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Benjamin Daßler

Moritz Weiss

June 24th, 2024

The need for a real “Zeitenwende” in EU defence policy

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Benjamin Daßler

Moritz Weiss

June 24th, 2024

The need for a real “Zeitenwende” in EU defence policy

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 prompted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to speak of a Zeitenwende (turning point) in German defence policy. Benjamin Daßler and Moritz Weiss argue a real Zeitenwende in EU defence policy is now needed, founded on a prudent and resilient division of labour with NATO.


In a radical departure from his past calls for a European Army, Emmanuel Macron unveiled a revised vision for European defence in a speech in Dresden and a joint article with Olaf Scholz in May. In their article, Macron and Scholz write that Europe is experiencing its Zeitenwende (turning point), referencing the famous “Zeitenwende speech” delivered by Scholz in 2022 that signalled a new approach for German defence policy.

France and Germany have now finally buried earlier calls for a “true European army”. The two leaders are right that preventing Europe’s “mortality” requires a prudent strategy to weaponise EU member states rather than sticking to unviable illusions. However, they remain wedded to a second illusion, namely that Europe’s geopolitical ambitions can be realised without close coordination with NATO.

Weaponising member states

Internally, the EU should reinforce its existing ability to leverage regulatory and budgetary tools to enhance member states’ military capabilities. For more than a decade, the EU has gained significant regulatory power over Europe’s arms industry to make it more competitive.

By setting standards for the procurement and transfer of military equipment, the EU indirectly influences the military capabilities of its member states. The European Defence Industry Reinforcement through common Procurement Act exemplifies this strategy, setting out specific military capabilities to bolster European armed forces. Such initiatives pave the way for EU-wide defence planning, signalling a shift towards a more coordinated and efficient security approach.

Through budgetary mechanisms like the European Peace Facility, the EU allocates funds to encourage member states to acquire specific weapons systems and develop capabilities aligned with its security goals. This financial influence is not just about funding; it shapes and integrates the military structures of member states and helps to “Europeanise” defence spending. In March this year, the EU published its “European Defence Industrial Strategy” (EDIS), which leverages the EU’s budget to incentivise members “to make steady progress towards procuring at least 50% of their defence investments within the EU by 2030 and 60% by 2035”.

These practical efforts to increase the military strength of member states – rather than soapbox speeches – are already the reality of the EU as a weaponising power. However, while these internal reforms are essential, Macron and Scholz should stop deliberately obscuring the external side of the Zeitenwende.

Weaponising adversaries

Externally, the EU’s role as a geopolitical actor can only be reinforced by a strategic partnership with NATO. This relationship is often seen as one-sided, with the EU relying on NATO’s military capabilities. However, this view misses what is essential in the new geopolitics, namely the supplementary nature of their assets. If the West’s strategic objective is to coerce Russia by raising its costs to sustain its military campaign, for instance, this has both a military and an economic side.

NATO provides military expertise and capabilities, while the EU brings economic and diplomatic power to the table. This collaboration was formalised on 10 January last year, when the EU and NATO issued a joint statement condemning Russia’s actions and outlining a shared vision for future cooperation. The EU has imposed sanctions to weaken Russia’s war economy, while NATO has helped to supply Ukraine with intelligence, lethal weapons and specialised equipment. This complementary approach underscores the EU’s ability to compensate for its own military shortcomings through strategic partnerships.

By working closely with NATO, the EU has increased its geopolitical influence. This partnership is not a sign of dependence, but a demonstration of the EU’s adaptability and strategic use of its unique strengths. Through this two-way relationship, both entities are better equipped to deal with today’s geopolitical challenges.

Maximising and exploiting the EU’s geopolitical arsenal

It’s late, but not too late for a real European Zeitenwende. This means not only saying goodbye to a European Army but also designing a prudent and resilient division of labour with NATO. It may not be easy for great statesmen to rely on economic and regulatory power rather than direct military glory. Balancing economic interests with security concerns requires careful calibration. To realise its full potential, however, the EU must improve coordination between member states and strengthen its regulatory framework.

A dedicated Defence Commissioner could play a crucial role in this process. This position, which may emerge from the aftermath of the 2024 European Parliament elections, would not resemble a traditional Defence Minister, but rather a security manager to orchestrate the EU’s indirect means of geopolitical influence. This commissioner could bridge the gap between security and economic interests, ensuring a coherent and effective response to the rise of the new geopolitics.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union


About the author

Benjamin Daßler

Benjamin Daßler

Benjamin Daßler is a Senior Researcher at LMU Munich.

Moritz Weiss

Moritz Weiss

Moritz Weiss is a Senior Lecturer at LMU Munich.

Posted In: EU Foreign Affairs | Politics

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