During a speech to the 2023 annual conference of the European Defence Agency (EDA) the Commission President explained that this new “strategic responsibility” entails continued support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invader, for as long as it takes. Furthermore, the EU will have to consider Ukraine’s security in the longer term. “Ukraine must have the capabilities to deter future attacks by Russia. This is why the EU’s future security commitments to Ukraine are so vital,” the President said in her speech.
Strategic responsibility would not be limited to Ukraine, though. It must include the Western Balkans, the Middle East, the Sahel region, and beyond. “Europe might be called to play a role in any of these theatres – near or far. So we need Member States’ armed forces that are prepared for all sorts of scenarios – from traditional to hybrid,” the President said, stressing that EU’s partners are asking for greater European engagement in other parts of the world, like the Indo-Pacific.
President von der Leyen also developed the main points of the European Defence Industrial Strategy, which she announced in the context of the 2023 State of the Union address, and which will be presented in 2024.
The war in Ukraine has laid bare some of the challenges the EU confronts. And while national defence budgets have increased, it is important for that money to be used at its most efficient. “Collaborative spending by Member States has only slightly improved,” the President underlined. “It is still below 20%, very far from our goal of 35%. And on top of this, the latest figures show that additional funds are in large majority spent outside the European Union. We are predominantly buying alone and buying abroad.”
The President spoke of four strands of work that will inform the Strategy and address today’s shortcomings.
The first one is strategic planning to focus on joint programming and identify projects of common interest in which EU-wide efforts and resources can be concentrated. Then, there is a need for simpler and more efficient rules. Considering defence is a heavily regulated sector, the EU should listen to its industry and find out ways to support it through regulation that “gives the industry and Member States predictability and coherence on a continental scale”.
Thirdly, the Strategy will aim at developing dual-use technologies, seeking ways to integrate civilian technologies into the EU’s defence industrial base. The President highlighted that dual use thinking is already being implemented in the EU in the fields of military mobility, satellites for global positioning, and the preparation towards a European cyber shield. The EU must continue to harness the innovative ideas that are hatched for civilian activities in order to strengthen its defence power.
Finally, the upcoming Strategy will look into ways to mobilise more public and private funding for the defence industry. In this sense, the President mentioned different options that are being implemented or being worked on, like VAT exemptions for joint procurement and ownership of defence capabilities, improving the recognition by sustainable financial investors of the defence industry’s role, improving access of defence SMEs and start-ups to growth finance, and defining how defence investments should be taken into account under the bloc’s fiscal rules.
But one of the key components of the Strategy will be its involvement of Ukraine. Indeed, while the Strategy promises to be a gamechanger for the EU’s defence industry, President von der Leyen highlighted that this is not enough: “A strategic approach to our defence industry must also look into the question of Ukraine’s defence capabilities on top of our own needs. Our Strategy can only be complete if it also takes into account Ukraine’s needs and Ukraine’s industrial capacity.”
Finally, with an eye on the future, President von der Leyen called for finding new possibilities for defence cooperation under the current Treaties and advocated for defence and security to be an integral part of the discussions on the future of Europe that will be held next year: “The next chapter is a fully-fledged European Defence Union. So that Europe can finally take strategic responsibility for its own future. I am confident that Europe will once again answer to the call of history.”