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The EU’s military power and the European Parliament: a military power in the making?

Russia’s full-scale war of aggression in Ukraine has united a large majority of policymakers across the EU. They call for the support of Ukraine as well as more EU security and defence competences. In short, they rally around the flag, or rather flags — the EU flag among others.

The EU’s security and defence policy had been dormant for a while. However, since Russia’s repeated aggressions along the EU’s Eastern border, the European Union has become increasingly active and increased its competences in security and defence matters. The EU reacted with military assistance, which includes the purchase of lethal weapons to Ukraine. This is happening through instruments such as the off-budget instrument, known as the European Peace Facility (EPF), devoting approximately 11.1 billion euros between 2022 and April 2024 to support Ukraine militarily. The use and scale of this instrument represents a clear change from the past. As EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen observed on February 27, 2022: “For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack. This is a watershed moment”. The EU also launched the European Union Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine), with training centers in Germany and Poland. Even prior to the 2022 invasion, the EU had started to create policy instruments for joint production and procurement of military equipment to address defense industrial vulnerabilities and improve its readiness such as the European Defence Fund (EDF).

There are nonetheless notable differences of opinion among European leaders and political parties across the EU. These differences manifest themselves both along ideological divides and across and within countries. Political parties across the EU disagree, for example, over whether and what weapons to provide to Ukraine, whether Ukraine should become a member of the EU, whether and how much Russia should be sanctioned, and whether the EU should finance the acquisition and procurement of military equipment produced only within the EU or also outside of it (read: mainly the U.S.). Most political parties that are pro-EU are also pro-Ukrainian support, while those that oppose EU integration are also ambivalent or opposed to support for Ukraine. In addition, there are also visible disagreements among those parties that are pro-EU and pro-Ukraine support in terms of the timeline and the kind of weapons that should be delivered to Ukraine.

What is at stake: weighing short-term resolve and long-term consequences

Over what exactly, how much, and for how long (governing) political parties are united matters in signalling resolve. Proclamation of solidarity alone does not help Ukraine defend itself from an illegal war of aggression. European leaders’ and parties’ resolve has several audiences: Russia, Ukraine, the US, the EU, and domestic constituencies. This is no easy and cheap task.

One complex and costly aspect that requires resolve, and which is interpreted differently across these audiences, is the EU’s and European governments’ investment and the (joint) acquisition and procurement of military equipment. One important aspect in this regard is European defence industrial policies since many European militaries are in need of modernisation. For long, NATO was the guarantor of European security and many European governments operated with relatively low defence budgets. But the transatlantic bonds, still in force, are not as assured anymore as they used to be. No matter which recent U.S. administration, the call for increased European defence spending is a common theme, although the manner in which it is articulated may vary significantly.

For now, many EU actors are united regarding the support of Ukraine. Hungarian and Slovak Eurosceptic leaders are not blocking policies yet, but instead agree to constructive abstentions on issues such as more aid and a military training operation for Ukraine.

But one should not forget that a more capable and modern European defence industry will also increase the demand from the defence industry to sell their equipment abroad. Thinking about legislation on how to ensure that these sales correspond to the rules, regulations, and values that the EU claims to abide by will be important to consider. If there are more urgent matters now, this should not be dismissed.

Possible implications of the European Parliament elections

Much of what happens in the name of EU security and defence policy is organized and implemented intergovernmentally; that is, member states are the prime drivers. However, the European Commission has become more and more powerful in this policy domain, and the European Parliament has an impact on the appointment of the Commissioners. Should Ursula von der Leyen be re-elected as President of the European Commission, she has announced that she will create a new position within the College of Commissioners, namely the one of Defence Commissioner. This would strengthen the EU’s defence portfolio. If the EP elections give more power to those who want less EU powers, this could become a tense issue.

The European Parliament can also influence the EU’s defence industrial policy since it has to adopt the EU budget and regulations pertaining to the creation of defence industrial instruments (as was, for example, the case with the EDF or the European Defence Industry Reinforcement Procurement Act).

Lastly, the newly elected European Parliament can also serve as a reminder that the EU not only has subscribed to a comprehensive security approach—but also has the tools to do so.


Stephanie C. Hofmann is Joint Chair in International Relations in the Department of Political and Social Science and Robert Schuman Centre of Advanced Studies. She also is the director of the Europe in the World research area at the Robert Schuman Centre.