Why the EU must centrally procure arms

Jointly procuring arms is key for the EU be able to act as one in dealing with the aggression on our doorstep.

Sep 28, 2022

In October 2022 over a dozen NATO partners will join forces to procure air defence systems. This new development was at least in part driven by the shortages resulting from countries delivering their inventory to Ukraine. At Volt, we applaud this collaboration, but want to raise the following vast problems with our European security:

  • The EU under spends on defence — Just 1.6% of GDP

  • The EU over relies on NATO — USA provides 75% of Ukraine military aid

  • The EU countries buy different arms — very inefficient

In this article, we make an argument for the EU to create i) Rolling, higher defence budgets, ii) The ability to defend our own borders iii) The joint procurement of arms.

The EU underspends on defence

Overall, EU military spending has shrunk significantly since the end of the Cold War. Since then, EU members cut relative spending by a third, from 2.4% to 1.6% of GDP, as well as cutting a whopping two thirds of their troops. In itself, the shrinking of defence spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing in times of peace. The problem lies in the uncoordinated and ongoing reduction of military capabilities, especially in light of the warning signs of the initial 2014 assault on Ukraine.

We also have vastly different budgets between countries. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all spend well over 2% of GDP on defence. Meanwhile, countries like Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg and Malta spend 1% or less. The higher spending on Europe’s eastern flank is no coincidence, as they for reasons historic and present always felt the threat from their Eastern neighbour. Poland started warning about the threat emanating from Russia soon after the 2014 Crimea invasion, but were by and large ignored by their European partners. Up to now, the EU has shown remarkable unity and resolve, but the bulk of weapon supplies have been carried out by the UK and US. Among the biggest EU spenders have been Poland and the Baltic States, close to the eastern front, whilst Mediterranean countries like Italy, France and Spain have contributed minimally. Clearly, this shows a lack of EU solidarity. Much like Europe failed to duly support southern members in the backlash of the 2015 immigration crisis, it fails to support its eastern members to ward off Russian aggression in 2022.

EU supplies have been ad-hoc, driven by media attention fuelling national decision-making. The structural provision of weapons delivery to besieged countries is not best left to the fickleness of media attention. Clearly, the EU needs a rolling, increased budget aligned across member states.

The EU over relies on NATO

The low EU spending is also partially due to the perceived protection by the United States, with a defence spending of some 3.5% of its huge GDP. This has made us fall under the protectorate of the benign uncle Joe Biden, who has provided 75% of the military aid to Ukraine.

The US has become a dangerously unreliable partner. As late as 2019 US President Donald Trump threatened to pull out of NATO, leaving the EU rightfully shuddering at the thought of future US presidents’ whims. It is important to remember that NATO is also a defensive alliance, and cannot send weapons to Ukraine, having to rely on individual members to step forward. We have seen the result of this, with the shameful situation of a European conflict being resolved by the US and UK, two non-EU countries, delivering most of the aid. The EU is clearly failing in the vital task of being able to defend our own borders.

The EU countries all buy different arms

When tanks were rolling into Ukraine’s heartland, advanced shoulder-fired missiles destroyed them by the hundreds. When Russia started resorting to bomb cities from a distance, advanced equipment like multiple launch rocket systems were directly needed to target artillery. Ukrainian soldiers equipped with such material have pushed Russian troops back in the East, and are preparing to retake Kherson. Seeing the great impact of advanced supply, they point out the lack of air-defence systems, artillery and munition as their greatest impediment to progress. “We have plenty of targets, but we can only choose one out of ten,” says a reservist. “So we choose the biggest.’’

In the first months of the war, EU countries opted to deliver old Soviet-developed weapon systems to Ukraine. This was a good strategy, as Ukrainian soldiers were familiar with this equipment, so they could swiftly be put to use in combat, while also maintaining some degree of deniability. But there is not an infinite supply of this equipment in EU stockpiles. Lately, the US, UK and EU member states have supplied a vast range of different weapons systems, many of which take months of soldier training before they can be effectively deployed. Furthermore, munitions and communications vary betweens most systems, complicating operations. The Russian war is now eight months in, and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs Joseph Borrell hinted, it could become a war of attrition, lasting for years. With EU stockpiles diminishing fast, surely now is the time for the EU to research, develop and procure weapons together. First, this has the benefit of delivering weapons systems to a single standard, with the advantages of reduced training time and interoperability. Second, this will allow the EU to outplay Putin’s ability to selectively punish individual EU members, for example by cutting off gas supplies. Third, it will give out a clear signal to other would-be invaders, for example the current Chinese threat to Taiwan.

Where do we go from here? 

In 2017, the EU has set up the European Defence Fund, which is already allocating over €1 Billion a year on collaborative defence research and interoperability. The EU and its member states now have a vital interest to support the Ukrainian army with advanced weapon deliveries for its struggle to defend European values. We propose that the EU is given more competence to act in this area immediately, so that it has sufficient budget, can jointly deliver arms, and is able to jointly replenish EU built weapon systems. Weapons deliveries can then be strategically planned ahead, and interoperability would be ensured. This will result in a win of wars of attrition, until reduced despots are defeated or forced to the negotiation table. In summary, we need to:

  • Set our own defence budget

  • Defend our own borders

  • Jointly procure arms

As things stand, EU-orchestrated joint weapons deliveries are unlikely to happen, as each EU member holds the veto to block any EU foreign policy decision. To make decisive joint action possible, the European Council should swiftly move to approve the European Parliament’s request for a Convention on treaty change, where the abolishment of the veto, particularly in the field of foreign policy, should be a primary priority. Only when these steps are taken, will the EU be able to act as one in dealing with the aggression on our doorstep.

This article is authored by Paul van Bommel.