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26th May 2022

DG defence: Is EU getting serious on joint procurement?

  • European Commission HQ in Brussels: How much power over defence buying are member states willing to cede? (Photo: European Commission)

The EU's defence union project is to get its own offices and staff in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, has said.

The EU should also do more foreign policy by majority instead of unanimity, she added on Tuesday (10 September) in a grand unveiling of her "geopolitical commission".

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European defence integration is still a nebula of EU 'battlegroups', agencies, funds, and joint procurement deals.

But the new "directorate general [DG] for defence industry and space", a kind of ministry, to be instituted in the EU capital, marks a concrete new step.

DG defence will speed up work on creating a joint military-industrial complex and will focus on high-tech items such as drones and artificial intelligence, von der Leyen said in a letter to Sylvie Goulard, a French politician chosen to run the defence bureau.

Europe's €100bn-a-year defence industry was "one of our ... most valuable and strategic assets", von der Leyen said.

"We need to take further bold steps in the next five years towards a genuine European defence union," she added in a second letter to the EU's incoming foreign affairs chief, Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell.

"The European Union member states have been told many times ... that common procurement for their armed forces is of utmost importance," she also said in a press briefing in Brussels on Tuesday.

The commission currently has 31 DGs.

Some spend tens of billions from the EU budget and have more than 2,000 staff which take up whole buildings, while others, such as DG climate action, have just a few hundred people.

DG defence is to spend €13bn on promoting joint procurement in the next seven years from its 'European Defence Fund'.

It will spend a further €6.5bn on helping European militaries to move around the continent.

It will also spend €16bn on EU satellite projects and will take on plenty of existing staff from DG Grow, which deals with single market policy and industry.

European army

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, spoke softly on the significance of the move.

"The European Union will never be a military alliance" and "Nato will always be [our] collective defence," she said on Tuesday.

But France and Italy have, in recent times, backed the creation of a "European army" that was capable of tackling neighbourhood crises.

Von der Leyen herself, while still a German minister, also called for an "army of the Europeans".

The talk comes amid concern that Europe cannot rely on US protection the way it used to in the Cold War.

It also comes amid EU nerves on the rise of China, Russian revanchism, and on the multiplication of crises in Africa and the Middle East.

And Von der Leyen voiced more of the same thinking in her letter to Borrell.

"This will be a 'geopolitical commission'," she said.

"The European Union needs to be more strategic, more assertive, and more united in its approach to external relations," she added.

EU foreign policy, such as its Russia sanctions or its statements on Israel, has in the past been dogged by national vetoes and veto threats .

But von der Leyen urged Borrell to "take decisions in a faster and more efficient way".

"We must overcome unanimity constraints that hamper our foreign policy. When putting forward proposals, you should seek to use the clauses in the [EU] treaties that allow certain decisions on the common foreign and security policy to be adopted by qualified majority voting," she said.

Being serious

The EU security push is also going forward amid Brexit.

Some populist British politicians have fanned fear that men and women would soon be conscripted into an EU army if the UK stayed inside the union.

But reality checks say there is little prospect of joint EU brigades charging into battle any time soon.

"I don't think a European army is in the making in the near future", Judy Dempsey, an EU expert at Carnegie Europe, a transatlantic think-tank, told EUobserver.

Even the new DG's more modest mission to break open Europe's defence market was a "huge task" given the weight of national interests in the sector, she said.

Procurement was "a curse" due to national monopolies, military secrets, and the politics of sovereignty, she noted.

"If the commission and von der Leyen are serious about this, then member states will have to cede these elements to the commission ... it's going to be a very long tussle, frankly," Dempsey said.

They would also have to cede their EU foreign policy vetoes down the line if the EU was to play a stronger role on the world stage, Dempsey added.

"If we leave it all to 28, or soon-to-be 27 member states [due to Brexit], all of them with different threat perceptions, then we're not going to get anywhere," she said.

So long as von der Leyen did not make any EU states feel "ostracised", then "coalitions of the willing" could conduct security operations, for instance, in the Baltic region, in west Africa, or in the Western Balkans, Dempsey said.

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