Despite the positive signals since the start of the year, the EU’s public discourse still needs more consistency when it comes to defence, writes Niklas Nováky.
Niklas Nováky is a Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels.
On 14 September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her annual State of the Union address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, her third one since becoming Commission President in 2019.
The 2022 State of the Union address was different in tone compared to the previous ones that von der Leyen has delivered. It was a wartime speech in which Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine took centre stage. At the very beginning, von der Leyen reminded everyone that ‘(n)ever before has this Parliament debated the State of our Union with war raging on European soil.’ The presence of Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska in the audience was also highly symbolic.
Von der Leyen delivered a strong message of support to Ukraine, a message of continued resistance to the Kremlin, and a message of hope and resilience to EU citizens. She reminded her audience of the solidarity and assistance that the EU has already provided to Ukraine since the beginning of the war on 24 February, emphasised that the Union will continue to stand with Ukraine and its people, and stressed that there is much at stake in the war, also for the EU itself.
Von der Leyen also discussed other EU foreign and security policy topics. She mentioned inter alia that the Commission supports France’s idea of creating a European Political Community to boost the EU’s cooperation with non-EU European countries, that the Union’s Global Gateway investment plan will be boosted, and that the Commission will present a Defence of Democracy package to fight disinformation and influence operations of authoritarian countries.
Something that the 2022 State of the Union address did not include, however, was even a single reference to EU defence cooperation.
This was somewhat peculiar given the Ukraine war and everything the EU has done to support Kyiv since it began.
One could even say that it is genuinely challenging to discuss the war in the EU context without also referencing the various steps the Union has taken collectively, and its member states have taken nationally, in the defence field since February.
This was not the first time that defence was left out of a State of the Union address: von der Leyen’s 2020 address also did not include a single reference to EU defence cooperation. The 2021 address, by contrast, did contain a major emphasis on defence. In that address, von der Leyen discussed the development of the European defence ecosystem and stressed the need for a genuine European Defence Union.
It is possible that EU defence cooperation was omitted from the 2022 State of the Union address because the EU has already said and done a lot in that area in that area since February.
The EU has inter alia adopted a Strategic Compass to guide its security and defence policy until 2030, approved €2.6 billion of funding for Ukraine through the European Peace Facility to help Kyiv acquire lethal capabilities and other equipment, and launched initiatives to help EU countries refill their depleting weapons stockpiles.
In addition, the EU is currently planning a military training mission to help train Ukraine’s armed forces.
Given all this activity, von der Leyen and her team perhaps felt that this year’s State of the Union address was not the right moment to give yet another overview of everything that is already being done in the field of EU defence cooperation, especially since she had prioritised the topic also in her 2021 address.
However, it is exactly because of this increased activity, in addition to the broader shift in the EU’s strategic culture caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine, that defence should have been featured also in the 2022 State of the Union address, regardless of what was said in 2021.
More generally speaking, it is also important to keep defence cooperation high on the EU’s agenda and use high-visibility media moments (of which the EU doesn’t have many) such as State of the Union addresses to explain the logic behind various (often very technical) initiatives in the defence field to EU citizens and partner countries.
The State of the Union address is also the perfect moment to outline what the EU is seeking to do in that field within the next 12 months in a manner that would be understandable to EU citizens.
In other words, the EU’s public discourse still needs more consistency when it comes to defence.
It is not sufficient that the field is discussed intensively during time-restricted processes such as the development of the Strategic Compass but then side-lined from major agenda-setting moments such as the State of the Union address, especially at a time when a war is being fought on the EU’s own doorstep.
This sends the wrong message to the EU’s member states, its citizens, its partners, and its adversaries.