Since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, we have been witnessing some important changes in not only European but also national foreign, security and defense policies.
In the past, Europeans often appeared reluctant to coordinate their national foreign, security and defense policies. Instead, they preferred to “go it alone”. The Ukraine crisis, however, has elicited a strong, unified response from the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and their member states as never before. To put pressure on the Kremlin and bring the war to an end as soon as possible, the EU, in close coordination with its North American allies, has adopted unprecedented measures. In June, EU member states agreed upon a sixth package of sanctions, which included an embargo on Russian oil imports (currently 90%) and the removal of three Russian banks from the international SWIFT payment platform. They also granted Ukraine and Moldova EU candidate status. This would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
In addition, the EU activated for the first time the European Peace Facility (EPF), a newly established off-budget fund that replaced, merged and expanded the scope of the Athena Mechanism and the African Peace Facility, and introduced the possibility for the EU to deliver lethal weapons to third countries. Through the EPF, the bloc has already provided $1.5 billion (€1.5 billion) in financial support to Ukraine’s military, with an additional $500 million (€500 million) announced on May 24. The next day, the European Commission (EC) adopted the second annual work program of the European Defence Fund (EDF), through which it has been scaling up funding for collaborative research in innovative defense products and technologies. The EC also introduced some new measures to promote defense innovation under a new umbrella: the EU Defence Innovation Scheme (EUDIS). In Versailles, EU leaders had agreed on the need for more effective defense spending. This $2 billion (€2 billion) investment will spur defense innovation while reducing industrial fragmentation wherever possible in coordination with NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the freshly launched Innovation Fund.
Meanwhile, NATO has been progressively bolstering defense along its eastern flank in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In February, the Alliance activated the NATO Response Force (NRF), a high-readiness multinational force of 40,000 troops that can be deployed quickly in response to an emerging crisis. The NRF was activated for the first time for the purpose of deterrence and defense instead of crisis management. More recently at the NATO Summit in Madrid, US President Joe Biden announced that the United States would establish a permanent US Army headquarters in Poland and further expand US military presence in Europe, which currently stands at around 100,000 troops.
Furthermore, the raging war has reignited defense spending debates at the member state level, not only in the “Big Three”—Germany, France, and Italy—but also among non-NATO EU member states with a long tradition of neutrality such as Finland, Sweden and even Ireland.
The public debates in Germany, France and Italy
Germany has lifted restrictions on sending German weapons to conflict zones by third parties and promised to arm Ukraine. This is a major foreign policy shift. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also pledged to create a special $100 billion (€100 billion) fund for military procurement and committed to spending 2% of the GDP on defense by 2024, in line with the goal for NATO members. However, Scholz has been heavily criticized both at home and abroad for his Ukraine policy. According to polls, while 69% of Germans support boosting defense spending, public opinion is divided, with 45% in favor and 55% against, over the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine. The day after the Bundestag voted to provide heavy artillery to Kyiv on April 28, an open letter signed by 28 German intellectuals advising Scholz against this policy gained support online. A week later, another letter signed by twice as many German intellectuals called on Scholz to provide heavy weapons to Ukraine.
Some, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who recently dismissed the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, have criticized Scholz for repeated delays and overall reluctance to send arms to Ukraine. Zelenskyy has even called into question Germany’s leadership role in Europe. A deal on the special fund was eventually reached by the German “traffic-light” coalition government and conservative opposition parties in late May and approved by the Bundestag in early June. In terms of arms supplies, however, Germany has directly delivered only Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine. The rest of the military aid announced by the German government, which is supposed to include Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles, IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft systems and MARS II multiple-launch rocket systems, is only likely to reach Ukrainian soldiers by late summer or even early autumn.
In Italy, the political willingness of the executive branch to arm Ukraine has inflamed discussions on defense investments and increases to the defense budget. On June 21, Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio split with the Five-Star Movement and formed a new parliamentary group. The casus belli was precisely the party’s opposition to Italy supplying arms to Ukraine and insufficient support for NATO and EU decisions.
Earlier this spring, a heated debate took place in Rome. The populist party currently led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte clashed with the other parties supporting the technocratic government led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. The prime minister seemed particularly appalled by Conte’s arguments against increasing the defense budget when the country is still grappling with the health crisis and socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two have been on a collision course ever since.
As a result, Italian defense expenditure will not hit the NATO 2% GDP target until 2028, lagging behind other allies. However, unlike Germany, Italy has not shied away from sending heavy weapons, such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles and M2 Browning heavy machine guns, to Ukraine. Despite the topic of arms supplies being classified information, Corriere della Sera reported that the third decree (note that a fourth is in the making) of the Italian government in May aimed to provide Ukraine with even heavier weaponry, including howitzers 155/39 FH-70 cannons. At the end of June, three Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers, officially on their way to Germany for a joint military exercise, were stopped in Southern Italy for lacking the necessary authorizations. Given the secrecy that surrounds the country’s arms deliveries to Kyiv, it cannot be excluded that Ukraine was their final destination.
In contrast to Germany and Italy, increasing defense spending in France has not caused much debate. This could perhaps be because of the reelection of President Emmanuel Macron. However, it is important to note that France has been increasing military spending for quite some time now. Last year, the country invested around $57 billion (€57 billion) on defense (around 1.9% of its GDP) and, in March, even before securing his second term, Macron announced that the defense budget would be increased further in response to the ongoing war. French defense spending is due to reach the NATO 2% goal no later than 2025, only one year behind schedule.
Minister of the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu recently announced a $3 billion (€3 billion) defense budget increase compared to 2022, bringing the total for 2023 to $44 billion (€44 billion). When it comes to arms deliveries though the Elysée Palace has so far only sent Milan anti-tank missiles, Mistral anti-aircraft missiles, and Caesar self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine. Since his joint visit to Kyiv with Scholz and Draghi, Macron has been pledging additional Caesar howitzers and has even asked the French arm manufacturer Nexter to increase its production. The French president might be doing so to diffuse tensions over his statement about not “humiliating” Russia over Ukraine.
Macron’s centrist alliance suffered a severe blow in June’s parliamentary elections. However, this should not affect French foreign and defense policy because these traditionally are the domain of the president.
And in Finland, Sweden, and Ireland
Meanwhile in Northern Europe, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson made history. Breaking with longstanding policies of not supplying arms to war zones, the two Nordic countries were the first to announce that they would provide weapons to Ukraine. Since the war started, Sweden has provided 10,000 anti-tank weapons (5,000 in February and another 5,000 in March) and other military equipment (helmets, body armors, rifles etc), of which more deliveries were announced at the end of June. Likewise, in early May Finland announced its third shipment of weapons to Ukraine, although details regarding the content of this as well as previous shipments have not been disclosed.
Furthermore, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats, the two female leaders formally reversed decades of neutral foreign and security policies by formally applying for NATO membership on May 18. The move has been backed by the majority of Finns and Swedes, who have also supported the significant increase in defense spending. This will allow defense spending in both countries to reach and, in the case of Finland, even exceed the NATO 2% GDP goal.
Following the signing of a trilateral memorandum with Turkey, which had initially objected to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, both Nordic countries can now become full members of NATO once all Allied nations ratify their bid. At the NATO Summit in Madrid, all 30 members signed the accession protocols. However, the ratification process for the NATO membership of the two Scandinavian countries is still ongoing and might take up to a year to conclude. While Germany has ratified the membership of Finland and Sweden, Italy and France are yet to do so.
At present, Finland and Sweden can participate in NATO meetings and possibly benefit from greater intelligence sharing. However, they are not yet protected by the Article 5 guarantee. This might explain why Finland just recently passed a law that allows it to build barriers on its border with Russia. There is in fact a very high risk that the Kremlin might engage in hybrid tactics in retaliation for Finland’s NATO membership bid.
Even Ireland, a neutral island with no proximity either geographical or commercial to Russia, is doubling its relatively low military spending. Currently, Dublin spends a mere 0.3% of its GDP on defense. Unlike Finland and Sweden, Ireland is not sending military supplies to Ukraine though and does not plan on joining NATO “any time soon.” Still, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is changing the debate in the country and forcing Ireland to rethink its security and defense policy. In March, the three coalition government parties—Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party—all voted against a bill that called for a referendum about writing neutrality into the Irish constitution.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin recently met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv and reiterated his support for Ukraine’s EU membership and sanctions on Russia. Much like Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, Martin is of the view that the Irish concept of neutrality should “evolve” and “be redefined.” Ireland might not be vulnerable to conventional military attacks, but it is extremely vulnerable to cyber threats and attacks.
Barry Andrews, the leader of the Fianna Fáil delegation in the European Parliament, observed that “75% of transatlantic underwater internet cables flow through or near Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.” Dublin also hosts the European headquarters of big-tech giants of the likes of Google and Facebook. This is probably why Ireland joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence in 2019, despite not being a NATO member. Ireland is only a member of the Partnership for Peace. Since 2017, the country has also participated in EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects as an Observer. This participation is expected to become more active in the near future.
An Important Opportunity
In conclusion, it is our belief that the war in Ukraine represents an important opportunity for Europe to strengthen its common security and address defense capability shortfalls. A new security architecture is emerging from this crisis in which the EU and NATO should seek not only to complement, but also to mutually reinforce one another. They must also keep working together to protect the common values and principles both organizations stand for. The real challenge going forward for the EU is how not to lose momentum and maintain the same level of consultation and cooperation with NATO allies, especially with the US. This momentum could be lost quickly once the war is over and it is then that member states have to continue to invest in defense, when threats are no longer direct nor immediate to their lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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