Von der Leyen urges EU defence industry to meet the Kremlin challenge

© European Union 2024 - Source : EP-164967A Photographer: Eric VIDAL
“It is about our ability but also about our willingness to defend our interests and values ourselves,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that striking weaknesses in Europe’s overall arms manufacturing capacity had come to light as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She called on the defence industry to change its strategy in response to the security challenges thrown up by Russia’s war on Ukraine. In particular, she stressed the importance of procuring weapons and ammunition manufactured in Europe.

Citing the industry’s reluctance to invest in staff and equipment unless backed by firm orders, the EC president noted how the defence industry has been slow to get off the mark and increase production. This was especially true when it came to supplying the quantity of artillery shells so badly needed by Ukraine.

Adding to these concerns, is the growing awareness among Europe’s leaders that former US President Donald Trump could return to the White House and further undermine support for Ukraine. France and Germany, for example, have warned of Europe’s need to do more to protect itself.

The war in Ukraine spurred European nations to raise their defence spending, with considerable expenditures going to the defence industry in the US. Much of Germany’s 100 billion-euro upgrade of its armed forces was spent on U.S. F-35 fighter jets and transport helicopters. Von der Leyen said EU member nations should join together to ensure more effective procurement as they had done during the pandemic when purchasing vaccines. One way to encourage the defence industry to take more risks, she suggested, would be for the EU to provide advance guarantees on weapons orders.

“European sovereignty is about taking responsibility ourselves for what is vital, and even existential, for us,” von der Leyen said when outlining the concept for the new strategy to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “It is about our ability but also about our willingness to defend our interests and values ourselves.” The key was simple, she said. “Europe must spend more, spend better, spend European.”

Despite a jump in production, the EU’s aim to manufacture a million artillery shells annually by now had only reached about half the projected total, although officials maintain that production could reach an annual 1.4 million shells by end December.

The EC head did suggest that the time had come to consider “using the windfall profits of frozen Russian assets to jointly purchase military equipment for Ukraine.”

Russian assets worth several billion euros are being held in Europe. Belgium, for one, estimates it holds some 180 billion euros, with Prime Minister Alexander De Croo saying he favours using the interest on those funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Von der Leyen, who is seeking a second term in office, told the EU lawmakers in Strasbourg that she supports the idea “of a designated defence commissioner”. She said the commission expects to make proposals for the new defence industry strategy in the coming weeks.

Earlier this month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, a vice-president of the von der Leyen-headed commission, indicated that a defence commissioner would only be able to focus on Europe’s defence industry since going beyond that “would be against the treaties” that the EU is based on.

The EU has no army. Member countries insist on sovereign control over their own armed forces.

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