Under shadow of Putin and Trump, EU defence is key party policy in 2024

The European party manifestos and recent statements by group leaders shows that defence, military procurement, and the EU army have entered mainstream policy talk for the European elections of 2024

From appeals for ‘Europeans to protect Europe’ and clarion calls of ‘defence, defence, defence’, and other joint military procurement proposals, Europe is away with a centrist, mainstream concern about its defence capabilities.

The fog of war has left European legacy parties sure of two threats: Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the fears of appeasing the Russian bear, and the prospect of a return to global influence for Donald Trump in the United States with a weakening of America’s role in NATO.

All this happens against the tide of a rise of the European far-right: identitarian revanchists who want impermeable borders against asylum seekers and harbour sympathy for Russia’s cynical support of their ‘anti-woke’ principles.

Now as they fear a loss of seats in the European Parliament, the major political blocs are sharpening their appetite for a renewed European project of militarised defence, to them the key to keep the Union a project of peace. Views differ among the various groups, but there some common threads that place the mainstream parties on the same road.

European People’s Party

It is definitely the European People’s Party that has historically been gung-ho on arming Europe towards a stronger military union, and its manifesto is certainly a lengthy ‘treatise’ of sorts on this vision – much more verbose than other parties.

“Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, the weaponisation of energy and food and irresponsible nuclear threats, combined with growing tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are a wake-up call for Europe. The pace of geopolitical change is dramatic and the world has become a more dangerous place.”

The EPP is also clear that “Europeans need to protect Europe” and pledges as always its alignment with NATO and its strengthening through Sweden’s accession. “Every European effort in the field of defence has to be embedded and coherent with NATO. However, our trans-Atlantic allies will stand with us only if we are also willing to do our part autonomously. A strong alliance requires burden sharing.”

The EPP warns that a Trump re-election where Europe does not have the support of the United States inside NATO, will require closes cooperation with partners such as the United Kingdom and Norway. “We are the political force that stands for a Europe that can defend itself, in line with the principle of strategic autonomy, and support those who fight for Europe and its values.”

At the same time, the EPP also says this kind of commitment will not prejudice the specific neutral character of the security and defence policy of certain member states – like Malta for example. Malta would instead get to contribute to a European Fund for External Military Intervention enabling countries that do not wish to mobilise their armed forces for an EU external military operation, to make a financial contribution to the collective European defence. This fund would enable the full costs of operations to be taken into account and shared among member states.

The EPP strategy is based on three steps for European defence: ramping up the military-industrial complex with joint military procurement, such as the European Defence Industry Reinforcement through common Procurement Act (EDIRPA) and European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP); combining defence with the most advanced computer technologies financed by the next European multi-annual financial framework; and ultimately, a single market for defence.

“The EU should use the European Defence Agency (EDA) to provide financial support mainly to defence companies to standardise the systems they produce and encourage more joint defence procurement projects in Europe, as well as research of artificial intelligence (AI) for dual purposes (civilian and military).”

In this way, the EU will have to prioritise made-in-Europe military weapons to furnish Ukraine with weaponry to right Russia, apart from common European weapons programmes.

The EPP also wants a Commissioner for Security and Defence, as well as a Defence Council with defence ministers of member states, and of course a European Defence Union that has a dedicated EU defence budget within the MFF.

“Our long-term goal is to develop a true European Defence Union with integrated European forces in the land, sea, cyber and air. These forces should complement national militaries, aligned with NATO’s new force model, with a rapid deployment capacity of a permanent and immediately available force.”

And future defence projects under the EPP would include a missile defence shield, a a European Cyber brigade, a European nuclear shield, and stronger European cooperation of intelligence services.

Socialists & Democrats

The Labour Party’s socialist group in EP says Europe must be a guarantor of peace and be ready to stand up for the United Nations Charter by ensuring its security and defence

In a world marked by war, conflict inside its neighbourhood and rising authoritarianism worldwide. “We maintain our unwavering support for Ukraine, providing political, humanitarian, financial and military assistance for as long as needed. Our ultimate goals are to support Ukraine in restoring its territorial integrity and achieve a just and sustainable peace.”

“In an increasingly insecure world, the EU must take greater responsibility for its own security and defence,” the S&D says in its manifesto, pledging a strong European Common Security and Defence Policy that complements NATO.

“Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is a turning point in history. It proves that greater collaboration and deeper solidarity is needed to face the new international environment.”

It also supports the development of the European defence industry through targeted and smarter spending, greater joint procurements of defence products, closer cooperation in intelligence and further collaboration in cybersecurity and the protection of critical infrastructure.

It also wants the EU to speak with one voice in foreign policy matters and move towards more majority decisions in certain policy matters. “To counter foreign interference, the EU must protect itself against subversive actions from authoritarian regimes. We need to strengthen the diplomatic and political role of the EU on the global scene with a strong European External Action Service to defend EU values and interests.”

RENEW Europe

The European party of centrists and liberals and its Macron-led faction have placed defence – more specifically ‘defence, defence, defence’ – as the first of its 10 priorities for the European Parliament elections.

“We are the force who build a true European defence policy. We are the force who will continue supporting Ukraine until the win. We are the force who makes the autocrats pay for their breaches of the rule of law,” Renew says in its introduction to its election manifesto.

Describing peace as the EU’s biggest achievement and the cornerstone of prosperity, Renew says the EU must collectively be prepared to protect peace by ramping up – within weeks and months – its defence capabilities, “from research to military cooperation, to help Ukraine win the war against the Russian aggressor and to deter threats from authoritarian regimes.

“We need to strengthen defence in the EU so that both NATO and Europe are reinforced. The defence industry is also a purveyor of jobs and innovation. For the next five years our focus should be on defence, defence, defence.”

They have also called for expedited EU membership for Ukraine irrespective of good governance issues. “Ukrainians are spilling their blood to defend our democratic freedom. Ukraine must join and it will join. But we need to be able to welcome it, like other candidates. Without deep reforms, enlargement risks turning into a failure for all. The continent is about to unite, once more. This is good news. The more the mightier. But the governance of a whole continent is no trivial matter. It’s time to reopen the treaties.”

  European Greens

The European Greens have historically called for non-military approaches and disarmament, and are steadfast in their belief that peace and prosperity as well as sustainability go hand in hand.

But it has called the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine a turning point in the history of the European continent and the world. “It violates the rule of international law, peace, and security. As Greens, we stand firm in our undivided solidarity with and support for Ukraine and for continued financial and military support. The struggle of the people of Ukraine for freedom, peace, and joining the European Union is our struggle,” the Greens said in their Congress statement adopted in February.

They also want the EU to sever dependence from authoritarian regimes while conflicts rage in the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Sahel, and Central Africa.

“In today’s world, we believe the European Union must be a strong player. The EU is and has always been a peace project. We must be able to stand up for the EU’s security as well as peace and universal values in our neighbourhood and the world. Human rights and economic prosperity cannot be a luxury for the world’s richest. Global justice, good governance, and democratic norms and institutions help a country flourish.”

The European Greens say that for the EU to achieve greater security in geopolitical and economic terms, this depends on support for Ukraine while also prioritising international policies for a more stable world through human security, diplomacy and conflict prevention.

It also underlines the need for the EU to rewrite unjust trade rules that can make the world fairer and more equal.

“The EU must be ready to work with all friends of peace, human rights, and multilateralism to these ends. We have the courage to make the EU a force for a different, more just world. Europe’s green transition is both a geopolitical tool and a global responsibility. Climate diplomacy and cooperation on green technology and investment are key to how we will deal with the world.”

European Conservatives and Reformists

In the debate on European security and defence, the conservative right-wing ECR’s co-chairman Nicola Procaccini has spoken in favour of the creation of a European army to complement NATO.

The ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) has even accused the EU of being bogged down in trivialities “about butterflies and electric scooters rather than European security and defence.”

“The herbivorous superpower for Europe is what some seem to want, and that has affected the business of the European Commission and therefore of the European Parliament. We’ve heard wonderful speeches about the need to cycle in order not to emit CO2. We’ve talked about dreams, but in the meantime, Europe has continued to live in reality, and reality is a beautiful but dangerous place.”

Procaccini, of the Italian Fratelli d’Italia far-right party has said the effort needed to create a European army was more than justified in the face of a possible Trump re-election as United States president.

He took as an example the European Union’s ASPIDES naval force in the Red Sea, which protects international shipping from attacks by Houthi Rebels, as another step towards increased defence cooperation. “The common defence of our borders and of European interests is one of the few things that Europe can do, that Europe can do very well, and defence is a question of numbers,” Procaccini said.

The ECR said that the common defence of borders and European interests was the same as NATO’s mission. “If you look at a European army, the Italian right has supported this idea for 50 years, when it was a red line for others in this House. If you compare it with national armies, yes, it is expensive, but it is worth it. If we can spend less overall, do more and do it better, that will be proof of what you can do with good centrist realism.”

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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