EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

As the hopes from vaccination climb high, the EU leaders eye recovery and a possible return to some semblance of normalcy in several months. However, the consequences in almost every aspect of our society will persist a long time after the pandemic is gone, and decisions to combat the virus will have a lasting impact also on EU cohesion and future of its integration process. The EU’s security and defence arena is no exception to such uneasy development. The most obvious consequences for the European defence that might come to mind are the military budget cuts. As the member-states have been fighting the pandemic during the last year, states’ expenditures grew enormously with healthcare and economic stimulus packages representing the biggest burdens for the budgets. As a result, defence spending has not occupied the top positions in member-states priorities even though the armies were significantly involved in combatting the virus in form of distributing aid, setting up field hospitals and many more.

Member-states defence spending: business as usual?

Jiří Šedivý, the acting chief executive of European Defence Agency (EDA), had recently warned of such scenario which goes against the long-term interests of the member-states. He reminded a similar situation that occurred after the Global Financial crisis in 2008 when the European states had reacted with “very deep, chaotic and uncoordinated cuts” in the defence sector. At that time, the Union saw its members’ defence expenditures decrease by 3 % in 2009 and consequent decline in investments and research and development by 22 %. This development inevitably led to a significant weakening of their defence capabilities in the following decade, and a number of serious threats to European security emerged in this time-span. The Ukrainian crisis in 2014 had a “sobering” effect on this benevolent approach to security of some member-states and their defence spending had started to grow again with the level of spending from 2007 being reached only recently in 2019.

However, the current security landscape in Europe is very different to that in the last decade. Weaker transatlantic ties, geopolitical competition with Russia and China, cyber threats, unstable situation in European neighbourhood and many other aspects are becoming much sharper threats than previously perceived. Together, they form a much more complex security environment that does require continuality and stability in spending rather than short-sighted cuts. Sacrificing defence capabilities can easily backlash in the near future and the Ukrainian crisis serves here as a wake-up call of that. Such tendency from governments is somewhat natural and defence sectors have always been the likely victims of cuts in times of crisis when the budgetary constraints are acute.

So far, it seems that at least some of the EU member-states have learned their lesson and the pandemic did not affect their spending in a negative manner. Since 2015, France has been pursuing a stable policy of steady military spending increase and has been investing in the modernization of the French army. The budget for 2021 does not represent any serious deviation from the previous military planning. Similarly, Germany also did not drastically scale back its defence commitments and continues to 2021 with a 3 % increase in spending. Despite that, a closer look indicates that German defence investments have been reduced sizably for the upcoming years. Such a move, as some observe, might affect the modernization of Bundeswehr and its involvement multilateral projects in the future. The approach of other EU countries can be perceived as mixed with no visible general tendency. Italy or the Czech Republic did react to the pandemic with defence budget cuts. Poland, on the other hand, remains a strong military spender and does not seem to plan any cuts in the foreseeable future.

EU budget: security and defence targeted

Apart from impacts on individual EU member-states’ defence matters, the pandemic affects the European security and defence integration as well. Unsurprisingly, also in the form of budget cuts. Admittingly, the EU budget for 2021-2027 agreed in July last year is historically the first budget that includes a section concerning the security and defence, which should serve as a cornerstone for future enhanced defence cooperation. Moreover, it also consists of new instruments, such as the European Peace Facility (EPF) that empower the EU as an international actor. However, these facts are results of long-term planning and commitments, which were persistent to the Union’s pandemic response and, in detail, the agreed framework had been extensively reduced compared to the Commission’s proposal. For example, the resources for European Defence Fund (EDF), the main component of the CSDP, will shrink by almost 40 %, and the same story goes also for the EPF. Such cuts significantly strike the expectations of the current Commission led by Ursula Von Der Leyen, who has openly stated that the body under her leadership will follow an ambitious foreign and security agenda. With inadequate funding, the EDF, EPF, and other instruments might not fulfil their potential, which then can lead to questioning their utility by the member-states and subsequent slowdown of defence integration as a whole. However, such a grim scenario is not inevitable. It is clear that the Commission has to scale back its ambitions and that the integration process might not continue at its quickest pace in the future. Nevertheless, it cannot be argued that the process will stop. So far, the progress in security and defence is indeed historic and its preservation in the budget provides a solid foundation for future cooperation.

Post-pandemic transformation

As a growing number of observers and policy-makers mention, global pandemic can also present a window of opportunity for the EU to emerge as a strong and self-reliant actor in the world. The recovery from the pandemic consequences, so far manifested in the public discourse mainly by economic and healthcare policies, should be much more holistic and encompass various other sectors as well. Apart from the security and defence sector, which this article focused on, the environmental and societal policies such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Green Deal should also stay very much in focus in the incoming era because, in today’s complex world, the areas of health, economy, security, environment are increasingly intertwined – and despite the pandemic seeming omnipresent, climate change represents a much more dire structural long-term threat. In other words, the global pandemic is inevitably transforming the societies around the world and the EU should take a proactive role in this process as possible.

Vojtěch Freitag


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