Von der Leyen had been visiting the European Parliament in an effort to persuade the sceptics there that she is the best person to succeed Jean Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.
Described as the ‘compromise’ candidate, following weeks of argument and negotiation between EU Heads of State at the European Council, her nomination was narrowly confirmed at a vote in the European Parliament on this evening, which makes her comments from last week even more important.
And it was as she began her efforts to convince European Parliamentarians of her suitability as the next President of the Commission that she chose EU Defence Union as her main platform.
In the process, she confirmed the main components of the unification process which the UK Column has been highlighting since 2010.
Single Point Command and Control
“I want to talk about four components ... which I believe are important for setting up a European Defence Union,” she said. “First of all, just two or three weeks ago, for the first time, we were able to give the green light for a European command capacity in Brussels. That is the first time that military and civil instruments would be commanded together, where these commands would actually come from one single command office.
“This is a major step forward. It was unthinkable a short while ago, but it's precisely the right approach to have if we want a European flavour to our defence policy.”
Here, in her first point, is the core of what EU Defence Union is, and what it is not.
It is not an EU Army.
It is the unification of member states’ national militaries under a single EU-level command structure.
The original German word she used was “Kommandozentrale” - a new word meaning command centre.
It is quite unlike NATO, which is an organisation of collective defence for sovereign member states. Each member state maintains its own independent foreign policy and the full extent of collective defence is embodied in the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. It is left to each member state to make a sovereign decision about how that principle applies to them.
As von der Leyen expressed above, EU Defence Union envisions member states surrendering control of national militaries to Brussels based command and control, under an EU foreign and defence policy; member states will have no choice about levels of participation and national parliaments will have no way to veto EU level foreign interventions.
The implications of this for national democracy should be clear: an electorate will no longer be able to hold the prospect of removal from office over the heads of national government for intervention in a war there is no support for.
But consider the other part of von der Leyen’s statement: that military and civilian instruments could be commanded together.
The first hint we had of this particular policy came at the November 2015 European Defence Agency conference, at which then EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg jointly discussed the need to merge military and civilian capabilities.
The same policy desire has been expressed time and again by Ms Mogherini. It has become apparent that the EU envisions that Defence Union applies to internal defence, as well as external. It is not just about foreign intervention, but also domestic. The implications for mass protest, such as that of the so-called Yellow Vests in France, should be obvious.
Financing Defence Union
Having discussed single point command and control, von der Leyen moved on to PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation, which, she said, shows people that the EU can demonstrate “that we have the capacity, that we are operational and that we can plan systematically for the long term and that actually provide a European solution to crises.”
So PESCO will allow the EU to plan systematically. It is, then, an embryonic Ministry of Defence. But what crises does she have in mind?
To answer that, we have to take a brief look at an interview she gave to Bloomberg TV while she was attending the Munich Security Conference in February.
Africa, she said, is an area where NATO has no particular interest, but which the EU needs to have the capability to intervene.
Strangely enough, also attending the Munich Security Conference was British former Prime Minster Tony Blair. During a Q&A session at a fringe meeting held at the Munich Technical University, Blair expressed identical policy views to von der Leyen. Anyone listening could be forgiven for believing they was both reading from the same script.
There can be no permanent cooperation, structured or otherwise, without funding. Here von der Leyen expressed her delight that such funding will be made available through the European Defence Fund.
“We shouldn’t be doing this at a national level,” she said, “We need to be thinking on a European level, because if we do this it means that the interoperability is a given. It makes it easier for us to cooperate, of course, if we are working on common projects, that from the very first day on we know how to deploy equipment and we will have a European Defence Union which exists not simply in name.”
For at least the last twenty years, defence cuts have not been about lack of money. Rather, they have been about the gradual synchronisation of defence capabilities across the EU, including the UK.
By synchronisation I mean the removal of overlap. There is no need for the UK to have tanks if Germany has them. Or for France to have aircraft carriers if Britain has them.
This is a gross oversimplification of reality, of course. Nonetheless, minimising duplication of capabilities is a key pillar of Defence Union.
But while this policy has been clear to those of us watching as it has developed, it wasn’t until the dying days of 2016 that the EU gave it an acronym: CARD.
CARD stands for the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence.
As von der Leyen puts it, “I think as my fourth building block I would like to what we call CARD, Coordinated Annual Review on Defence … our plans have got to be dovetailed with one another so that we don't have [overlap], so that we don’t have doubling up, that we actually focus correctly.”
“No single member state in Europe,” she went on to say, “and I say that about my own country as well, is in a position to provide alone the system that we are going to need in the future.”
This is true, but only because those single member states have pursued an unannounced-to-the-public policy of unification for at least the last twenty years, and for some, much longer.
It’s not only member states’ armed forces which are to be unified. The defence industry has to be brought together as well.
We have seen this over the last few decades with the likes of the Panavia Tornado and the Eurofighter, but von der Leyen’s vision takes this even further.
“We should speak with one voice,” she said, “We should work together to give us the economy of scale, and we shouldn’t forget that if we have a single common system for use, for example, whether it’s the pilots, whether it’s the infrastructure, whether it’s the components, whether it’s the spare parts, if we can get it all from one place, then it’s so much easier than having to go to fifteen or twenty different places to find this.”
Decrying a fragmented procurement landscape with “so may different models, with pilots who have been trained on one particular type of helicopter and can’t fly another type of helicopter, that leads to chaos,” she envisages a single set of weapons, infrastructure and spare parts being used across the Defence Union, procured at an EU level.
The implications for British industry are huge, as the inevitable outcome will be further consolidation through mergers, joint ventures and, ultimately, loss of capability.
The Sound of Silence
Here in the UK, we have complete silence. The one political party we might expect to be shouting from the rooftops about Defence Union is the Brexit Party.
Nigel Farage stood up in the European Parliament earlier and, for the first time, used the real terminology: Defence Union. But it is one thing to say it there. Here in the UK, all we hear from him is ...
The same from Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, one of whom not only has to complete the ‘divorce’ (if either is to be believed), but also has to negotiate the ‘future relationship’ which very much includes security and defence.
Ursula von der Leyen is not silent, though. Quite the contrary. “But together,” she said, “together, we can do it.”
See the EU Defence Union timeline for more.