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Defence Priorities for Next European Mandate

European Elections - June 7, 2024

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During the 2019-2024 legislative mandate, there has been a seismic shift in the international arena, such as an increasingly unstable and volatile geopolitical context marked by the return of great power politics, US-China competition, the Ukraine War, and conflict in the Middle East. With these changes, the European Union itself has also been transformed. Specifically, the European Union has become increasingly aware of the need to develop strategic autonomy in the geopolitical domain, including in the field of defense. The EU has made substantial progress in this direction, and it is now a top priority for most EU Member States and political parties.

Indeed, for the upcoming EU elections, one of the 10 manifesto pledges of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) is to boost European defense capabilities, while respecting Member States’ competencies. Specifically, ECR commits to fortify Europe’s defense industry, continue to support Ukraine against Russian aggression, enhance EU-NATO cooperation, and strengthen Europe’s defense, technology, and industrial base to ensure that European Member States are able to develop and produce a full range of military capabilities in sufficient quantities and on short notice.

The EPP has also begun to realise the importance of defense and security, but a strong ECR presence in the European Parliament after the upcoming June elections is fundamental to ensure that the EPP (which will likely continue to preside the European Commission), stays on the right course in terms of defense. Specifically, there is a risk that parties like Renew Europe, part of von der Leyen’s grand coalition and of which French President Macron forms part of, would try to steer the EU away from its strong transatlantic bonds with the USA and NATO. Macron’s distain towards America and NATO are well known. Further to the left of the spectrum, The Left and The Greens/EFA’s false “pacifism” and delusional “antimilitarist” views, as well as their tacit sympathy for the enemies of the west, be that Russia, China or Iran, is well known. For these reasons, a strong ECR presence is essential to ensure that Europe continues to prioritise a coherent, forward-looking defense policy that builds up Europe’s military capabilities and military readiness, while ensuring that the strong transatlantic relation with the USA and NATO as a whole is nurtured and strengthened to the benefit of all parties.

Looking at what the specific priorities in the field of defense will be in the upcoming mandate, some useful clues can be found in the ‘Council Conclusions on EU Security and Defense’ that the Council of the EU approved on the 27th of May 2024. In this document, Member States recognise that “the rules-based international order is increasingly being challenged by revisionist powers and authoritarian regimes while international tensions are on the rise”, but also recognise that “the EU’s role as a security and defense actor has been significantly strengthened”. In this regard, Member States agreed on 5 main priorities in the field of defense for the next EU legislative mandate.

The first priority that will continue to dominate the EU’s agenda in terms of defense is the war in Ukraine. The Council highlighted the EU’s continued support for Ukraine’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”, and in this regard committed to to maintain all necessary political, financial, economic, humanitarian, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support to Ukraine and its people for as long as necessary. For example, Member States highlighted the importance of importance of speeding up and reinforcing further deliveries of military materiel in accordance with Ukraine’s most pressing needs, such as ammunition, artillery, missiles or drones, while addressing Ukraine’s medium- and long-term needs.  Evidently, the return of war to the European continent has been and will continue to be the main priority for the EU in the coming legislative mandate, and Member States must rise to the challenge. Ukraine is in a critical stage of the war, and its ability to defeat Putin’s invasion depends on assistance from its Western allies.

The second priority highlighted by the Council is to “spend more and better together” to ensure “the availability of defense products”. In this respect, the Council highlights the need to ensure that the European Defense Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) is “able to provide for the needs of the Member States’ armed forces” and to “develop next-generation, cutting-edge capabilities and be at the forefront of technological innovation”. This is a fundamental goal for the EU, as Europe has clearly been sleeping for the last few decades in terms of defense spending despite no shortage of security challenges, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s growing willingness to engage in hybrid warfare against European countries. In any case, better late than never as they say. Now that Europe has finally woken up, it is essential to invest in Europe’s defense technological and industrial base, promote Europe’s domestic defense industries, promote joint procurement of military materiel, and adopt more harmonised standards for weapons and military equipment to enable greater interoperability between Member States’ armed forces. Europe’s armies are militarizing and becoming more assertive, so unless Europe increases its military stockpiles and strengthens its defense industrial base, it will lack the necessary operational capabilities and effectiveness.

The third priority is to increase the EU’s ability to act in the international domain, including in regions like the Red Sea, the Sahel or the Middle East. Furthermore, the Council highlights the importance of “fully operationalizing the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) by 2025” and carrying out “further work on reaching the full operational capability of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) by 2025”, and stresses the importance for Member States to “implement the Military Mobility Pledge” to ensure the ability to carry out large-scale military forces at short-notice within the EU.

The fourth priority is to strengthen the EU’s resilience and secure access to strategic domains. Under this pillar, the Council highlights the importance of “strengthening our prevention, detection, deterrence, resilience, and response to hybrid, FIMI, cyber threats, and malicious activities targeting the EU” through the “operationalization of the EU Hybrid Toolbox and the EU toolbox to counter foreign information manipulation and interference”. This is particularly important in the context of the heightened threat posed by Russian and Chinese cyberattacks. In its conclusions, the Council also emphasizes the strategic importance of space, air and the sea, calling for the EU to develop a greater strategic role in all three.

And last but not least, the fifth priority is the EU’s partnerships, which the Council characterizes as an “indispensable pillar of the EU’s efforts to promote peace and security around the world” and to “uphold the rules-based international order”. Among other things, Member States highlight the continued importance of the “strategic partnership with NATO underpinned by the strong transatlantic bond”, which is “essential for Euro-Atlantic security and stability”.

In conclusion, placing defense as a priority at the top of the European agenda for the next legislative mandate is fundamental, and judging from parties’ manifestos and the cited Council Conclusions, it seems like the EU’s institutions have finally realised this, after having dragged their feet from decades and stuck to a misguided assumption that “pacifism” as a means rather than an end in international relations would keep Europeans safe. Europe must therefore invest in defense as a strategically and industrially important sector. Europe must continue to adequately support Ukraine, increase defense spending, strengthen Europe’s defense industrial base to ensure the EU is able to produce enough weapons and materiel and that these are technologically advanced, pursue greater interoperability, invest in joint military procurement, and adequately respond to cyber threats.

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