Will the EU’s foreign policy and defence ambitions be reflected in the next long-term budget?

Anna Nadibaidze, analyst of European affairs, foreign policy and security and holder of MSc in International Relations from LSE, assesses the EU’s budgetary commitments towards foreign policy and defence in light of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.


While the COVID-19 pandemic has created a major challenge for the EU’s ability to live up to its plans for future defence and security integration, it has also brought an opportunity to revise the direction of its global strategy.

At the beginning of her term, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that the Commission would be a “geopolitical” one, raising the expectations of a more responsive, coherent and impactful EU, both in its neighbourhood and beyond. As von der Leyen mentioned in her agenda, the EU must be “ambitious, strategic and assertive in the way that [it acts] in the world.”

However, the pandemic’s economic impact has raised several questions, both in terms of how much money should be allocated to this sphere, and whether EU member states are willing to invest in the Commission’s geopolitical ambitions, particularly in the area of defence.  

With COVID-19 already throwing several member states into a recession, it seems logical to expect cuts in defence spending from national budgets, as well as in the EU’s next long-term budget, the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027.

On 27 May 2020, von der Leyen presented a new MFF proposal in which the Commission has included (in 2018 prices):

  • €8 billion for the European Defence Fund (EDF), a project of the previous Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker which would allow member states to pool resources and coordinate investments in the sphere of defence;
  • €1.5 billion for improving the mobility of military personnel and equipment within the EU.

Named as a priority in the 2016 Global Strategy, Juncker’s Commission has been advocating for launching these flagship initiatives with the ultimate goal to increase the EU’s strategic autonomy.

However, both of their budgets have decreased since the initial proposals in 2018, though, these have not been taken out entirely. This is despite previous reports which suggested that some parts of the security budget would have their spending completely removed.

In July, European Council President Charles Michel suggested a further decrease for the EDF budget. Current proposals might seem disappointing and are being criticised by experts and MEPs. the  At the same time, with these numbers the EU could still claim it is striving towards its long-term goal of improving Europe’s ability to act independently in the world.

Proposals for Defence Commitments in the 2021-2027 MFF (in 2018 prices)

 Juncker Commission’s proposal (2018)Negotiating Box proposed by the Finnish presidency of the Council of the EU (December 2019)European Council President’s proposal (February 2020)Von der Leyen Commission’s proposal (May 2020)European Council President’s proposal (July 2020)
European Defence Fund€13 billion€6 billion€7 billion€8 billion€7 billion
Connecting Europe Facility (Military Mobility)€6.5 billion€2.5 billion€1.5 billion€1.5 billion€1.5 billion

Another major obstacle is the lack of will and commitment from member states. The proposals are now subject to debate between EU leaders. MFF negotiations for the post-Brexit and post-pandemic budget are already challenging, and the area of defence is no exception. As security remains a mostly intergovernmental area, it will be up to the 27 member states to decide the future direction of EU defence and how much to invest in cooperation and pooling.

Member states such as France consider boosting spending on common defence initiatives as crucial for improving coordination between member states and bolstering the EU’s ability to be a more autonomous global actor.

Other states fear that supporting the European sovereignty discourse would damage the transatlantic defence cooperation and relations with NATO, which they perceive as the main security organisation in Europe.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact provide an opportunity to reflect upon how ambitious the EU can and wants to be in its global relations. The crisis should be a motivating factor for member states to avoid severe defence cuts and pool some military resources, for both practical and strategic reasons.

The slow reaction of the EU during the initial outbreak of the pandemic has strengthened the view of some member states that greater cooperation and solidarity are needed. This is particularly given the role of the military forces in, for instance, transporting crucial protective equipment.

In a letter to High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and the defence ministers of France, Germany, Italy and Spain affirmed their commitment to allocating “the necessary resources” at the national and EU levels, as well as supporting an “ambitious” EDF budget, on the basis that the crisis has shown the benefits of greater military cooperation.

From a broader point of view, it is also crucial that the EU does not de-prioritise defence and security, as this would negatively affect its ambition of strategic autonomy and independence from both China and the US in the currently shifting international balance.

This year, the EU begins a reassessment of its threats and foreign policy priorities to complement and clarify the 2016 Strategy. While von der Leyen’s Commission faces obstacles such as a lack of financial resources and political will, the focus on practical and geopolitical can go some way to convince reluctant member states to review the bloc’s foreign policy strategy and also provide an opportunity to set realistic global ambitions in this field of policy.


Photo by European Parliament on Flickr.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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