EU Policy. Von der Leyen sets out modest defence strategy as she bids for second term

The European Commission has presented plans to stimulate joint purchases of ammunition and weapons.
The European Commission has presented plans to stimulate joint purchases of ammunition and weapons. Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jack Schickler
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The new plans won’t see direct weapon purchases, nor offer lavish funding previously promised by officials.

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The European Commission today unveiled a new defence industrial strategy as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seeks to make the topic a centrepiece of her bid for a second term in office.

Though the commission proposal expands existing initiatives to produce ammunition and jointly procure arms, it won’t see direct purchases of weapons or set up the €100bn fund previously promised by Commissioner Thierry Breton.

“Today the European Union demonstrates again our firm determination and commitment to scale up our defence and support to Ukraine,” Breton said in a statement, saying the strategy is a “clear vision to enhance our defence industrial readiness".

The commission says it wants its industrial base to be able to provide all defence products under any circumstances, and hopes that EU members will by 2030 procure at least 40% of their defence equipment collaboratively.

Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, last week told lawmakers it was time for Europe to “step up” to avoid a Russian victory in Ukraine, promising to create a defence commissioner under her second mandate, and an Office for Defence Innovation in Kyiv.

EU defence action has been spurred by the war in Ukraine, by the possibility that a future US President Donald Trump might walk back from NATO, and by the departure of the UK, long sceptical about creating an EU army.

A rising number of European countries are now set to meet NATO targets to spend 2% of their economy on defence, and the EU last year introduced new measures to actively support ammunition production, and encourage its members to club together when buying military equipment.

But in seeking to take those further, von der Leyen’s also running up against considerable legal challenges, given that members of the bloc such as Ireland remain neutral.

The bloc is set to fail to meet a target to provide a million shells to Ukraine by March, and the commission can at most facilitate joint purchases on behalf of countries.

In a January address, Breton said there was a “need to have a huge defence fund to accelerate probably the amount of €100 billion euros”, adding he was working to finalise details by the end of February.

Others, such as European Council President Charles Michel, have suggested the idea of creating European defence bonds to offer a single funding stream for common military spending.

But today a commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Breton was expressing an “order of magnitude” that was “not linked to the budgeting of this initiative”, which will mobilise €1.5bn over the next three years.

There’s also been a controversy over whether the EU should seek to gain weapons only from its own suppliers, rather than providers in the US, UK, or Turkey.

“We need to convince taxpayers that we’re creating jobs in Europe,” said the anonymous official, adding that targets for 35% of defence spending to be within the EU by 2030 were “non-binding” and “don’t have legal consequences”.

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