EU Security and Defence: 4 Key Questions for the Next Commission’s Leadership Ahead of the Elections

As Europe gears up ahead of the EU elections in June, defence and security have established themselves as dominant themes.

Foreign, security, and defence policy were prominently featured as headlining topics at the Maastricht Debate of April 2024, where lead candidates of EU Parties had the chance to directly confront their competitors in front of a “European-wide” public for the first time.

The 2019 election experience was emblematic of the relative importance of lead candidates in the contest for EU leadership: the attempts to promote direct links between electoral results and the choice of the European Commission’s president inevitably clash with the priorities of Member States’ leaders.

The growing centrality of these policies for the European public and in the context of the EU action, however, is not to be underplayed: the choice of whoever will head the EU executive body is expected to be heavily influenced by the personal and political vision over defence and security challenges of Europe, and the new Commission president will likely be confronted with tough choices that will likely give a taste of the direction of the EU in this area for the next five years.

As we await the outcome of the elections, we can already hypothesise a few immediate challenges for the Commission leadership:

1. Support for Ukraine

While the EU has made significant strives to coordinate military support to Ukraine, the choice to offer support remains the sole decision of Member States. Despite the Treaty constraints and Member States’ priorities, the outgoing Commission has nonetheless shown that the EU executive body can significantly shape the discourse and catalyse political attention more than what was previously thought.

President von der Leyen and High Representative Borrell have made multiple visits to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, underlining their commitment to the cause; equally, the coherent and steady push for more and more drastic European-wide solutions to supporting Ukraine – from the periodical re-financing of the European Peace Facility to the recent enhanced EU-Ukraine defence industry cooperation initiatives – have been a marking feature of the outgoing Commission.

The first and most significant test for the incoming Commission will be a demonstration of their dedication to supporting Ukraine. This early challenge will critically assess the new President’s and College’s willingness to link their mandate with Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for sovereignty and territorial integrity. More lukewarm stances of the Commission’s leadership from the outset of the mandate might signal an alternative approach to what we have seen until now – i.e. the unwavering support for a total victory of Ukraine – in favour of other solutions to the conflict, including a negotiated ceasefire.

2. Advancement of Current Defence Initiatives

This issue, while intrinsically linked to the support for Ukraine, carries a more subtle, long-term impact. The European Defence Investment Programme Regulation (EDIP), spearheaded by President von der Leyen and Commissioner Breton, signifies a notable political commitment from the European Commission to advance the EU’s role in coordinating defence industrial efforts has prompted considerable attention across EU capitals.

Specifically, the expansion of the Commission’s/High Representative’s prerogatives in areas such as awareness of the availability of defence products (EU Military Sales Mechanism), support for defence cooperative programs (Structure for European Armament Programme), and the broadening of the ASAP intervention logic all represent a major and likely permanent paradigm shift in European defence industry cooperation. No precedent exists for a new Commission to withdraw a proposal set forth by its predecessors, but the unique circumstances of the political climate and the reservations from capitals on current proposals make such an action conceivable.

Besides completely withdrawing the proposal, the new Commission could find more subtle ways to weaken the EDIP proposal, such as adopting a more lax negotiating stance with Member States. The fate of the EDIP and, consequently, the future of EU defence industry cooperation will predominantly lie in the hands of the European Commission’s president, who will act as the principal political decision-maker within the newly appointed college. The potential scenarios, in this instance, are widely unpredictable.

While the EDIP is poised to innovate the legal framework with new tools, the proposal is likely to remain low impact in the absence of a serious financial commitment from the EU budget going beyond the €1.5 billion currently allocated. The discussion around the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the budget dedicated to security and defence will have equal, if not greater, importance than the one on the EDIP proposal. While the previous Commission has set an extremely ambitious objective – the proposal for a financial envelope of €100 billion put forward by Commissioner Breton – the commitment of the next College and the personal strong will of the next, possible, “Commissioner for defence” are yet to be discovered.

3. The EU’s Role in Transatlantic Security

The EU’s position as a supplementary force to NATO has traditionally been dismissed as a non-topic. As the saying – and treaties – go, NATO remains the cornerstone of most member states’ defence.

The complexity of contemporary security challenges renders this topic far more relevant than it has been in the past decade. In general, the EU’s role in transatlantic security is perceived as increasingly vital as Europe seeks to confront a long-term threat to its security, as an emboldened Russia and the US’s attention shifts away from Europe’s security to focus on the Indo-Pacific. The voices in favour of stronger EU defence cooperation multiplied in the last months, while the shared Members of the two organisations have grown to 22 with the accession to the Alliance of Finland and Sweden. The political conditions for engraving a significant change in EU-NATO relations and re-shaping Euro-Atlantic security architecture are all there, starting from more keen EU Member States’ leaders.

The forthcoming decisions and the new Commission’s leadership style will significantly influence how the EU will interpret its new role in transatlantic security, especially considering the uncertain elections in the United States, and the fact that current and former US representatives from both sides of the aisle have called for Europe to further take defence matters into its own hands.

4. Shaping EU-UK Relations in security and defence

Should the EU pursue increasing responsibilities in euro-Atlantic security, the topic of EU-UK defence and security cooperation would make an even more powerful comeback. No formal framework exists in this area, even though recent years saw increased UK participation in sensitive EU programmes, further to its request, such as Horizon Europe – the EU key programme for research and innovation – and Copernicus – the Earth Observation component of the EU Space Programme.

The Russian invasion prompted more frequent high-level discussions and coordination between EU and UK leaders, to the point of welcoming the UK foreign secretary to an extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting.  At the working level, tangible acts of cooperation were undertaken, such as the secondment of UK personnel to the clearing house for military equipment destined for Ukraine in Brussels, while early discussions on British participation in the EU Military Mobility project have started. Cooperation on sanctions since Brexit highlights a continued partnership and concrete possibilities for alignment in sensitive EU foreign and security policy fields.

The continuation of the Russian threat and the progressive “Europeanisation” of the defence industry make some wonder whether EU leaders should explore further political, industrial, and operational cooperation.

A majority of the leading defence industrial actors across Europe enjoy strong and historical links with the UK defence industrial complex, if not a presence of production plants and national divisions in the UK. The question of how to shape the participation of third countries in EU defence initiatives has always been a crucial one; when it comes to a geographically and historically close partner such as the UK, the question is even more compelling.

With the elections in the UK imminent and an “EU-Friendly” Labour Party poised to win the majority, and possible request from the UK to formalise a cooperation agreement, the new Commission will have the choice of putting or removing the topic from the political agenda.

Awaiting results

With the EU elections only mere weeks away, backroom discussions surrounding these priorities are expected to intensify, significantly influencing the political dynamics and, ultimately, the choice of the Commission’s leadership.

The outcome of the EU elections and the subsequent policy directions impressed by the European Council on the 17th of June are to give us precious hints on how these topics will be addressed in the coming years. Equally, the choice of the leadership of the European Commission, which currently appears more uncertain than what it seemed a few weeks ago, will be the key indicator of Member States’ willingness to advance – or stall – key issues for the future of European defence.

Article by Edoardo Bombardieri, Defence, Space and Aviation consultant.