It was three days after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine that the EU realised that it too must go to war.

At an emergency meeting, Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, made the case to anxious foreign ministers from the bloc’s 27 member states that it was the moment to do something previously considered impossible: use shared EU cash to buy weapons for Kyiv.

“The question was,” he recalls in an interview, “if we were able to use this money to provide support to Mozambique or to Mali or wherever, why the hell can’t we do that for Ukraine?”

“Explain it to me?” he asked the room. “Because we don’t provide lethal arms? Well, we don’t provide lethal arms because there is not a war. If there is a war, they need lethal arms, no?” 

Officials from the EU commission presented a proposal at the meeting on February 27 2022. There was €50mn in a recently created fund — the European Peace Facility (EPF) — that could be made available for Ukraine.

“I said, 50 million? I’m talking about a war!” Borrell scoffs, shaking his head. “Put down 500,” he retorted. “It [was not] enough, but 500 went through.”

The next day, a union whose cash was previously known for subsidising French dairy farmers and Polish motorways, was sending weapons financed by the EPF to Ukraine and helping to wage war against Russia.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called it “a watershed moment”. While Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said it “shows that Europe has a real capacity for influence and power, in the service of peace and in the service of our values”.

Their words have aged well. That initial €500mn has ballooned by €3.1bn, helping to finance at least 325 tanks, 36 attack helicopters and more than 200 multiple-launch rocket systems. As the EPF does not cover 100 per cent of costs, it has a multiplier effect: EU officials say they have received reimbursement requests for more than €6.9bn worth of weapons sent to Ukraine. More cash is set to be allocated to the fund to sustain a wave of support that has made the EU the biggest military donor to Ukraine after the US.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has, in the space of 12 months, rewritten European defence policy. Decades of engagement with Moscow, through trade, investment and diplomacy, in the belief that it would stop the Kremlin threatening the continent’s security, has been exposed as a monumental error.

A generation of individual government cuts to defence spending has been replaced by an unprecedented rush to re-arm. The US withdrawal of troops and arms in Europe since the end of the Cold War has been abruptly reversed. But no single decision encapsulates Europe’s adjustment to its new reality more than the EPF move.

Using EU money to purchase arms is banned under the EU’s founding treaties. Three of its members are constitutionally neutral. Involvement in conflict had long been a red line for Brussels, which previously thought of import tariffs and sanitary regulations as the sharpest sticks in its foreign policy armoury. Providing arms designed to kill soldiers from Russia, a nuclear-armed rival that it had tried for decades to befriend, would have been considered ludicrous.

“It was unthinkable,” says Kusti Salm, permanent secretary at the Estonian ministry of defence. “People were afraid of even speaking about it: lethal aid from . . . the EU institutions? It was something that was a big elephant in the room, that no one talked about.”

“Compared with where we were, it [the decision to arm Ukraine] was definitely a miracle,” he adds. “And I think this is a success that we need to build on.”

The war that changed everything

When Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, began calling around member states with the idea to start buying arms for Ukraine, he was met with incredulity.

“Look, would you agree to use the European Peace Facility to arm Ukraine? And: Silence,” he recalls. But Borrell says he knew it was a breakthrough moment, adding: “That taboo was broken.”

Founded just 11 months earlier, the EPF was a €5.7bn fund designed to provide non-lethal equipment to third countries in need of security support. In December 2021, it allocated medical and engineering equipment to Georgia, Mali, Moldova and Ukraine. Yet even those trucks, helmets and first-aid kits were met with condemnation from leftwing members of the European parliament, who saw it as outside the EU’s competences.

But the events of February 24 changed everything.

“There was paralysis because of the war,” says Charles Fries, a deputy secretary-general at the European External Action Service, who was present in the initial meetings as officials tried to work out how to respond. “And we used this atmosphere of paralysis in order to convince member states that they have to decide on a first tranche of €500mn. We decided this in three hours.”

The objections raised to Borrell’s proposal were two-fold. First, that it was prohibited under the treaties. And second, that the European parliament would never vote to endorse it.

Borrell waved both away. The EPF sits outside of the formal EU budget as a fund provided directly by member states and thus, he said, beyond the treaties’ legal remit. And as for the parliament, he went on, speaking as a former president of the chamber, what competences did it have over their money?

All members of the union pay into the fund, using a formula based on their economic size. Members then request reimbursements for what they send. Austria, Ireland and Malta, the bloc’s neutral states, also contribute but, since February, their cash is ringfenced for non-lethal supplies.

The orchestration of the EPF’s Ukraine support is run from a clearing house based inside the glass and steel commission buildings in Brussels.

The office receives requests from the Ukrainian army detailing specific lists of equipment they urgently need. The clearing house then sends out a request to all member states to ensure those who have that particular item will deliver it to Ukraine. This centralised system helps avoid a situation where member states are sending — and getting reimbursed for — weapons Kyiv doesn’t need.

“We check that the equipment corresponds to the needs expressed by Ukraine,” says Fries. “And second, we check that the equipment has been delivered, is in Ukraine . . . And after that we reimburse on the basis of the value.”

Determining value is complex. “You have to decide, what is the value of this T-72 tank?” says Borrell, referring to a Soviet-made tank that many eastern EU states provided to Ukraine under the EPF. For weapons like tanks, Borrell’s team checks everything from the age of the equipment to the number of kilometres on the clock. “We have to bargain, to see how much we have to pay,” he adds.

Most officials admit that the most important feature of the decision to use the EPF to arm Ukraine is not the direct funding it provides, but the collective umbrella it created around the entire EU in terms of supporting the war effort. Borrell himself compares it to “seed money”, the initial funding for start-ups before they attract larger investors or generate free cash flow.

“Immediately after [EPF money went to Ukraine], Poland, the Baltics and others started providing support bilaterally because once the rule was broken, they said, ‘OK, I can do that’,” says Borrell.

As a result, the total amount of military support provided to Ukraine by EU countries, both bilaterally and through the EPF, stands at €14.3bn, according to the Kiel Institute. Another €41bn has been provided in financial and humanitarian assistance.

“There are a lot of different things happening at different levels, and the EPF fits into that wider context as one layer of initiative,” says Richard Youngs, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “It acts as a symbol that emboldens other actors to come in and provide military assistance because they feel that there is that broader European coverage.”

Show of power

The EU’s relationship with its own security has a chequered history. Repeated efforts to agree on how best to pool members’ military assets have ended in failure or ineffectual compromise.

France, its sole nuclear-armed power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, has attempted in recent years to forge a more self-reliant EU defence policy. More Atlanticist members, such as Poland and the Netherlands, have rebuffed any efforts in Europe to challenge the supremacy of Nato, the US-led military alliance.

Superseding all that was a deep-seated belief in Brussels that the EU, conceived in the aftermath of the second world war, was primarily a trade body designed to instil peaceful co-operation between European countries, which had no business involving itself in conflict, and certainly not conflict in non-member countries.

Article 41.2 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty, the closest thing the EU has to a constitution, states that “expenditure arising from operations having military or defence implications” may not be charged to its joint budget.

But since Russia’s invasion, the bloc has adopted a new posture. Alongside the funding of arms deliveries, the EPF is also training some 30,000 Ukrainian troops, in camps in Poland and Germany, again for the first time in an active conflict.

It has also moved to fund joint procurement of arms between member countries. The defence and security policy it agreed last year calls for a “rapid deployment” force of 5,000 troops and the formation of new cyber and space defence assets.

That approach, notes Youngs, ran counter to the wider shift of western countries becoming less willing to participate in live conflicts, a trend best illustrated by the calamitous evacuation of western troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and the diminished efforts to influence the wars in Syria and Libya.

“If we look at a period before February last year, the trend was very much towards caution and much more careful, diluted forms of engagement in conflict situations,” says Youngs.

But the first war of conquest on the European continent since 1945, in a country that borders four EU states, was impossible to ignore.

“Nobody in the European Union is war mongering. We are a peaceful institution,” says Borrell. “But since the beginning, since I came to this post, I said [my responsibility] is foreign and security policy.”

Russia’s invasion, Borrell says, made clear to the EU that “you have to show power and you have to retaliate”.

“The EU was based on the refusal of the idea of power,” he explains. “We don’t make war. We don’t even coerce you. We just trade with you. We preach and we trade.”

“And now . . . we train soldiers and we arm them,” adds Borrell, noting that the only remaining step is to actively participate.

The dramatic shifts in policy in such a short time have not been without resistance and stumbles.

Hungary, which has had a closer relationship with Moscow than most in the EU and a fractious history with Ukraine linked to the treatment of its Hungarian minority, raised initial objections to using the EPF in the war.

But Budapest ultimately relented, fearing that it would be exposed as the sole member state in opposition, and agreed to pay contributions to the EPF with the proviso that weapons shipped to Ukraine would not transit through or over its territory.

Some EU diplomats have also privately questioned whether supplying weapons to the war fits with the EPF’s stated mission to “maintain peace, prevent conflicts”, and if the focus on Ukraine has meant other countries in need of support have been ignored.

Even officials from stringently pro-Ukraine member states were appalled when Borrell, hours after the decision to arm Ukraine was announced, told reporters that the EPF could fund “fighter jets” for Ukraine.

A year on, it is still seen as too aggressive and a step that could provoke an escalatory response from Moscow.

Testing unity

The challenge for the EU is how long it will need to keep supporting Ukraine in a war that shows no sign of ending. Both Russia and Ukraine believe they can gain more territory, and they show no desire for imminent peace talks.

At the same time, European officials have warned that the continent’s defence industry is “under strain”, with weapons factories working full tilt to keep up with the war’s demands. In January, Russia fired four times as many artillery shells a day as Ukraine.

Member states have agreed to double the size of the EPF to keep arms flowing, and some countries are pushing for more joint purchasing of critical supplies, such as artillery ammunition, financed from the fund.

Regardless of how the money flows, the most indelible impact of Brussels’ shift on arming Ukraine is set to be its future relationship with Russia, and its attitude towards other states that threaten its economic or territorial integrity.

“[EU] security logic, the strategic logic of so many years, was to try and help strengthen Russia, make Russia more stable and successful, and to try and to some degree at least be inclusive with Russia in terms of the way that the European order was being built,” says Youngs. “That’s now changed fundamentally and that will be part of the longer-lasting legacy.”

The resulting economic headwinds from the war are being felt across the EU, leaving many to wonder how long it can maintain its support. Energy prices remain high, contributing to a cost of living crisis in many countries.

Despite public messages of unity, EU officials constantly stress in private that maintaining cohesion is the most pressing task as they seek to agree joint responses. While national polling suggests that European societies remain supportive of standing behind Ukraine, capitals are aware that sustaining military support for Kyiv will come with an increasing price tag for taxpayers.

But as Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato, put it last week: the west “need[s] to step up our support for Ukraine, because it will be a tragedy for Ukrainians but also dangerous for all of us if President [Vladimir] Putin wins in Ukraine”.

For now, the EPF and its ability to fund weapons of war appears to be part of the furniture.

“It will exist forever now. It is like the structural funds,” says Borrell, referring to the EU’s long-instituted financial support for poorer countries to improve their economies when they first join the bloc.

“It is a tool that is there, that will grow,” he adds. “And now we will not have so many constraints if we need to support another army.”

Many European officials believe the EPF’s support for Ukraine is all the more important given how much it surprised critics of the EU’s typically safety-first approach, and its longstanding reputation for prevarication, internal squabbling and delayed action.

“Putting the money upfront shows strategic leadership, trying to lead the change, drive the narrative and not just being led by events,” says Estonia’s Salm. “This is a totally new era in the European Union.”

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