The future European Commissioner for Defence: a missed opportunity or a success story?

By Emmanuel Jacob, President of EUROMIL

The next European Commission should include a dedicated defence portfolio”, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday 17 February 2024 speaking at the Munich Security Conference. The idea seems to be growing among European stakeholders. Besides, von der Leyen’s political group, the EPP, stipulates in their draft manifesto for the upcoming elections, that the next Commission team should include a reshuffle of the foreign policy and defence portfolio.

In the ever-evolving landscape of global security, the appointment of a European Commissioner for Defence is a critical decision that should not be taken lightly. As the European Union strives to assert itself as a unified force on the international stage, and thus the competence and expertise of its leaders has become paramount. Unfortunately, the possible installation of a European Commissioner with a focus solely on the defence industry, rather than military engagement, operations, and personnel, represents a missed opportunity that can have far-reaching consequences.

At the Munich Security Conference, Ursula von der Leyen already declared that the post could go to a candidate from a Central or Eastern European country, with the job focusing on joint defence procurement. Von der Leyen and the HRVP Josep Borrell both underlined that commanding militaries remains a power reserved for the member states. But Borrell added that “We need to pay more attention to the issue of defence industry, but don’t simplify the issue — one thing is the defence industry and another thing is defence. Defence alone will be against the treaty“ he emphasized. To analyse the latter, according to article 43 paragraph 2 of the Treaty on the EU, “The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, acting under the authority of the Council and in close and constant contact with the Political and Security Committee, shall ensure coordination of the civilian and military aspects of such tasks[1]”. That of course creates legal constraints for a Defence Commissioner to be able to actively engage in such tasks addressed to the HRVP by treaty, but in this new era of geopolitical competition there is a strong need for the Member States to enter an economy of war, enhance military capabilities, boost recruitment and retention in their Armed Forces, and significantly strengthen common actions and cooperation. Consequently, there must be the necessary political will for that in order for Europe not to be left behind. Member States are and will continue to be sovereign over their militaries, but enhancing cooperation, competences and giving more room for legislative proposals by the European Institutions will only strengthen them. Defence industry is of course a main part of such an equation, and undoubtedly it plays a crucial role in shaping the EU’s military capabilities. In such changing security environment the industry should equip the Member States with the necessary equipment and the much needed ammunition, also for military personnel to be able to protect themselves by gaining high-end capabilities and becoming interoperable and interchangeable. However the absence of comprehensive competences in the field of military strategy, operations, personnel management within the political leadership will raise concerns about the effectiveness of the European Union’s approach to defence. The future Commissioner for Defence should be more than just an advocate for the defence industry. He or she should also be a strategic leader with a deep understanding and a robust set of competences on the complex and dynamic nature of modern warfare, military management and undoubtedly the geopolitical changes.

Military engagements require nuanced decision-making, an understanding of geopolitical complexities, and the ability to navigate rapidly evolving security challenges. A Commissioner lacking full competences in these areas risks making decisions that prioritize industry interests over the security and well-being of the European Union and its member states. Moreover, military operations and personnel management demand a level of proficiency that goes beyond industry considerations. Without a Commissioner well-versed in these aspects, the European Union may find itself inadequately prepared and divided to respond to crises, whether they be conventional conflicts or emerging and disruptive threats such as cyber warfare, terrorism, or hybrid warfare.

And yes, of course we have the European Union’s military structures. The EUMC is the highest military body set up within the Council and directs all military activities within the EU framework, in particular the planning and execution of military missions and operations under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the development of military capabilities. The EU Military Staff (EUMS) on the other hand, is the directorate-general of the EU’s External Action Service(EEAS) that contributes to the CSDP by providing strategic advice to the High Representative (HR/VP) and commanding operations through its Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) operational headquarters. It should also not be forgotten that next year the objectives of the Strategic Compass will be fulfilled and most importantly the Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC) will be fully operational, with MPCC playing a major role in this regard. Besides, President von der Leyen has also stressed that a Defence Commissioner should focus on security matters in a wider sense making the EU able to respond to different shocks coming from the outside and also against natural catastrophes. That also creates a link with the RDC that takes under consideration environmental factors for operational purposes and for CSDP missions and operations where climate advisors will be deployed by 2025.

Hence, the possible missed opportunity to appoint a Commissioner with a comprehensive understanding of the common policy on security and defence and the military needs also sends a concerning message to the European public and the international community. It may undermine the credibility of the European Union as a serious and capable security actor, potentially jeopardizing its ability to forge alliances and partnerships on the global stage. The EU needs to become a credible security provider able to effectively contribute to crisis alone when needed, and with partners when possible for the security of the European citizens.

To address this shortfall, it is imperative to reconsider, its criteria for appointing a Commissioner for Defence in the next European Commission. The ideal candidate should possess a well-rounded understanding of defence industry, the intricacies of military engagement, operations, personnel management and of course the current geopolitical environment and the policy making needs of sector. In other words, only by combining the latter with effective political competences, can the future Commissioner effectively contribute to the development of a robust, capable, and strategically sound European defence union. Moreover, this must go hand in hand with the installation of a full-fledged defence committee in the European Parliament and a formal defence council with clear powers.

Therefore it is my conclusion that the installation of a European Commissioner for Defense focusing solely on the defense industry is a missed opportunity that could hinder the European Union’s ability to navigate the complex challenges of the contemporary security landscape. It must be insured that the future European Commissioner for Defense’s portfolio is well-equipped to address the multifaceted nature of defense and security in the troubled world we are living in.




[1] Article 43 paragraph 1 “The tasks referred to in Article 42(1), in the course of which the Union may use civilian and military means, shall include joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks, military advice and assistance tasks, conflict prevention and peace-keeping tasks, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation. All these tasks may contribute to the fight against terrorism, including by supporting third countries in combating terrorism in their territories”.

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