European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen appealed for member states to overcome a lack of “political will” to pool defence capabilities to strengthen the European Union’s capacity to defend its interests.
In her annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Ms von der Leyen reflected on the EU’s achievement of a 70 per cent Covid-19 vaccination target and pledged an extra donation of 200 million doses to low income countries to avoid a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.
Societies had asked young people to make great sacrifices for the sake of others during the pandemic, and this should now be repaid by increasing efforts to build a better future, she argued.
This would include implementing climate commitments, establishing an Erasmus-style programme called ALMA offering work placements in another EU state, and modernising the economy through digitalisation and development of the tech sector.
As an international debate heats up to find a global tax deal, Ms von der Leyen said that companies should pay their “fair share” of tax as they rely on public investment in education and infrastructure to make profits.
A substantial section of her speech focused on the issue of common EU defence.
The chaotic United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan has provoked soul-searching on security and defence issues in several European states, which lacked the capacity to evacuate all their civilians and felt let down by Washington in the rush to leave.
The EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell earlier this month suggested to a meeting of foreign ministers that a 5,000-man “rapid response” force would have allowed the union to secure Kabul airport itself and continue evacuations.
But there remain deep divisions in the bloc on the issue, with relatively low levels of defence spending reflecting little public interest and strong opposition among eastern member states towards anything that could undermine Nato.
Ms von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, described the EU as a “security provider” with the responsibility to “provide stability in our neighbourhood and across different regions”.
“Europe knows better than anyone that if you don’t deal in time with the crisis abroad, the crisis comes to you,” she said.
She described expeditionary forces as “part of the solution”, but admitted that previous such initiatives had “not worked”. EU battlegroups of 1,500 soldiers made up of a rotating mix of member states were formed in 2007, but have never been used.
“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity – it is the lack of political will,” Ms von der Leyen said.
Rather, she proposed a joint EU centre for countries to pool their intelligence, and shared cyber defence capabilities.
“You no longer need armies and missiles to cause mass damage. You can paralyse industrial plants, city administrations and hospitals – all you need is your laptop,” Ms von der Leyen said.
She also suggested that national governments could choose to waive VAT for military purchases from EU suppliers, which would benefit the local arms industry and increase “interoperability” between different national forces.
The inclusion of common defence in the speech, a set piece in the European political calendar, raised eyebrows among several Irish MEPs, who are wary of how contentious the issue has proved domestically in the past.
“The less guns, the less bombs, the less bullets you have, the better. It doesn’t bring more peace,” independent Left group MEP Luke Ming Flanagan told The Irish Times.
“You’re not more secure the more defence projects you put together. You’re more secure when people have full bellies and they’re content and they’re happy.”
Ireland is among six member states to have a special status on EU defence, and has the choice to opt in or out of cooperation projects on a case-by-case basis.