Ukraine war, EU presidency boosts French defence plans

The longstanding French goal of increasing European defence cooperation got a boost during Paris’s stint at the helm of the EU Council during the past six months, driven forward by the Ukraine war.

“Our objective must be Europe’s capacity for autonomous action, as a complement to NATO,” stated French President Emmanuel Macron in his speech at Sorbonne University in September 2017 that marked a milestone in Paris’s push for boosting the EU’s defence capabilities. 

Macron then called for “permanent structured cooperation, enabling us to make greater commitments, to move forward together and to coordinate better”.

Now, Paris’s six-month stint at the helm of the rotating EU Council presidency was used by Macron to push forward on European defence policy despite the reluctance of some EU governments – like Berlin, analysts say.

“It was taboo”, reflects Cécilia Vidotto Labastie, a specialist in European issues and researcher at the Institut Montaigne on the European defence debate. 

While France has consistently pushed for proposals on defence “for which it has a long-term vision”, the French EU presidency enabled the bloc to “define European defence itself” despite discussions on the topic being unthinkable just a few months ago, Vidotto Labastie added.

In her view, in terms of defence matters, the French presidency was an “accelerator”.

The Ukraine factor

But things would not have changed so fast had it not been for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The war has allowed the EU, under the French presidency, to make progress in the field of defence, an EU diplomat told EURACTIV. 

The arms deliveries to Ukraine were a “strong symbolic element”, which revealed European “awareness”, he added.

Drawing quick lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU leaders agreed on 11 March in Versailles to collectively “resolutely bolster investment” in defence capabilities and “substantially increase” defence spending across the bloc.

EU leaders committed “to increase substantially defence expenditures”, bolster cooperation on defence projects between member states, and increase military mobility across the bloc.

According to the diplomat, the summit marked “an unprecedented geopolitical situation that has led the EU to activate a real defence policy”. The EU will now “spend better” instead of “spending more”, he argued.

However, the details of that spending remain to be hashed out. Since France took over at the helm of the EU Council on 1 January, some EU countries – like Belgium, Sweden and Germany – have announced increases to military spending for defence budgets to reach the 2% of GDP, but this is a NATO requirement.

Joint replenishing of stocks? 

According to the EU diplomat, bloc countries delivering weapons to Ukraine would enable European industrial cooperation to be put into practice and lay the foundations for a concerted European industry. European arms stocks would have to be replenished “with purchases made on a European scale”.

The Elysée Palace, contacted by EURACTIV, also shared this view.

“The challenge is to strengthen the European defence industry in order to reconstitute stocks and modernise equipment,” it said.

NATO ‘more European than ever’

Recent polls suggest the idea of an integrated EU army enjoys considerable public support in many EU member states.  

Yet, researchers and European diplomats agree that the construction of European security cannot be achieved without NATO, and it cannot be intended to replace the Atlantic alliance with an independent “European army”.

“There is no desire to create a European army that would overshadow NATO,” said another EU diplomat.

This commitment to NATO is also included in the EU’s new 2022 Strategic Compass, which sets out the bloc’s defence and security ambitions up to 2030.

“A stronger and more capable Union in the field of security and defence (…) is complementary to NATO, which remains the foundation of collective defence for its members,” the document reads.

Nevertheless, the EU “today more than ever, is becoming a major player in defence issues,” Vidotto Labastie said.

With Sweden and Finland soon set to join NATO, Vidotto Labastie said the Transatlantic alliance is “more European than ever” and far from “brain dead” as Macron said in December 2021.

European defence is viewed, including by the French EU presidency, as a “complement to NATO”.

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Charles Szumski Davide Basso