Europe’s evolving reaction to the Ukraine crisis will do much to define what kind of Europe it is to be.
With the lingering pandemic and amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe is having to revisit key dossiers involving the European Union’s prerogatives, such as public health and energy, defence and security. Given the sui generis nature of EU policy-making, based on a peculiar mix of supranational and intergovernmental approaches, crises such as these have always demanded moments of leadership while offering windows of opportunity for its supply.
Once again, member states appear however reluctant to co-ordinate policies, preferring to ‘go it alone’. Yet the EU budget for defence and security has been markedly increased in the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-27. This raises big questions—in the wake of the Conference on the Future of Europe—about the fate of European democracy and society, European identity and the postwar ‘peace project’.
On February 27th, three days after the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, addressed the Bundestag. He pledged to boost German defence spending with a special €100 billion fund, in what has been defined as a ‘paradigm change’ towards a ‘new era’.
An opinion poll conducted in subsequent days suggested most Germans (69 per cent) supported the move. Yet the timing of the initiative and the associated possibility of sending weapons to the resistance in Ukraine tempered the welcome, domestically and internationally, for this potential German rearmament.
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Scholz said Germany would henceforth exceed the target on national defence spending set by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2014—2 per cent of gross domestic product, to be attained within a decade. Italy spends 1.5 per cent of GDP on defence. And there heated debate broke out over meeting the target among the political forces supporting the technocratic executive led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi.
The former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, now leader of the populist ‘five-stars movement’, opposed increasing the defence budget—especially at a time of socio-economic crisis and in the midst of the pandemic. In mid-March a resolution affirming the 2 per cent target was however endorsed by the Italian parliament. Ruefully, Conte said: ‘I would be frank, the vote didn’t thrill me.’
For its part, France has often been proactive on military spending. In 2021 the country spent around 1.9 per cent of GDP on defence and since 2000 it has always kept within the range of 1.8 to 2.1 per cent. Yet, at the beginning of March, the president, Emmanuel Macron, since re-elected, said France would increase its spending in the coming years: ‘Europe must now accept the price for peace, freedom and democracy. It must invest more to depend less on other continents and to be able to decide for itself, in other words to become a more independent, more sovereign power.’
The situation is extremely fluid (if not chaotic) and any assessment can only be very preliminary. Yet these various dynamics of Germany, France and Italy towards higher national defence spending highlight the advantages of a common European defence policy—usually discussed in the vague sense of a ‘European army’—given the significant savings potentially available to member states, such as through reduced duplication. There would be the added attraction of possible joint finance, through the issue by European institutions of bonds or similar instruments to cover budget increases—as has happened with the employment-support programme, SURE, and the recovery instrument, Next Generation EU, launched during the pandemic.
An enhanced EU defence budget and common policy would allow of greater international independence, following Macron’s reasoning. Associated efficiency savings could though see some resources across the union diverted from military to social-protection actions—particularly in these times of severe socio-economic crisis—addressing Conte’s concern and that of European progressives. Practically, a ‘European army’ could be a vehicle for an effective collective response to future crises.
And now this is no longer without precedent. The day Scholz addressed the Bundestag, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the ‘watershed’ of EU finance for the purchase and delivery of weapons to a (non-member) country under attack. The commission vice-president and high representative, Josep Borrell, said that ‘another taboo’ had gone. This may signal a future shift in EU identity from being a civil society and peace force to a more assertive (military) power.
In the current MFF, the €43.9 billion allocation for defence and security represents an increase of 123 per cent on the €19.7 billion in the previous EU budget. Within that, the European Defence Fund, supporting research on and production of military technologies, has soared by 1,256 per cent to €8 billion.
This however raises further concerns. A recent report from Statewatch and the Transnational Institute contends that these enhanced funds ‘will significantly strengthen the internal and external security machinery of the EU and its member states, reinforcing both their repressive and aggressive powers, as well as hugely increasing the profits of the private security industry’.
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It thus concludes that ‘it is crucial that civil society and elected officials are able to hold to account the institutions responsible for distributing and spending the money’. To date, however, non-governmental organisations and the European Parliament have played little role in this regard.
The pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine have opened a new phase in European integration. Uncertainty is high and things are rapidly changing. But after years of obsession with austerity, it seems issues of European democracy and identity, with their implications for security and foreign relations, are set to shape the future of the union.