Defense lobbyists send their big guns to Brussels
The European Union is spending big on weapons, and lobbyists aim to cash in.
BRUSSELS — For a peace project, the European Union is building a pretty generous war chest — and lobbyists are gearing up to pry it open.
With EU leaders set to give their final sign-off this week on a plan to lock arms and buy arms together, the bloc is speeding toward a new stage of defense integration. In the leadup, weapons-makers from both sides of the Atlantic have been clamoring for facetime with key commissioners and EU lawmakers, while lobbying firms are drafting military experts for their Brussels office.
“In 20 years in public affairs, I’ve never seen so much development on a policy area as on defense in the last five years,” said Benoît Chaucheprat, a co-founder of C&V Consulting, a three-year-old boutique firm that’s unique in Brussels for its focus on defense policy.
It would be a mistake, however, to solely credit Vladimir Putin’s war on the EU’s border for the bloc’s shifting perspective. “We can’t say that the invasion of Ukraine is a game-changer for greater EU defense industry integration,” he said. “But it is surely an accelerator.”
The game-changer was actually Jean-Claude Juncker, the previous European Commission president.
Despite being the seat of both the EU and NATO, Brussels has never been a hub for defense lobbying — the money and contracts were all in the capitals. The EU is even legally barred from using its budget to fund military activities.
Yet Juncker found a work-around in 2016: make defense part of the EU’s industrial strategy. The result today is an €8 billion pot of cash, the European Defense Fund, to boost defense research and development.
Now the EU is getting even more directly involved. In addition to its joint ammunition-buying strategy, which includes €1 billion earmarked for new contracts, Brussels is also planning to spend at least €500 million to boost defense manufacturing capabilities. On top of that, legislation coming out of Brussels on matters like sustainability could dictate how future weapons are built.
“The EU is becoming a player in a way,” said Camille Grand, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “All the defense companies in Brussels are more engaged with the EU than they’ve ever been.”
Usually, defense lobbying is pretty transactional: You bid on a tender, you win it or you lose it. And for years, Brussels had no tenders to offer. So defense firms weren’t too interested.
Grand, who served as the top NATO official for defense investment until last year, said he was “always struck by the fact that many of these companies had only a limited understanding” of how the EU and NATO work, “partially because there was no direct business for many of them.”
That’s changing. And defense firms are trying to study up.
The American giant Boeing fattened its footprint last year, for example, poaching seasoned EU hand Liam Benham from IBM to be its new EU and NATO lobbying chief, while sending a Boeing veteran, Kristen Richmond, to Brussels.
Agencies are also increasing their offerings.
Rud Pedersen Public Affairs — a Nordic consultancy that owed much of its early business to Swedish aerospace and defense behemoth Saab — signed up former procurement officials from the Belgian and German militaries to work as senior advisers in Brussels last year. And APCO Worldwide has a call out now for job candidates with EU and NATO connections.
“Space and defence are a growing policy area for us and our clients,” the LinkedIn ad says.
There has also been a flurry of new lobbying in recent months as executives spied the EU’s looming role as an arms benefactor.
Sweden’s Saab, for example, has been making the rounds over the past six months, meeting twice to talk defense with the EU’s internal market chief Thierry Breton, and once to talk defense procurement with an aide to EU competition czar Margrethe Vestager.
And Timo Pesonen, who heads the Commission’s defense industry and space division, has had a heavy drumbeat of related meetings over the last year with companies like Airbus, GE and Nexter. One meeting with German arms maker Krauss-Maffei Wegmann specifically focused on the “concept of a European Armoury.”
On the European Parliament side, defense companies have also been angling to influence the EU’s longer-term effort to boost defense manufacturing — the €500 million pot that could grow in the coming years.
One of the main battle lines for lobbyists: Europeans trying to keep the money within EU borders, and Americans trying to lure some of it away.
American players, including Boeing and GE Aerospace, in January had the ear of Ivars Ijabs, the Latvian MEP leading the internal market committee’s work on the project, according to public records.
European firms, including Saab and Belgian manufacturer John Cockerill Defense, also held meetings on the topic with lawmakers.
Room to grow
Given that the industry spent north of $124 million on lobbying in the U.S. in 2022, according to records compiled by OpenSecrets, it’s no surprise that their Brussels counterparts want to get in on the action. But growth here has been halting.
An aide to Commissioner Breton — who visited defense firms Nexter and MBDA in France on Monday in his bid to boost European arms production — said he hadn’t received more meeting requests from the sector than usual in recent months. For smaller players, accessing financing from banks tends to be their top concern, the aide said.
While lobbying execs were loath to discuss business strategy publicly, some — including those with robust national-level defense practices — privately acknowledged that their research hasn’t yet prompted them to pull the trigger on more Brussels-based offerings.
Line Tresselt, a former adviser to the Norwegian Minister of Defense who now oversees Rud Pedersen Group’s defense and security practice over 14 offices, said she expects the sector to wade more slowly into Brussels lobbying.
“A lot of projects that they’re interested in, it could be 10 years until there’s a tender, and it will take even longer time until material is developed, produced and delivered,” she said. “The defense sector is in its nature long term.”
Another factor holding back demand for Brussels lobbyists: dwindling supplies.
Just a few years ago, Tresselt said, companies “were trying to get the most business they could. But now with the war, a lot of them are struggling to keep up with the requests that are coming from different markets.”
The EU, in other words, is just one of many customers.