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13th Apr 2024

Von der Leyen appeals for 'new EU defence mindset'

  • 'The cost of insecurity — the cost of a Russian victory — is far greater than any saving we could make now', Ursula von der Leyen said during Tuesday's debate (Photo: European Parliament)
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With the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House and the ongoing war in Ukraine, EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, now seeking a second term, is driving efforts to strengthen Europe's defence capabilities and enhance cohesion among member states.

This comes after recent suggestions of a new EU defence commissioner post, which many see as a selling point for her EU re-election campaign strategy.

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In an address to the European Parliament on Wednesday (28 February), von der Leyen talked about the need to set up "a new European defence mindset" for institutions, industry and investors in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and other security risks.

"The threat of war may not be imminent, but it is not impossible," she said. "The risks of war should not be overblown".

Europe should be prepared for such risks and that means "turbocharging" the bloc's defence industrial capacity in the next five years, she also said.

Her remarks come after comments made by French president Emmanuel Macron on putting Western soldiers in Ukraine earlier this week — which have sparked confusion and disapproval among allies.

During Wednesday's plenary debate, von der Leyen floated for the first time the idea of making the Kremlin pay for the weapons Ukraine would use to fight the Russian invasion.

"It is time to start a conversation about using the windfall profits of frozen Russian assets to jointly purchase military equipment for Ukraine," she said, even though the bloc's initial idea was to use the money for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

This new proposal is also expected to raise uncertainty and possible disagreement among EU member states.

While France now supports the idea of buying weapons from outside the EU, von der Leyen's proposal to use Russian assets to buy that is likely to be opposed by Germany, according to Judy Dempsey, a researcher from the think tank Carnegie Europe.

European military academies

After decades of low investment, Europe's defence industry has gained more attention following Russia's full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Expected to be one of the last substantial proposals of this current legislative term, the commission is set to unveil the much-awaited European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS) and European Defence Investment Programme (EDIP) next week.

"The cost of insecurity — the cost of a Russian victory — is far greater than any saving we could make now," von der Leyen said during Tuesday's debate.

With defence being high on the agenda of European policymakers, there have been increasing calls to change European Investment Bank (EIB) rules, and so-called taxonomy, to increase investment in defence.

EIB policy does not allow financing weapons, ammunition and military infrastructure, but the bank is looking into how to increase support for "dual-use items" such as drones. And the EIB last year committed to raising its funding for defence investments from €6bn to €8bn by 2027.

But beyond decades of under-investment, the industry faces other challenges.

The arms industry have complained about the lack of supply of critical raw materials and semiconductors and the lack of manufacturing capacity.

In addition, there is a fragmentation in supply-and-demand, with national interests prevailing in the sector.

"The defence industries/lobbies in the member states have little interest in a single EU defence market," Dempsey warned.

Meanwhile, the idea of having some sort of European army keeps emerging — or re-emerging.

During Wednesday's debate, French liberal MEP and leader of Renew Europe Valérie Hayer called to make European armies more interoperable and set up European military academies.

Nevertheless, defence remains predominately a competence of EU member states.

Campaign mode

In the run-up to the June European elections, security and defence are becoming an important topic of the electoral campaign.

"Von der Leyen is now in campaign mode," Steven Blockmans a researcher of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) told EUobserver.

Blockmans said that every statement she makes from now on, including her proposal at the Munich Security Conference to establish a new role for an EU defence commissioner, and her suggestion to delay the negotiating framework for Ukraine's EU membership talks to avoid distancing European voters, needs to be understood within the context of her campaign strategy.

"Under the ethics rules that have been drawn up by her own commission for office-holders campaigning for a second term, she will have to be very careful in the formulation of new initiatives between now and the EP elections," he added.

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