Delphine Deschaux-Dutard explores whether Russia’s war on Ukraine has led to deeper EU integration in defence, highlighting that while new collective tools have been developed this does not yet constitute a collective vision of the EU’s strategic role.
Since 24 February 2022, the return of conventional warfare to the European continent has raised the question of Europeans’ ability to develop a substantial European defence policy. While it is certainly true that European defence policy within the EU – namely the Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP – has mainly progressed through crises in the last decades, the war in Ukraine represents a test-case for the trajectory of this policy area.
Some analysts see every crisis as an opportunity for European integration, but how far has the war in Ukraine has been a catalyst for a deeper EU integration in defence?
Defence does not fall within EU competence. This means that since its launching in 1999 and its reinforcement through the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, CSDP has been ruled by intergovernmentalism: EU member states take decisions following the unanimity rule, whereby they all must agree. Therefore neither the Commission, nor the European Parliament, have typically played a significant role within European defence policy until recently.
Looking at the impact of the war in Ukraine and the geopolitical developments that have confronted the EU in recent months, two things are striking: on the one hand, the ability to mobilise existing instruments, such as sanctions or the European Peace Facility, rapidly and collectively, and on the other hand the development of tools by the European Commission in the field of defence.
First, European states have shown their ability to adopt eleven sets of sanctions against Moscow quickly and unanimously (despite the initial reluctance of Hungary). This includes a first package on 23 February 2022 immediately following Russia’s declaration on 21 February 2022 that it would recognise the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent of Ukraine. The use of this diplomatic tool, although sometimes considered to be of limited effectiveness, shows that diplomatic unity between European states could endure beyond the shock of the Russian invasion.
Moreover, the use of the European Peace Facility (EPF) to financially support the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine by the EU member states was agreed just a few days after the beginning of the war. Indeed, on 27 February 2022, the European Council unanimously decided to use this tool to collectively finance the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine. In doing so, the European heads of state showed their capacity to take a decision collectively in urgent circumstances and make flexible use of an existing instrument.
Created in March 2021 after several years of debate, the EPF had not been intended to finance the supply of arms and ammunitions to a state in a situation of armed conflict, but to support actions aimed at strengthening the military and defence capabilities of third states. The ceiling for the EPF, initially set at €5 billion for the period 2021-2027 (at 2018 prices), has been revised several times by the European Council since February 2022, bringing it to over €12 billion (among which ca €5,6 billion has gone to Ukraine).
Second, the war in Ukraine has boosted the emerging role of the European Commission in the defence field with two new defence tools relying on the EU budget (managed by the Commission) adopted in 2023.
The Act of Support in Ammunition Production (ASAP), adopted in July 2023, aims at supporting the collective procurement of ammunitions by European states. The transfer of ammunitions to Kiev made it clear that the ammunitions supply within the EU had to be urgently boosted in the context of the return of a conventional warfare on the European continent. This tool will provide a European budget of €500 to help member states collectively buy ammunitions to be sent to Ukraine, and provide financial support to strengthen European industrial production capacity for munitions and missiles.
A second tool, the European defence industry through joint procurement (EDIRPA), adopted in September 2023 constitutes the European Commission’s first initiative to help member states procure weapons. This European fund of €300 million has been designed to help EU states to finance their urgent defence purchases, particularly following the transfer of military assistance to Ukraine, in addition to other existing EU funds such as the European Defence Fund (EDF).
Until this point, defence had been outside the EU common budget, and the financing of EU military missions and CSDP actions was mainly based on the financial participation of member states. Yet despite the practical and symbolic importance of this, it seems overstated to say that defence has become an integrated EU area – it remains mainly intergovernmental. Despite the Commission’s recent forays into this area in recent months, it is EU member states that are still the most prominent actors.
Neither the Versailles declaration of March 2022 on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine nor the Strategic Compass, which sets out the EU’s plan for strengthening security and defence policy by 2030, put the functioning of CSDP based on unanimity into question. Nine member states have pushed for the extension of qualified majority to CSDP, but this is far from being endorsed by all EU member states. Moreover, the EU has witnessed much competition between members states in the defence industrial area since 2022. the European Sky Shield Initiative launched by Germany in October 2022, for instance, is competing with the development of a French-Italian air defence system.
The current strategic context of conventional warfare in Ukraine and the escalation of tensions in the Middle East in October 2023 has not yet led the EU to give CSDP the qualitative leap forward called for by the Strategic Compass. While the Commission has proposed collective tools in the area of defence, these do not themselves provide for a substantial collective vision of the EU’s strategic role in today’s contentious world, as the diverging positions of EU member states concerning the war between Israel and Hamas illustrates.
By Dr Delphine Deschaux-Dutard, University of Grenoble, Associate Professor in Political Science, University Grenoble Alpes.