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A New Defense Commissioner?



The Munich Security Conference, held from Feb. 16-18, 2024, is one of the annual forums where political leaders, foreign ministers, researchers, and lobbyists gather to discuss the most relevant international security issues. Formal and informal meetings, lectures and debates take place during the event. It is essential to contextualize the debate within the complex challenges, both internationally and domestically, of our time. The concept of "poly-crisis" emerges as a lens through which to better understand our era. Adam Tooze introduced this concept to describe a situation in which a number of problems combine, interacting in such a way that the whole becomes more overwhelming than the sum of its parts. These crises are heterogeneous and cross-cutting, involving a wide range of sectors as the interaction between the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the energy, economic, and climate crises. The complexity of these challenges makes it difficult to identify a single cause and, consequently, a single solution, leaving us disoriented in the face of these crises. Yet the crises have often been sources of institutional change for the EU.

1. Von Der Leyen’s promise at the Munich security Conference.

During the conference, Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, delivered a keynote speech on the future of European security and defense. Given the approaching European elections, her words were carefully weighed. One of the key points addressed was the promise of creating a Directorate General for defense in the event of her securing a second term, an idea she had previously expressed. Additionally, her speech emphasized the centrality of increasing defense investment and endeavoring to unify the fragmented European defense market. The objective is to enhance Europe's competitiveness by bolstering its military and technological capabilities, optimizing resource allocation, boosting employment, fortifying supply chains, and promoting industry-friendly climate regulations. Von Der Leyen's response embodies a dual ambition: the establishment of a new European Commissioner for Defense and a greater financial commitment from member states to shared defense initiatives. Von Der Leyen also underscored the necessity for the development of European defense capabilities to be in line with NATO standards and to ensure effective interoperability. These new priorities not only address geopolitical shifts but also hold significant importance for her potential second term.

On February 18, Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, seized the opportunity to express his opinion on Von Der Leyen's proposal. He emphasized the significance of focusing on both the defense industry and defense itself, while cautioning against oversimplifications that might contradict existing treaties. Borrell reiterated that prerogatives in this field ultimately remain within the purview of the member states. While NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praised von der Leyen's proposal, noting unprecedented EU-NATO cooperation. He welcomed EU defense initiatives, but emphasizing the need to avoid duplication and maintain NATO as Europe's primary security pillar.

2. The evolution of EU foreign and defense policy.

The journey of European integration in defense and foreign policy has been a tumultuous one, marked by a series of attempts, setbacks, and incremental progressions. It all began with the ambitious 1952 proposal for a European Defense Community, envisioning a unified European army and political authority. However, the dream was shattered by internal discord within French politics, derailing the initiative. Undeterred, subsequent efforts emerged, such as the Fouchet plans in the 1960s, reflecting de Gaulle's vision of intergovernmental political cooperation. Yet, like its predecessor, this too stumbled amidst disagreements among member states, failing to materialize into a concrete framework. Amidst this backdrop of fits and starts, the 1970s saw the Davignon report laying down the groundwork for European political cooperation. Although lacking formalization in a treaty, it signaled a commitment to enhancing intergovernmental defense and foreign policy collaboration.

A significant turning point arrived in the 1990s with the Maastricht Treaty, which established a dedicated pillar for foreign and security policy within the EU framework. This institutional innovation empowered the Council presidency and introduced provisions for a prospective common defense policy. Further institutional developments followed in the 2000s, with the emergence of administrative bodies like the European Defense Agency and the EU Military Committee, highlighting a growing commitment to enhancing defense capabilities through collaboration. However, it was the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 that ushered in a new era, introducing key actors such as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and the European External Action Service. The treaty also brought forth clauses mandating member states' mutual assistance in times of armed aggression or terrorist attacks, reflecting a deepening commitment to defense and solidarity.

Amid the evolving challenges of the 21st century, including shifting geopolitics and security threats, the EU has continuously adapted its approach to defense and foreign policy. Initiatives such as the 2016 "Global Strategy" and the establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation in 2017 underscored a renewed determination to deepen collective defense capabilities and pursue strategic autonomy.

In 2019, the European Defense Fund marked a significant milestone, with the Commission actively incentivizing defense collaboration among member states through financial and political support. This was complemented by the establishment of a new DG Defense Industry and Space, signaling a heightened focus on defense capabilities and innovation. The year 2022 witnessed further strides with the integration of security and defense components into the EU Strategic Compass, providing a comprehensive analysis of the strategic landscape and challenges faced by the EU. Additionally, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU utilized the European Peace Fund to provide arms to Ukraine, challenging the traditional perception of Europe as solely a civilian power.

3. Some considerations on a new DG Defense.

Returning to the proposal of establishing a defense commissioner, several considerations can be made. Its creation could streamline cooperation and coordination among different directorates-general regarding budgetary matters and military mobility, thereby improving European integration in the field of defense and security. This move would also grant the European Commission more political authority in the defense field, expanding its decision-making capabilities. However, this could potentially cause tensions between various institutions and member states that prefer using the council as the primary decision-making body and are unwilling to cede prerogatives in this area. While the European Parliament might advocate for the creation of a DG Defense, member states are likely to exercise caution due to concerns about potential encroachment on national sovereignty. The distribution of power within the defense sector is a source of tension, with member states aiming to retain control and limit Commission intervention. Furthermore, the institutions currently responsible for the Foreign and Defense Policy of the EU are reluctant to relinquish the prerogatives they have acquired over the years, along with their institutional roles. Addressing apprehensions regarding DG Defense requires compromises that balance coherence, bureaucratic coordination, and institutional equilibrium. It's also crucial to consider NATO and ensure that there is no duplication, focusing on establishing effective interoperability rather than adding to bureaucracy. Although the foreign and defense policy largely remain under the purview of member governments, they are now complemented by a suite of institutions based in Brussels. We'll need to observe whether von der Leyen's rhetoric translates into action or remains merely electoral promises. Nevertheless, it's evident that external crises play a pivotal role in driving institutional changes within the security and defense sector. Events such as the war in Ukraine, the crisis in the Middle East, escalating tensions with China, and the potential for a second Trump presidency could create an opportune environment for such transformations.

Wallance H., Pollack M., Roederer-Rynning, Young A., “Policy-Making in the European Union (8th)”, Oxford University Press, 2020.

Lucarelli S., “The Eu’ “strategic Autonomy”: a Mixed Bag”, ISPI Report 2024.

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