament allow political leaders to present their ideas on heightened defence, now and in the years ahead. If they fail, history will not be kind to them.

This concludes the two-part Frankly Speaking article on ‘Defending Europe’. The first part appeared on 26 March, find out more here.

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