Commission urges overhaul of EU defence to plug ‘critical gaps’

Foreign affairs chief urges co-ordination of defence spending to reduce fragmentation

The European Commission has proposed a sweeping overhaul of European Union defence, urging member states to use collective bargaining power to modernise and replenish their depleted military capacities in response to the war in Ukraine.

It is the latest development in an upheaval in European defence policy, prompted by Russia's invasion, that has seen Finland and Sweden move to join Nato and a series of formerly reluctant EU member states announce major investments in defence.

In the "Defence-EU" plan laid out on Wednesday, the commission argued that spending must be done in a co-ordinated way to strengthen common defence and avoid waste and duplication, venturing into a sensitive policy area that has proved controversial in the past for countries such as Ireland, as well as Nato members that insist the US-led alliance should not be rivalled.

On the same day, the commission proposed increasing the EU’s renewable-energy target to 45 per cent and phasing out Russian fossil fuels by 2027 entirely, another profound policy shift prompted by the invasion.

"To support Ukraine and to support ourselves, we need to increase our capacity to act and take more responsibility for our security," the EU's foreign affairs chief and European Commission vice-president Josep Borrell said in a press conference as he laid out the plan.

“Years of budget cuts and underinvestment have to be recovered. We have to have economies of scale, we have to reduce fragmentation and the critical gaps that we have today in our armed forces.”

As an example of inefficiency, Mr Borrell said the US has one type of battle tank while the EU has 12.

“The logistical costs, the duplications, the lack of interoperability is evident. It is evident in our air forces, in our navies. Everywhere, we have fragmentation and duplication,” he said.

“We need modern air defences, we need drones, we need air-to-air refuelling capabilities, we need tanks and armoured vehicles, we need coastal defence, we need cyber and space-based capabilities – just to name a few.”

Collective purchasing

The commission’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager said that member states should team up to collectively negotiate defence contracts, noting the precedent of collectively purchasing Covid-19 vaccines.

"By buying together, member states can get a better deal," Ms Vestager said.

She insisted that stronger EU defence would be a complement to Nato, and not rival it, referring to concerns among some eastern European member states who have in the past opposed proposals that might duplicate or rival a transatlantic security alliance they view as fundamental to their defence.

“Everything we are proposing here will also help make Nato stronger,” she said. Currently, 21 of 27 EU states are members, which may rise to 23.

Several member states sent significant amounts of their stocks of munitions and equipment to Ukraine, raising concerns in some quarters about the depletion of defence capacities within the EU.

Since the invasion the bloc has jointly funded military aid for an ally for the first time, in a fund for Ukraine that will rise by another €500 million to reach €2 billion, it was announced this week. Ireland has opted to purchase only non-lethal aid.