March 5. 2024. 8:17

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EU member states mull future purpose of bloc’s arms fund

As the European Peace Facility is running low on money, EU leaders on Thursday (23 March) discussed the next steps of the fund, but its future scope and use remain uncertain.

Member states earlier this week on Monday (20 March) “agreed to consider” a further increase of the fund’s budget, as a €2 billion increase agreed on last December will be mostly used to provide Ukraine with 1 million rounds of ammunition and to team up to buy more.

In December, EU leaders also committed another €3.5 billion until 2027. There was an “understanding” between member states, as several EU diplomats explained that this would only be used from 2024 onwards.

However, the EU’s now-€7.9 billion-heavy weapons fund, originally meant to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to partners worldwide and pay for EU military training missions and operations, is running low under the increasing needs of Ukraine.

So far, the fund’s support used for Ukraine has been working ad hoc, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to unlock the money. But there has been little clarity for member states and Kyiv on how much money will be needed over the coming months and years.

EU member states and diplomats have argued that the agreed €3.5 billion would not be sufficient or sustainable and that the fund’s future must be decided soon.

At Thursday’s (23 March) EU summit, a proposal tabled by Slovakia, seen by EURACTIV, aimed to define the use of the €3.5 billion in the summit conclusions. Still, despite the backing of 20 member states, it failed to get unanimous support.

“The implementation of such an increase should respect the global scope and ensure predictability of the EPF,” the proposed text read, calling on the Council “to implement the further top-up as soon as possible.”

The “global scope” reference aimed to win over countries which want to see funds also used for the bloc’s efforts in other regions, like Africa, for which it was originally intended for.

While at least 20 member states supported the phrasing, two had reservations to procedural amendments, the wording did not find its way into the final summit communiqué due to lack of unanimity, several EU diplomats confirmed.

However, the goal of its proponents, to lift the discussion on the agenda, has been reached.

EU leaders agreed the discussion would need to occur at a ministerial level, with the EU foreign ministers meeting on 24 April likely the next opportunity.

In the meantime, some options have been circulated regarding possible solutions.

“Commissioner Thierry Breton proposed that the unused EU budget would be redirected into the European Peace Facility”, a second EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

“The EU budget, of course, cannot fund defence. However, we can give the money back to member states and then they may put it themselves into the EPF,” the diplomat added.

According to several EU diplomats, other scenarios include creating a dedicated fund for Ukraine or inviting additional voluntary contributions by member states or third countries into the facility.

“The EPF was not designed for such a full-scale war on our borders,” a third EU diplomat told EURACTIV, adding that no matter when the next top-up was to be decided, it would all come down to the question of what wider goal member states are willing to support.

A more global role?

Over the past year, Europeans have broken several of the bloc’s defence taboos, such as using the European Peace Facility for Ukraine to supply lethal weapons.

The move to use the off-budget instrument – the bloc’s treaties bar it from using its regular multiannual budget to fund operations with military or defence implications – to reimburse member states for their direct deliveries of weapons to a war torn country, was described as a “watershed moment” in the EU’s defence policy. The EPF was originally intended to support partners in delivering lethal and non-lethal assistance and EU military missions and operations.

But with the top-up discussion comes the question of where to spend future tranches and what geographical scope the fund is meant to have.

If EU member states agree to use the top-ups for weapons and ammunition for Ukraine, the European Peace Facility will need more resources “all around the world, and even for Ukraine”. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell warned in an interview with EURACTIV earlier this month.

“The question is: Do we want to continue using this tool to arm Ukraine, and how do we support the armies of our partners, for instance, in Africa? There are a lot of commitments,” Borrell said.

“Do we want to continue being a global actor? Then it costs money, and the member states will have to decide,” he added.

Early on, EU member states and the EU’s diplomat service expressed their wish that partners in Africa, the EU’s Southern neighbourhood, the Caucasus and the Western Balkans should also benefit.

Member states, however, are divided as to what geographical allocation of the resources should be a priority beyond Ukraine, several EU diplomats told EURACTIV.

The EU would be ready to supply lethal weapons to the bloc’s partners beyond Ukraine, starting with Niger and Somalia, Borrell confirmed at an EU-organised partner’s security forum on Tuesday (21 March).

“We know that our partners are increasingly interested in lethal support – yes, what we have done for Ukraine can and will be done for others,” Borrell said.

The first assistance measure to provide lethal equipment for African partners – Niger and Somalia – will be adopted soon,” he added.