Arms industry can count on European Commission at Defence & Security Summit

On Wednesday April 17, the seventh edition of the European Defence & Security Summit will take place in Brussels, bringing together industrial, military and political leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The meeting, organised by the arms industry’s lobby organisation Aerospace, Security and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), exemplifies the increasingly close relation between the military industry and EU and member states’ governments. The growing influence of the industry plays a key role in Europe’s rapid militarisation.

The high-level summit focuses on intensifying the reinforcement of the EU arms industry, international cooperation and setting a political agenda for a year with “important milestones on this path” – the European Parliament elections, the start of a new European Commission and the preparations for the new EU budget (Multiannual Financial Framework 2028-2034). For the industry, this clearly is a time for harvesting it’s extensive lobby efforts of the last decade, which have laid the fundaments of an ongoing process of EU militarisation, which has been severely accelerated since the Russian invasion in Ukraine from February 2022 on.

Sharply rising military budgets, the establishment and expansion of new EU support instruments for arms production, the easing of arms export rules, the military build-up of the EU as the European pillar of NATO and the push for industry’s access to private money have been key features of this process. In recent months this has escalated in ever stronger pleas to shift Europe’s economy towards being in service of war preparations. “We need to change the paradigm and move into war economy mode”, said European Commissioner Thierry Breton at the launch of the European Defence Industrial Strategy in March.

The programme of the Defence & Security Summit reflects this agenda. One of its main sessions is called ‘War economy: possible and/or necessary?’, bringing together speakers from large arms companies – the CEO of Leonardo (Italy) and the president of Kongsberg (Norway) – and former president of Finland Sauli Niinistö to discuss “calls for a ‘war economy’, to ensure the timely availability of the personnel, supplies and tools needed to produce the required defence capabilities at the necessary speed and volumes”. Last month, Von der Leyen tasked Niinistö with writing a report on how to enhance Europe’s civilian and military preparedness and readiness for war.

Other sessions at the summit focus on military support to Ukraine, a defence industrial posture for the west – comparing EU and US industry strategies – and gearing up the European military industry. Speakers include CEO’s, presidents or chairmen from arms companies as Airbus, Saab, KNDS and MBDA, national ministers from Estonia, Belgium, Poland and Ukraine and high-level EU officials, including Breton, DEFIS director-general Timo Pesonen and EDA chief executive Jiří Šedivý.

The presence of Breton, Pesonen and Šedivý has been a common element of many high-level meetings between industry and the EU in recent years. They consistently speak of, in the words of Breton at the European Defence & Security Conference in October 2023, turning to “a more structural approach to supporting defence industry”. This long-term objective is mirrored in the increasing attendance of Von der Leyen at such meetings in the last half year. Militarisation is at the top of the agenda for the European Commission as a whole. During the summit next week, there will be an half hour session with Von der Leyen about ‘Defence and security as a European priority’.

One can be sure that this will play into the hands of the industrial lobby. In a speech at the end of February in the European Parliament, about “turbocharging our defence industrial capacity in the next five years”, Von der Leyen already echoed some of the industry’s main current lobbying points, including the need to “spend more” and “spend European”, “stable orders and most importantly predictability in the long run” (for example by providing “advance purchase agreements”) and “access to capital”: “I would like to encourage our public and private lenders to support our defence industry”. The mounting pressure on financial institutions and asset managers to increase financing of arms production has for example pushed the European Investment Bank to discuss an expansion of its so far cautious investments in defence and security.

Also on the programme of the Defence & Security Summit is an interview with Nathalie Loiseau, chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence in the European Parliament. She has been outspoken in her support for the arms industry, declaring already in 2019 that “without exporting arms there will not be a European defence industry. We have to be clear about it.”

With this blunt statement she touches the core of the issue. All new support measures for the arms industry are presented in a frame of supporting Ukraine and working for European security. However, their real objective is the much more banal ‘increasing the global competitiveness’ the European arms industry. Or in other words: to increase arms exports and boost profits of primarily Europe’s large arms companies.

The European Defence & Security Summit is one of the high-level meetings where industry and European governments foster their increasingly close relations to serve the industry’s agenda. It is worrying that the European Commission seems to attach more and more importance to such meetings, as the participation of Von der Leyen shows. Security, in Ukraine, the EU or elsewhere, is not served by beating the drums of war and militarisation, throwing billions to the arms industry, let alone by exporting more arms to fuel war, repression, instability and unsafety in the rest of the world.

Mark Akkerman