EU’s Von der Leyen calls for new defense strategy in Europe

Brussels, Feb. 29:  A top European Union official called on Wednesday for a new defense industry strategy to respond to security challenges posed by Russia’s war on Ukraine with the purchase of weapons and ammunition made in Europe at its heart.

The Russian invasion has exposed glaring weaknesses in Europe’s arms manufacturing capacities. Reluctant to invest in staff and equipment without firm orders, the defense industry has been slow to ramp up production, most notably of the artillery shells that Ukraine so badly needs.

The creeping realization that former U.S. President Donald Trump might return to the White House and undermine support for Ukraine has also focused minds in Europe. EU heavyweights France and Germany have warned that the bloc must do more to protect itself.

“European sovereignty is about taking responsibility ourselves for what is vital, and even existential, for us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “It is about our ability but also about our willingness to defend our interests and values ourselves.”

Laying out her vision of the new strategy to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Von der Leyen said: “At the heart of this must be a simple principle: Europe must spend more, spend better, spend European.”

The war in Ukraine spurred European nations to hike defense spending, and a lot of money is destined for the U.S. defense industry. 

Germany, for example, announced a 100 billion-euro ($108 billion) upgrade of its armed forces, with a big chunk of the funds dedicated to U.S. F-35 fighter jets and transport helicopters.

Von der Leyen said the aim should be for countries to buy more, and more effectively, together just as the 27 EU nations did to purchase vaccines during the pandemic. To encourage industry to take more risks, she proposed that the EU should provide guarantees for advance weapons orders.

While production is improving, the EU had aimed to be making 1 million artillery shells annually by now but is only making around half that figure. Officials now say that production could reach 1.4 million shells per year by the end of December.

The head of the EU’s powerful executive branch also said that “it is time to start a conversation about using the windfall profits of frozen Russian assets to jointly purchase military equipment for Ukraine.”

Several billion euros in Russian assets are being held in Europe. Belgium estimates that it has around 180 billion euros ($195 billion) worth, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has said that he wants to use all the interest on those funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Von der Leyen, who is campaigning for a second term in office, also told the EU lawmakers that “I am personally supportive of a designated defense commissioner for the next commission,” without elaborating on what that portfolio might involve.

The EU has no army, and its member countries insist on sovereign control over their own armed forces.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell — who is also a vice-president of von der Leyen’s commission — said earlier this month that such a person could only really focus on Europe’s defense industry, saying: “Defense alone would be against the treaties” that the EU is based on.

Von der Leyen said the commission will make proposals for the new defense industry strategy in coming weeks.

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