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For a True ‘Geopolitical Commission’ the EU Must Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

As the new European Commission prepared to take over the reins last autumn, there was a great deal of buzz around incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement of a “geopolitical Commission,” which would work to expand the European Union’s role on the world stage.  Though it remained to be seen how exactly this idea would be put into practice, many justifiably celebrated the EU’s apparent efforts to become a serious global actor in an age of renewed great power rivalry. However, the latest developments in negotiations around the EU’s next long-term budget reveal that the bloc’s geopolitical ambitions may be in serious jeopardy, as key security and defense initiatives stand to be cut. This would be a grave mistake.

The new Multiannual Financial Framework, or MFF, sets out spending priorities for the period 2021-2027. Alongside many other areas such as environmental, digital, and immigration policies, the next MFF also determines financing for key initiatives designed to increase the EU’s global capabilities and influence, such as the European Defence Fund (EDF), military mobility, and the EU space program.

The importance of these initiatives should not be understated. The EDF represents a radical step forward on the path towards European defense union and strategic autonomy by fostering intra-EU cooperation on industrial research and development. Military mobility is one of the flagship initiatives within the EU-NATO cooperation framework, and has even been dubbed the ‘silver bullet’ towards improving that crucial, yet often challenged institutional partnership.

Though less obviously linked to conventional defense, development of the EU space program is nonetheless imperative if the bloc wishes to be a defense player in the 21st century. In November 2019, NATO foreign ministers agreed to formally recognize outer space as the fifth operational domain of security, alongside land, sea, air, and cyber.  As the U.S., China, and Russia work steadily to increase their outer space presence, the EU must direct its resources towards doing the same.

However, recent MFF proposals would reduce funding to each of these three programs. According to European Council President Charles Michel’s latest plan, released on February 14, 2020, the EDF now stands to receive only 7 billion euros, or slightly more than half of the originally envisioned €13 billion. Meanwhile, the European Commission’s February 20, 2020 technical document, circulated among Member States, would greatly scale down the space program’s funding from its original €16 billion allocation, and even completely abolish financing for military mobility.

These potential cuts stem from pressure by an influential group of frugal countries who advocate for a smaller total EU budget. While the Commission originally proposed a budget equal to 1.11% of the 27 EU Member States gross national income, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden prefer a figure nearer to 1.00% of GNI.

Some compromise is undoubtedly necessary to bridge this gap. Nevertheless, EU leaders should look to other areas of the budget first before reducing investments in its instruments of geopolitical influence. This is especially true given that security & defense currently only account for a miniscule .02% of the EU budget.

A good alternative would be to cut funding for cohesion policies which makes up 36% or the largest proportion of the current budget. Cohesion funds are routinely spent fraudulently; thus, it is likely that by cracking down on corruption the EU could end up achieving similar results while spending less.

Fortunately, nothing has been finalized yet, as the negotiations on the 2021-2027 MFF will in all likelihood drag on for months to come. In the meantime, stakeholders can lobby EU leaders to set their priorities straight. Encouragingly, there has already been some pushback against the proposed spending reductions, as nine Eastern European countries recently called for more military mobility funding. Others who recognize the importance of a strong Europe should follow their lead.

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Nick Lokker

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