This article is part of our special report #SOTEU: Key issues from von der Leyen’s annual speech.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a pitch on Wednesday (15 September) for stronger European defence, saying the bloc needs to boost its own military capacity but fell short of setting out clear proposals, particularly on how this would affect the relations with NATO.
“In the past years we have started developing a kind of European defence ecosystem, but what we need now is a European Defence Union,” von der Leyen told lawmakers in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“It is time for Europe to step up to the next level,” she said.
The recent rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government, at the end of a 20-year-old US-led mission in the country, has intensified the debate in Brussels’ about the EU’s role, including its strategy, aims, and capability.
In reference to the past few weeks, von der Leyen said the EU needs to “reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly”, calling the events in Afghanistan “deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within NATO”.
On the other hand, the former German defence minister said the EU has a long history in building and protecting peace”.
“The more fundamental issue is, why this has not worked in the past – you can have the most advanced forces in the world, but if you are never prepared to use them, what use are they?” von der Leyen asked.
“What has held us back until now is not just shortfalls of capacity, it is a lack of political will.”
New defence course still uncharted
In a gesture towards those who want more Europe in defence, von der Leyen said she and French President Emmanuel Macron will convene a European Defence Summit in the first half of 2022, during the French presidency of the Council of the EU.
Macron has for years been preaching the need for European sovereignty and ‘strategic autonomy’ – a catchphrase von der Leyen largely avoided in her speech.
Various proposals for new EU defence tools have been doing the rounds in recent weeks, and von der Leyen fell short of specifying what a cohesive EU military strategy could look like.
In the aftermath of the Afghanistan crisis, EU defence ministers discussed in August proposals for a 5,000-strong EU initial entry forces, as well as the German suggestion to consider moving towards ad-hoc military cooperation between interested EU member states.
“There will be missions where NATO or the United Nations will not be present. But Europe should be,” the Commission president said, announcing that the EU and NATO will have a “joint declaration” before the end of the year.
“But there’s simply no security and defence issue where less cooperation is the answer,” she said.
“We can combine military and civilian, alongside the diplomatic, and we have a long history in building and protecting peace,” she said.
Instead, von der Leyen vowed to work with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on a new EU-NATO joint declaration to be presented before the end of the year.
Von der Leyen’s insistence on working with NATO comes with a reason.
The proposals for more EU defence have drawn criticism, especially from Eastern European and more NATO-reliant EU member states, for being a duplication in manpower and money.
NATO’s Stoltenberg has repeatedly expressed scepticism about an autonomous EU defence strategy.
“Any attempt to establish parallel structures, duplicate the command structure, that will weaken our joint capability to work together,” Stoltenberg told UK daily The Telegraph last week.
Von der Leyen also outlined three further priorities, mainly related to the cyber domain: better intelligence sharing, including a new proposal for an EU joint situational awareness centre; improving interoperability; and the idea of waiving value-added tax when buying defence equipment produced in Europe.
Von der Leyen vowed to boost humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as she pledged that the EU stands “by the Afghan people”.
“We must do everything to avert the real risk that is out there of a major famine and humanitarian disaster. And we will do our part, we will increase again, humanitarian aid for Afghanistan by €100 million,” she said.
Her EU foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell, voiced ‘great fears’ a day earlier about the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan but also about the EU’s capacity to help.
Speaking in Strasbourg the night before, Borrell warned that around five million people are “under direct threat of dire famine (…) and at imminent risk of starvation and death” in the country.
He also sought to play down concerns among some EU lawmakers that the situation could result in another migration wave towards Europe.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a huge migration to Europe unless there is going to be a civil war, but it’s not looking as if there’s going to be any imminent civil war,” Borrell said.
EU interior ministers agreed last month to prevent uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements from Afghanistan by boosting aid to its Central Asian neighbours in the region. The move has been seen as controversial among observers.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]