With or without US support, 'we cannot let Russia win,' says Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen pitched a new strategy for the defence industry before Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Ursula von der Leyen pitched a new strategy for the defence industry before Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Copyright European Union, 2024.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The European Union cannot afford to let Russia win the war in Ukraine regardless of what happens in the United States after the presidential elections, Ursula von der Leyen has said.

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"The simple truth is we do not have the luxury of comfort. We do not have control of elections or decisions in other parts of the world. And we simply do not have the time to skirt around the issue," the European Commission president told Members of the European Parliament on Wednesday morning.

"With or without the support of our partners, we cannot let Russia win. And the cost of insecurity – the cost of a Russian victory – is far greater than any saving we could make now. And this is why it is time for Europe to step up."

Her plea comes on the heels of comments made by Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, who openly said he would "encourage" Russia to do "whatever the hell they want" against NATO countries that fail to spend at least 2% of their GDP in defence. The remarks prompted immediate backlash and condemnation from Western leaders, who described them as "reckless," "irresponsible" and "dumb."

With Trump and Joe Biden neck and neck in opinion polls, Europeans are growing increasingly anxious about being left alone in their quest to support Ukraine against the Russian aggression, which requires the continued supply of military, financial and humanitarian assistance to the war-torn nation.

Biden's latest push to provide a $60-billion package (€55.5 billion) to Kyiv is stuck in the US Congress, as hard-line Republicans, influenced by Trump, block the proposal. NATO has already warned the impasse is having "consequences" on the battlefield.

In her speech in Strasbourg, von der Leyen said Europe had been living under an "illusion that peace is permanent" and that Vladimir Putin had exploited the "peace dividend" to prepare for his all-out war, without caring for the economic fallout it would cause.

"As a result, the world is as dangerous as it has been for generations," she said, also referring to electoral interference and vulnerable dependencies. "There is so much at stake here – our freedom and our prosperity. And we have to start acting like it."

While the Commission chief celebrated the uptick in defence spending that European countries have undertaken in the last two years, she insisted that further progress was needed to bring about a "more sovereign Europe" that can make NATO stronger.

The continent, she said, must be ready for war.

"All of this progress shows that Europe has started to grasp the urgency and the scale of the challenge ahead of us. But there is a lot more to do. And we need to move fast," she told MEPs. "The threat of war may not be imminent, but it is not impossible. The risks of war should not be overblown, but they should be prepared for."

Von der Leyen then pitched her upcoming European Industrial Defence Strategy, which will have a marked focus on joint procurement. By putting countries together to order weapons, ammunition and other military equipment, the EU will send a "strong signal" to the private sector and stimulate domestic production, she said. "That means turbocharging our defence industrial capacity in the next five years."

The bloc has resorted to joint procurement to cope with the most pressing crises of recent years, most notably when the Commission organised the purchase of coronavirus vaccines to prevent the 27 member states from competing against each other. A similar model was then used to buy non-Russian gas in the aftermath of the energy crisis.

The Industrial Defence Strategy will follow this template, von der Leyen explained, and will also channel EU funds into projects with the biggest possible impact.

The use of EU funds will have to be strictly limited to industrial, research and innovation purposes, as the treaties forbid the common budget from financing operations with military or defence implications.

This is why the bloc's provisions of weapons to Ukraine have been made through an off-budget instrument, called the European Peace Facility (EPF), which partially reimburses the cost of the donations. The EPF has been dormant for months due to a long-lasting Hungarian veto and an internal process of reform.

The legal debate has now moved to the European Investment Bank (EIB) after its new president, Nadia Calviño, promised to "do more and better" to boost the bloc's defence industry. However, the bank's current rules limit financing to dual-use technology that also has civilian applications. Artillery shells, for example, would be excluded.

Von der Leyen backed Calviño's call, arguing the "defence industry in Europe needs access to capital," particularly for small and medium-sized firms. The Commission chief also suggested the proceeds from the frozen assets of the Russian Central Bank should be re-directed to purchase weapons for Ukraine. This would add a twist to the plans, which have so far been focused on the country's post-war reconstruction.

"I would like us to think bigger," von der Leyen said. "Ultimately this is about Europe taking responsibility for its own security.

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