EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, dressed in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. If there is one sector in which Ukraine's immediate integration with the EU would be strategically crucial, it is the defence industry (Photo: European Parliament)
As the European Council prepares to deliver its opinion on the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine in December, the EU is faced with a dilemma.
On the one hand, geopolitical considerations are prompting it to hasten Ukraine’s integration to project a strong and credible signal of long-term solidarity with the Ukrainian people, ultimately rescuing them from the ‘grey zone’ that has left them vulnerable to Russian aggressions.
On the other hand, many in the EU, as well as within the Ukrainian society, are attached to the principle of ‘merit-based’ progression, conditional on the effectiveness of the country’s reform efforts.
An increasingly-discussed solution for addressing this dilemma involves a gradual accession approach.
In this scenario, in parallel with standard negotiations, Ukraine and the EU would immediately begin integration in certain key sectors. The organic link between Ukraine and the EU could thus be quickly strengthened, without waiting for full membership.
If there is one sector in which Ukraine’s immediate integration with the EU would be strategically crucial, it is the defence industry. As part of Ukraine’s gradual accession, the EU could immediately integrate Ukraine into the defence dimension of its internal market.
This would provide Ukraine with immediate access to the EU’s defence industrial instruments, which have been established by the Commission over the last few years, encompassing research and development (European Defence Fund), production (Act in Support of Ammunition Production), procurement (European Defence Industry Reinforcement through common Procurement Act) and, eventually, the future European Defence Investment Programme.
Most significantly, this move would facilitate and incentivise partnerships between EU and Ukrainian defence companies.
This integration is of mutual interest.
First, Western support for Ukraine is becoming an industrial issue. While, in the early stages of the war, the allies prioritised donating weapons directly from their armies’ existing stocks, these stocks are now too low for this approach to continue for long. Military support for Ukraine will increasingly come through the production of new equipment, including in Ukrainian territory.
As one French official put it, “We have reached a point where we must pivot. Industrial partnership should become the norm, while transfers should be the exception.”
On the Ukrainian side, at the first Defence Industries Forum organised in Kyiv, president Volodomyr Zelensky declared, “The best thing for us is to be able to produce air defence and other advanced weapons. This is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s security.”
On the EU side, several defence industrial companies have begun to form joint ventures with Ukrainian manufacturers to build battle tanks or drones in Ukraine.
Making Ukraine eligible for EU defence industrial instruments and encouraging collaborative EU–Ukrainian programmes in this sector would represent a significant step towards advancing the security assurance policy introduced by the G7 in Vilnius in July 2023.
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Second, the integration of the Ukrainian defence industry with the EU industry could present unique opportunities for the development of the EU’s Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB).
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has demonstrated remarkable innovation capabilities, particularly in terms of air and naval drones and missiles. These innovations are not only being directly tested and adjusted in real combat but are also part of the intense daily race for innovation against the Russians, particularly in the areas of drone jamming and artificial intelligence software.
Ukraine is already a ‘super lab of invention’ and could become the EDTIB’s primary catalyst for emerging and disruptive technologies.
Politically, Ukraine’s integration into EU defence policy will be even more beneficial given the Ukrainian government’s commitment to the objective of ‘strategic autonomy’. This commitment is currently being made at national level, with support for domestic arms production. Moreover, president Zelensky has also indicated that he is considering this objective at the European level.
In an interview with French journalist Caroline Roux on 9 October 2023, he said, ‘Europe is a large independent market of 600 million people, a continent capable of living autonomously and that should be capable of defending itself autonomously’.
Quickly integrating the Ukrainian industry into its defence industrial policy would enable the EU to shape the future of European defence, with Ukraine playing an essential role.
On 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman proposed initiating European integration with what he called “one limited but decisive point”, that is, coal and steel production.
Today, starting with the defence sector would represent a politically and symbolically powerful first step in Ukraine’s accession process. It would also be a major step for the EU.
In 1950, the aim was to ensure security among European powers, primarily France and Germany. Today, the integration of Ukraine signals a new ambition, centred on the defence of the Union against external threats. A new Europe is emerging: a geopolitical Europe.