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Next Steps in EU Defense: Balancing Momentum with Expectations

May 25, 2022
4 min read
Meeting of EU Defense Ministers at the European Council headquarters | Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
During the special meeting of the European Council at the beginning of next week, European heads of state and government will discuss Ukraine, defense, energy, and food security.

The outcome of the summit will have important implications for the evolution of the EU’s role as an actor in European security, given that the summit follows several concrete achievements in European defense in the first months of the year. For the upcoming summit, it will hence be crucial to maintain the momentum of a more geopolitical Europe that emerged from the war in Ukraine—but also to manage expectations and stick to realistic benchmarks.

Maintaining the Geopolitical Momentum

February 24 has significantly changed the role of the EU as a security actor on the continent: packages of increasingly fierce sanctions and the use of the European Peace Facility to provide weapons, including lethal weapons, to Ukraine have demonstrated that the EU uses its entire toolkit to defend its interests. This geopolitical awakening has been accompanied by several technical but significant achievements on European security and defense in the first months of the year. With the adoption of the Strategic Compass and its concrete benchmarks, the member states have set the direction for the next years, while the Defense Investment Gap Analysis and the establishment of the Hub for EU Defense Innovation show that member states and institutions have started to jointly deliver. After years of inertia, EU defense has leapt forward in the last six months—this is good news for Europe as a whole and a promising starting point to maintain this dynamic.

Monitoring the implementation of the decisions of Versailles on defense expenditure and capacity development and of the Strategic Compass is even more important in the context of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.

Monitoring the implementation of the decisions of Versailles on defense expenditure and capacity development and of the Strategic Compass is even more important in the context of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. While this threat pushes other security challenges to the background, EU member states have deliberately maintained the timeline when adopting the compass in late March, with around half of the deliverables due in 2022 and 2023. These commitments must now be followed by first steps in equipping the EU for the geopolitical long game.

Avoiding the Versailles Mistakes

Concretely, member states should now focus on the Common Defense and Security Policy (CSDP) missions, including the concepts for troop rotation, first reflections on smaller coalitions of the willing under Article 44 of the Treaty on the European Union, and a framework for a Defense Joint Procurement Task Force, as announced in the recent communication from the European Commission. Addressing crisis management and capability development as priorities right now is salient for two reasons: first, the CSDP missions might face new challenges with exacerbating security situations caused by food scarcity in the coming months, so the EU must be able to adapt. Second, capability development, in general a long-term project, can benefit from the increased national defense budgets and the new EU initiatives, so that prioritizing capabilities now is crucial for short-term and long-term preparedness. Furthermore, aspects of capability development are inseparably linked to broader challenges of building resilience, for example through securing supply chains or supporting critical technologies.

Now that the EU has given itself a direction with Versailles and the Strategic Compass, it is time for technical debates at the upcoming summit in order to move on with concrete proposals and put flesh on the bones of EU defense.

While sticking to the benchmarks they set for themselves, it is, however, important that the EU member states manage expectations before the summit and avoid the mistakes of the informal meeting of the heads of state or government in Versailles in March 2022. The initial enthusiasm for the meeting was quashed by the vague declaration that came out of it. Now that the EU has given itself a direction with Versailles and the Strategic Compass, it is time for technical debates at the upcoming summit in order to move on with concrete proposals and put flesh on the bones of EU defense, even though these debates often do not make headlines.

Combining healthy levels of ambition with realism is a balancing act, but EU member states must accept the challenge. With the Sweden and Finland likely joining NATO, as well as the planned adoption of NATO’s Strategic Concept during the Madrid Summit at the end of June, the EU must clarify where it is willing and able to act for and in European security and how it complements NATO’s core tasks. Next week’s special meeting needs to provide answers to these questions if the EU wants to live up to the aspirations stated in the compass: protecting its citizens, values, and interest, as well as contributing to international peace and security.