EU must prevent defence budget from being ‘infected’ by virus, officials warn

[Photo: EPA-EFE/DAVID HECKER]

With the EU struggling to adjust to the current geopolitical reality and new EU defence initiatives under increasing pressure to deliver results, cuts to the bloc’s defence budget would be counter-productive, EU defence officials and ministers warned ahead of a crucial EU budget summit on Friday (17 July).

European Council President Charles Michel’s latest budget proposal, presented on 10 July, once again decreased the planned defence funding.

Michel’s proposal contains clear cuts to the planned funding for the European Defence Fund (EDF), which is down to €7 billion, while the proposed funding for military mobility (€1.5 billion) and the European space programme (€13 billion) is close to what the European Commission proposed in May.

Even so, the figures remain far below the initial proposal of €13 billion and €6.5 billion, respectively, for the two flagship programmes.

But as Europe struggles to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, EU defence officials fear the pandemic might also reverse progress made in European defence.

“There is a risk that defence spending will decrease, but this risk must be avoided,” General Claudio Graziano, chairman of the European Union Military Committee, told an EU-US defence event in early July.

It would be necessary to avoid “that the EU defence budget is infected by the virus”, he added and recalled that “although defence spending is primarily a national responsibility, it is important that member states provide financial credibility and support common EU initiatives”.

In a situation of defence budget cuts, “the two main pillars of the EU Global Strategy” would be affected, he said.

The new head of the European Defence Agency, Jiří Šedivý, told the same event that “in light of the looming economic crisis, defence investments will need to cope with increased fiscal pressure, but what we need to avoid is uncoordinated cuts”.

When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented her “geopolitical Commission” last year, she demanded that Europe “learn the language of power”.

The EU’s new chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, echoed her words, telling the European Parliament in his confirmation hearing he was “convinced that if we don’t act together, Europe will become irrelevant”.

“The coronavirus has brought a new threat … and it requires a stronger Europe in the world,” Borrell told reporters after an EU defence ministers meeting last month, acknowledging that the COVID-19 “is a new factor, demanding resources.”

Officials say military cooperation could help advances in technology for pandemics, including in chemical and biological research such as hi-tech, resistant clothing.

However, with the proposed budget allocation, the current numbers were widely seen as insufficient for meeting the EU’s level of ambition in security and defence.

MEP Nathalie Loiseau (Renew), chair of the European Parliament’s subcommittee for security and defence (SEDE), called the current budget “insufficient”, while other MEPs voiced “deep concerns” about military mobility cuts in recent committee meetings.

France, in particular, would still like to see the EU’s defence initiatives funded at an ambitious level, around the initial proposal or more.

Speaking to MEPs in early July, French Minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly, said the EDF, which aims to strengthen Europe’s defence industry and reduce duplication in defence spending by co-funding defence research with member states, could be “an important tool for economic recovery” from the pandemic.

“Europe should not just be an assembly of building blocks but a real force and for this, we need the European Defence Fund,” Parly told EU lawmakers, recalling the cuts initiated by the Finnish EU presidency last year, to which Paris had expressed opposition.

“We still need more – that is why France, Germany, Spain and Italy have written to the High Representative, because we need an ambitious EDF more than ever,” she added.

Her words were echoed by German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer a week later as she presented the priorities of Germany’s six-month EU presidency.

“In the ongoing budget negotiations, the European Defence Fund and the issue of military mobility need to be accordingly supplied,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said in the European Parliament’s SEDE committee.

“I support what Mr Breton and Ms Parly have said about that, we will support everything to make sure that those two items are supplied as initially envisaged.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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