My work in the European Parliament spans a wide range of issues - from fundamental rights to data protection to climate change to European militarism. I’ve found in the course of that work that the European institutions are strikingly vulnerable to lobbying by big corporate interests. Of course lobbying happens in national politics too, and has a powerful influence. But the lobbying that happens in the EU centres of power is of a different stripe. MEPs, relative to members of national parliaments or local councillors, are far-removed from their constituents. Lobbying at EU level therefore lacks any counterbalance in the form of public pressure. When corporate lobbyists come knocking, too often they’re the only voices Brussels pays any serious attention to.
What’s been happening with arms industry lobbying is a perfect example of this. The average EU citizen probably isn’t aware of intensity of the push for a more militarised EU, but billions in public money are being funnelled into Europe’s biggest arms companies. At the same time the EU is adopting a more aggressive foreign policy and trying to create the circumstances for future conflicts, where all that investment in arms companies can be put to good use. A quick look at the background of two of the EU’s steps towards defence integration - PESCO and the European Defence Fund (EDF) - is an object lesson in the power of lobbyists to shape policy in a direction that profits them.
In 2017, the EU launched a military cooperation programme called PESCO, laying the groundwork for a European Army. For the five years preceding the launch of PESCO, the combined annual EU lobbying budget of the top ten European arms companies increased from €2.8 million to €5.6 million. In the same period, the European Commission in 2015 set up a “Group of Personalities on Defence Research.” Its task was ‘to advise on how the EU can support defence research programmes.’ The group was dominated by the arms industry. Members included the CEOs of arms companies MBDA, Indra, Saab Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo S.p.A (formerly Finmeccanica), and the Chair of ASD, the European arms industry lobbying group. Out of this group came the proposal for the creation of a European Defence Fund - a fund of billions in public money for the European defence industry. The link couldn’t be clearer between the wishes of the arms industry and the huge decision to fund that industry with billions of euros of the public’s money.
This decision was consequential. It was the first time in history the EU budget would directly fund defence. But it also gave a clear signal of where the EU’s priorities lay. Money going to the arms industry means less money for other things.
Last May, the Commission announced €9.4 billion for a new standalone health program. The EU4Health program was supposed to tackle problems caused by the coronavirus, as well as drug shortages, cross-border health cooperation and improving health care systems. At the time the Commission said health systems need €70 billion of extra investment —€9.4 billion was supposed to be just the start. EU4Health was described by Stella Kyriakides, the EU Commissioner for Health, as ‘a game changer... a clear signal that the health of our citizens is more than ever before a priority for us’. But when the Council - made up of heads of state - got its hands on the budget, it cut the funding for EU4Health to just €1.7 billion. In the end, following another round of negotiations, that was increased to €5.1 billion. But in the middle of a global pandemic, €5.1 billion spread thinly across 27 Member States amounts to no more than pennies.
That €5.1 billion for health support is in stark contrast to the €13.5 billion going to just three military progammes: the European Defence Fund, the Military Mobility fund, and the so-called European Peace Facility, a programme allowing use of public funds to help other countries buy weapons. Yet more military spending is disguised under the EU’s ‘Security’ budget headings. Contrast the €5.1 billion for EU4Health with the €5.6 billion pledged to Frontex, the EU’s border agency. That’s more money to a single agency than for the whole of the EU for health investment. Altogether, the area of Migration and Border Management - which involves huge sums going to the same arms companies - will get just over €22 billion from the EU’s budget to 2027. Meanwhile, even as the developing world faces a cataclysm from climate change, the final figure for humanitarian aid from one of the world’s richest is just €10.2 billion.
The July Council meeting on the budget also proposed to cut more than €20 billion from the Just Transition Fund - taking it from €40 billion to just €17.5. This is the EU’s flagship “European Green Deal” fund for weaning countries off fossil fuels, helping them diversify their economies and helping people adapt in a changing labour market. Unlike military spending, which goes to a small collection of arms companies, it’s expected to fund major changes for millions of people, in the face of a threat that will otherwise wipe us all off the face of the planet. So while at first glance the Just Transition appears around equal to that going to Security and Defence, the reality is that, relatively, it’s much smaller because it will be spread so much more widely.
If we follow the money, then, we see that the EU’s priorities are decisively skewing towards security and defence - and ever further with each passing year. The goal of the EU, historically, and as enshrined in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, is to ‘promote peace’. It should worry all of us that the Union is shifting away from that goal - driven by a small group of arms industry lobbyists who have captured the ears of decision-makers at the very top of Brussels’ power structures.
Written by Clare Daly MEP