Europe’s defence budget up in the air amid COVID-19 recovery spending

Videoconference of EU defence ministers. 12 May 2020. [Davorin Visnjic/PIXSELL//EU2020]

EU countries should avoid slashing defence spending under pressure from the economic fallout of the coronavirus, the EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell said on Tuesday (13 May), warning that the COVID-19 crisis could spark unforeseen security challenges.

Speaking after a meeting of EU defence ministers, Borrell said it was clear that the pandemic is “very likely to deteriorate the security environment in the years ahead”.

The COVID-19 “has brought a new threat,” Borrell warned. It is “a new factor, demanding resources” that “requires a stronger Europe in the world,” he said.

Despite the current emphasis on economic recovery plans, Borrell urged EU member states to secure the necessary funding for Europe’s security and defence.

“It’s especially disappointing considering that defence budgets only recently recovered from the financial shock of ten years ago,” he told reporters after a videoconference that included EU defence ministers, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and officials from the United Nations and the European Commission.

Ahead of the meeting, EU and national officials stressed that military cooperation could help technological advances in areas like chemical and biological warfare, including hi-tech, resistant clothing and crisis response mechanisms.

Croatian State Secretary Zdravko Jakop, who chaired the EU ministerial meeting, said security risks have not disappeared with the pandemic, urging Europeans to continue defence initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the European Defence Fund (EDF).

These initiatives, including joint military projects designed for crisis response and hybrid threats under PESCO, would be a good platform for improving cooperation and developing operational capabilities for a rapid and effective response to the crisis, Jakop said.

The comments came on the eve of new proposals for the EU’s seven-year budget (2021-2027), which the European Commission is expected to table on 20 May. Talks on the EU’s long-term budget have been blocked for more than a year and the coronavirus crisis has  further upset plans to get a deal approved early in 2020.

Cuts to the European Commission’s draft defence budget proposal were already under consideration well before the pandemic hit Europe. Even though defence spending is set for an overall increase, EU officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that the announced budget limitations would undermine EU ambitions to reduce its military reliance on the US. They also come at a time when EU defence initiatives have started to show progress towards more European autonomy.

The Commission’s February budget non-paper already had threatened to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals, with military mobility being one of the main casualties.

Europe's military mobility: latest casualty of EU budget battle

The Commission’s latest budget non-paper threatens to hamper flagship defence initiatives more than previous proposals. It was put forward on Friday (20 February) in an attempt to bridge the growing differences among EU leaders over the bloc’s next seven-year budget.

Meant to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises by reducing physical, legal and regulatory barriers, military mobility has so far been hailed as one of the EU’s flagship defence initiatives with few political disagreements across the bloc.

Under the latest budget proposal, the European Defence Fund, which would allow EU militaries to plan, spend and deploy together, would be cut in half from €13 billion to approximately €6 billion.

Considering the economic strains caused by the pandemic and the EU’s plans for a trillion-euro recovery plan to mitigate the worst economic hit since the 1940s, the defence portfolio might face even deeper cuts in the next budget.

The European Commission is expected to present a revised budget proposal by 20 May.

Defending defence spending

In late April, eight European defence experts issued an appeal to EU policymakers urging them to beef up defence spending instead of cutting funds to free up money for the economic response to the coronavirus crisis.

“Indeed, COVID-19 will not stop or mitigate the ongoing worsening of the international security environment threatening European security and interests. On the contrary, it is likely to make the world more unstable and more insecure,” wrote the experts, who hail from Spain, Italy, the UK, France and Lithuania.

Cutting budgets would not only increase Europe’s dependency on “third states” but would “significantly hinder the credibility of European nations as military partners, notably within NATO,” they argued.

“Europe’s armed forces are rightfully being applauded for their efforts in limiting the disastrous effects of COVID-19, but the test of whether European militaries are truly valued will be measured over the next few years as pressure on defence budgets mount,” defence experts Daniel Fiott, Torben Schützand Marcin Terlikowski warned in a recent op-ed published on EURACTIV.

As governments are rolling out multi-billion stimulus plans and calculating necessary reductions in their spending plans, “defence budgets should be ‘vaccinated’ against heavy cuts right away, before the first signs of austerity appear,” they argued.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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