Militarising the EU?

Said Shehata
Tuesday 11 Apr 2023

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been forcing the EU countries to rethink their military spending and defence cooperation.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the security formula in the EU region from fewer weapons to more spending on armaments, even as the foundational intention of the EU was to end the wars and military conflicts that had done so much to destroy the European countries and to rebuild them through economic cooperation. 

The EU has succeeded in avoiding disastrous conflicts in Europe since its emergence in the 1950s, though with some exceptions like the ethnic conflicts in the Balkan countries that were formerly united as Yugoslavia and the Russian annexation of Crimea. Other Russian ambitions and threats were contained through trade and diplomacy, as former German chancellor Angela Merkel once said in an interview.  

The EU has reacted to the war in Ukraine by pledging larger defence budgets and sending weapons to Ukraine, however. Devoting more money to weapons will affect other economic projects, such as green technology and efforts to face climate change. 

The EU Common Security and Defence Policy plays a military role through military and police missions, such as operations in the Balkans. Today, the EU has funded Ukraine’s military forces by about four billion Euros from the European Peace Facility and the EU Military Assistance Mission to Ukraine. 

The aim of the latter is to strengthen the military capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces, and the EU has also provided military training. The bloc has imposed the strongest sanctions in its history against Moscow and has provided Ukraine with huge military assistance, for the first time in its history authorising the delivery of lethal weapons to a third country. 

This is considered to be a major policy shift prompted by the war in Ukraine, and it was underlined when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz changed his mind and decided to supply Ukraine with 1,000 anti-tank weapons, 500 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, and 500 Strela rockets earlier this year. 

In addition, he announced that Berlin would invest 100 billion Euros in German rearmament, which not only moved the country away from its post-World War II aim of keeping a small military, but also makes Germany the largest defence spender in the EU. After hesitating to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Scholz also agreed to do so. 

Recently, the first shipment of Leopard 2 tanks from Germany was sent to the country. 18 cutting-edge battle tanks were delivered after Ukrainian crews were trained to use them, with the German army training Ukrainian tank crews to use the advanced A6 variant of the Leopard 2 over recent weeks.

The tanks are specifically designed to compete with the Russian T-90 battle tank and are considered to be easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient than most other Western tanks.

The war has thus changed the EU’s military policy. Within days of the Russian invasion, it decided to spend 450 million Euros on arms for Ukraine and an additional 50 million Euros in non-lethal aid. Just two weeks later, the European Council doubled that commitment, bringing overall military assistance to Ukraine to more than one billion Euros.

The bloc did not think about the unintended consequences of this military aid because of the speed and scale of the response to the Russian invasion. European leaders raised the bar by agreeing to reach several military goals by 2025, such as the development of a 5,000-man “rapid deployment capacity” with contributions from various member states that will be under EU command and unlike the existing “battlegroups” that are smaller units under national command on a rotation basis. 

The European governments also announced significant defence budget increases in 2022. European defence is no longer limited to trying achieve more with less. The Europeans are spending more money on defence to fill the gaps in their arsenals.

In order to put this paradigm shift in context, it is worth noting, first, that sovereignty has been an obstacle for common EU defence procurement. A 2009 European Commission directive on defence procurement allowed the EU to launch infringement proceedings against countries that unduly prioritised their national defence firms. But this directive was unsuccessful in changing the behaviour of governments defending their sovereignty in defence matters. 

Second, no one owns EU defence policy. France and Germany disagree on how to shape Europe’s defence. Paris has criticised Berlin’s decision to spend its extra defence money on buying US-made arms. Berlin suspects that France wants its own arms factories to benefit from the new financial resources and emphasises that European firms cannot deliver as quickly as US suppliers. Only 18 per cent of all defence spending by EU member states is conducted in cooperation with other EU countries. 

Third, the active role of NATO puts a question mark over any potential military role for the EU even on European territory. Fourth, it seems that there is no will on the EU level to take the common defence issue seriously. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not include a single reference to EU defence cooperation in her September 2022 State of the Union speech, for example.  

The issue of a common defence policy touches that of sovereignty and is part of what the International Relations literature calls “high politics.” As a result, it is difficult for the EU to set up an arms industry that might compete with those of member states. 

The success of this unique European bloc is mainly based on the economy, culture, education and other issues that are usually classified as “low politics.” In order to shift to high politics, time will be needed. It is hard to envisage the EU member states conceding on the defence issue, especially since NATO has long been providing a security umbrella for Europe. 

* The writer is a lecturer in Middle East politics and international relations in the UK.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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