The transformation of the European Union from an economic union widely associated with the ideal of peace on the European continent to an aspiring center for military power.
Clare Daly is a member of the EU parliament for Ireland
Mick Wallace is a member of the EU parliament for Ireland
As internationalists, we believe in the possibility of a peaceful and socially just Europe. But as Members of the European Parliament, working every day on EU security and defence policy in Brussels and Strasbourg, we must be honest with the public about how realistic that ideal is right now. Peace is an unwelcome word in Brussels. Instead, as tensions rise globally, EU politics is gripped by a frenzied enthusiasm for armament and militarism, for confrontation with “geopolitical rivals,” and for getting involved in regional conflicts in far-flung corners of the world.
It was not always so. While a common EU army was long a pipe dream of European federalists, the idea was unpopular with the public, and was put on the backburner as the EU pursued integration in other areas. What efforts did exist in that direction were stymied by organisational difficulties. But the reforms of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 changed all that, preparing the ground for a profound acceleration towards a common foreign and defence policy, and the project has been picking up pace ever since then.
Most Europeans want peace. There are venerable and powerful peace movements in each of the EU member states. But in order to organise and oppose the pivot to war in Europe, it is necessary first to have a shared understanding of it. Our sense is that the antiwar left across Europe is aware that the EU is undergoing a process of militarisation. But, owing to the impenetrability of EU politics and its remoteness from national publics, the details of that process are difficult to come by. This makes it harder to hold national governments accountable, or to press them to oppose militarisation in the Council of the European Union.
This difficulty can be addressed by cutting through the acronyms and institutions in EU policy debates, and placing what is taking place in view. We can make a start of this by dividing EU defence policy into five broad areas.
1. Towards an EU army
The first of these, armed forces integration, is being pursued through a structure created by the Lisbon Treaty – PESCO, or Permanent Structured Cooperation. Former Commission President Jean Claude Junckers once called PESCO the “sleeping beauty of the Lisbon Treaty” – it lay dormant until activated in 2017. PESCO is a set of rules for setting up a series of joint military projects, currently the number lies at about 60. Member States are expected to meet defence spending targets of 2% of GDP, and can choose which projects to participate in, for example, new training projects or developing new military technologies or equipment, such as drones or missiles or fighter jets or warships. The longer term aim is getting armed forces to talk to and cooperate with each other, to start working to common standards and using common equipment, systems and concepts, in the hopes that they will at a future date begin to function more like a single military.
2. Boots on the ground
The second area is joint EU missions, where armed forces are deployed abroad together. Supposedly, these missions are restricted to the so-called “Petersberg Tasks”: humanitarian rescue, disarmament, conflict-prevention, military training and peacekeeping. The reality is that EU missions abroad are used as an instrument of EU foreign policy.
There are 21 active EU missions at present. A large number of them use Africa as a playground. Our group, the Left group in the European Parliament recently published an excellent study on EU missions in the Sahel region, called “Mission Creep Mali – Europe’s failed backyard policy.” The EU military presence in Mali and the broader Sahel has not been benign; it has been designed to advance EU and Member State interests, such as access to resources, and policing migration flows. It has been underreported, but the mission has been an unmitigated disaster, often with shocking consequences for local populations and knock-on effects on regional conflicts. In discussions in Brussels, African countries are now increasingly seen as places for the EU to engage in geopolitical contests with Russian and Chinese interests, and EU missions are considered strategic assets in these contests.
3. The defence-industrial complex
A third broad area is the project of building up a common European defence sector. Traditionally, military powers have their own defence industry – arms companies and defence contractors – who have a parasitic relationship with the state. This is what is was described by US President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address as the “military-industrial complex.” The state finances arms companies – out of taxpayer’s money – to do research and development to create new technologies and weapons. The state then spends taxpayer’s money again to buy those products back to equip its military. This relationship of course creates serious conflicts of interest. It also creates economic incentives for finding and creating conflicts.
Certain EU Member States already have a strong defence sector, but the aim in EU policy is to encourage European defence companies to develop the same parasitic relationship with the EU itself. The main instrument for this is called the European Defence Fund, a fund coming straight out of the EU budget, providing research and development grants to arms companies.
The European Defence Fund has an interesting backstory. An advisory body was set up in 2015 by the European Commission, to advise on how to design EU defence industrial policy. It was called the High Level Group of Personalities on the Preparatory Action for Defence-related Research. Ideally such a body would be made up of neutral experts, who did not stand to benefit from the advice they would give the Commission. As documented by watchdog groups, the Group was instead packed with the CEOs of major European defence contractors: Airbus, MBDA, BAE Systems, Saab, TNO, Leonardo, Indra and Frauenhofer. Another member was from Aeronautics, Space, Defence and Security Industries, the major lobbying organisation in Europe for defence contractors.
The Group produced a report, which recommended the creation of a European Defence Fund, which would funnel increasing amounts of money from the EU budget into arms companies. The Commission followed the recommendations in that report. After two precursor programmes, EDF was launched in 2020, and it is currently funding R&D in weapons and defence research to the tune of €8 billion for 2021-2027. Research on the recipients of EU defence research funding shows that companies on the Group of Personalities benefited handsomely from the very policy they designed. Now that the EDF exists, you can expect the EU spend to increase exponentially as the industry lobbies for more and more grants.
An important consequence of the EU pumping massive tranches of taxpayer’s money into defence research is that defence is fanning out into all areas of EU policy, not just pure defence. The availability of EU funding for defence research means industrial policy all over the EU entices small and medium enterprises into the defence sector because there is money there. Products and services spring up with both civilian and military uses. Universities have incentives to find military dimensions for their research programmes. The civilian sector is slowly militarised and made complicit in the business of war, as its funding and priorities overlap with defence interests. It is EU funding that is now driving that militarisation.
4. Cash for weapons
The fourth area of EU defence policy is joint EU financing of weapons purchases. At the moment, this does not come out of the EU budget – it is done through an off-budget instrument launched in 2021, which the Member States fund with direct contributions from their national budgets. Its financial ceiling is €5.7 billion between 2021 and 2027. It is called – with an Orwellian sense of propriety – the “European Peace Facility.” On the Council website it is described as being “aimed at enhancing the Union’s ability to prevent conflicts, build peace and strengthen international security.” Its main use at the moment is to purchase arms from defence companies with the express purpose of sending them into conflict zones considered of strategic importance to the EU. In the last year, seven tranches of €500 million each – €3.5 billion – have been authorised under the European Peace Facility for arming Ukraine.
A fifth major area is strategic planning. This is being carried out through a project called the European Strategic Compass – essentially an EU strategy document that aims to set out a big picture for all of the Member States. It aims to define who the adversaries are, where the threats are coming from and what parts of the world the EU should get involved in, and makes recommendations for things the EU and Member States should do to prepare for conflict, threats and challenges. The Strategic Compass is intended to become a major mechanism for herding diverse Member States (some of them neutral, like our own country, Ireland) with diverse interests, into a single geopolitical and military bloc.
The Strategic Compass more and more resembles a highway to NATO hegemony in Europe. For some years there was a tug of war between pro-NATO states, who wanted the EU’s defence policy to be subordinate to NATO, and the NATO-agnostics, who wanted it to be autonomous of NATO and the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave the pro-NATO states a decisive upper hand. As a result, EU defence structures set up to be independent of NATO are now being employed to incorporate Europe more tightly into NATO strategy. Irrespective of their official positions, this is transforming non-aligned and non-NATO Member States into de facto members of NATO, and trapping the European Union ever more securely within the overall strategy of the United States.
The processes we are describing are part of a transformation of the European Union from an economic union widely associated with the ideal of peace on the European continent to an aspiring center for military power. These developments are of concern for people and communities across Europe who favour peace. Throughout history, armament and militarisation have always been justified on the grounds of defence, but have tended to precede periods of especially brutal world conflict. In hindsight, militarisation made those conflicts more likely, not less.
All of this is taking place in the context of reemerging interimperialist conflict, carrying with it worsening international relations, rising military tensions, the deterioration of arms control agreements and multilateral institutions, and the acceleration of a new global arms race. It is a political choice whether the European Union will continue to participate in and accelerate these processes, or whether it will reverse its course and work to restrain them. The balance of political forces in Europe at present favours the former over the latter. Without a significant mobilisation of anti-war and anti-militarist forces in Europe, organising at national and EU levels, that balance is unlikely to change.
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