Ukraine is asking Western allies to step up deliveries of 155mm artillery shells. – Copyright Alex Brandon/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge Liboreiro & Alice Tidey & Efi Koutsokosta • Updated: 21/04/2023 – 16:15
How European should European weapons be?
That is the question currently occupying the minds of diplomats in Brussels, who continue haggling about the technical details of a €1-billion initiative to jointly buy ammunition for Ukraine.
Despite a political agreement reached one month ago, the novel proposal finds itself stuck in negotiations, a delay that stands in stark contrast with the brutal developments on the battlefield.
Patience in Kyiv is wearing thin: in an unusually harsh rebuke, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba openly deplored the protracted stalemate as “frustrating.”
“For Ukraine, the cost of inaction is measured in human lives,” Kuleba said on Thursday.
The comment prompted a phone call the following day with Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who pledged the bloc would “do its utmost to deliver, and deliver fast.”
At the core of the ongoing dispute is the ideal of “strategic autonomy,” a policy concept that posits the European Union should become more independent and self-reliant, particularly in matters of defence, where an alliance with the United States has for decades set the terms.
This concept, which for the time being remains a theoretical aspiration rather than a political reality, has made its way into the €1-billion procurement scheme Brussels devised earlier this year to collectively purchase 155mm-calibre artillery shells, and possibly missiles, to help Ukraine resist the advance of Russian troops.
Ukraine has asked the EU to provide over 250,000 rounds of this kind per month, whose cost ranges between €2,000 and €4,000 per unit.
The initial EU deal foresaw that participating countries, together with Norway, would buy the ammunition only from defence companies based across the bloc, effectively excluding the arms industry of democratic partners such as the US, the UK, Israel and South Korea.
But in recent days, the exact contours of this “Made in Europe” label have caused a split among member states, who are required by law to agree by unanimity on any foreign policy measure.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to express their opinions in a franker manner, diplomats painted a picture of conflicting narratives with one country at the epicentre: France, one of the fiercest, if not the fiercest, proponents behind the concept of “strategic autonomy.”
According to the version described by several diplomats from different member states, France is asking for the supply chain of ammunition production to be entirely European, including the sourcing of key components needed to build the artillery shells.
“They want 100% EU supply chain,” one diplomat told Euronews, regretting what was described as “French never-ending amendments.”
But these claims have been described as “rubbish” and “impossible” by another diplomatic source who insisted no such plan to renege on the current agreement that takes into account the current limitations of European industry in terms of supply chains has been brought forward.
Instead, they point the finger at Poland, a country known for its hardline stance against Russia, as one of the hold-outs behind the blockage, an accusation that Warsaw vehemently denies.
The diplomat also suggested that some member states may be trying to go back on the original deal to buy only from EU manufacturers.
France’s position remains ambiguous in the eyes of other capitals but is said to have gained the tactful backing of Greece and Cyprus, although their support is not absolute, Euronews understands.
“The majority of member states are for speed, in contrast to ‘buy only in EU’. It’s more about France, with Greece and Cyprus, against all others, with some small exceptions,” said a third diplomat.
In response to the alleged French demand, countries from Northern and Eastern Europe are making the case for pragmatism so as to deliver artillery shells to Ukraine as fast as materially possible.
Although there is a general consensus that European industry should be prioritised, the diverging views on value chains, which in many cases entail materials imported from countries like South Africa and Australia, are complicating the drafting of the final legal text and forcing lawyers to attempt different wordings that can please all 27 states.
“We don’t have an agreement and that’s disappointing,” said a senior diplomat, who noted the opposition stemmed from “one or three countries who are not happy with the text.”
“In a broader sense, it’s crucial that we strengthen the European defence industry. But we should not lose sight of what we’re doing here and that is to help Ukraine. Everything else is secondary.”
The French-led faction contests these claims, pointing to the original political agreement that introduced the EU-based requirement for defence contractors and bemoaning “elements of dramatisation” that suggest the bloc will fail to deliver the promised ammunition on its own.
“This ‘self-defeatism prophecy’ is always the thing that some Europeans like to indulge in, saying we’re never going to get there,” said a senior diplomat, insisting the “European war economy” will not only provide Ukraine what it needs to defend itself but would bring benefits for all 27 member states.
“Let’s believe in ourselves, please.”
The European Commission, which designed the joint procurement scheme, has said that, as things stand today, the gap between placing an order for weapons and the actual delivery is around 12 months due to an intricate combination of supply bottlenecks, lack of access to raw materials, insufficient skilled personnel and slow permitting processes.
The executive is working to pool EU funds to ramp up the production of artillery shells by the bloc’s defence industry, estimated to be spread across 15 facilities in 11 member states. The plans, including a concrete amount of cash, are expected to be unveiled in the coming days.
”We understand (Dmytro) Kuleba’s anxiety and the incredible pressure he’s under, but his tweet doesn’t reflect the reality of EU military support,” said a senior EU official, who spoke of ”lively” discussions among member states.
“A solution is very near. We’re all interested in helping Ukraine.”
If diplomats fail to resolve the issue over the weekend, the debate on “Made in Europe” will be passed on to foreign affairs ministers themselves, who are scheduled to meet in Luxembourg on Monday.