ROME — Defense experts are concerned that Europe’s newfound commitment to joint defense spending may be cast aside as the European Union diverts cash into economies hammered by the coronavirus lockdown.

The scenario was discussed in a webinar hosted by Italy’s IAI think tank on April 8. And last week, Polish and German experts wrote of the risk that the fledgling European Defence Fund will be savagely cut.

Then on April 27, eight experts issued an appeal to EU policymakers, arguing that rather than cutting defense funds to free up money to support hard-hit businesses, they should do the opposite and beef up defense spending.

With so many high-tech jobs in the defense industry, “specific support for this sector will be needed to mitigate the economic crisis’ effects and preserve the long-term future of Europe,” wrote the experts, who hail from Spain, Italy, the U.K., France and Lithuania.

According to the letter, the EU plans to pack its 2021-2027 budget with measures to limit a recession some economists believe will follow the pandemic. Economists have also warned such a recession would dwarf the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.

“Undoubtedly it will focus on critical sectors such as health or energy. We believe that the defence sector should be included in such critical sectors and that a revised version of the [budget] should be the opportunity to reassert a truly ambitious budget for the European Defence Fund,” the experts wrote.

Apart from shoring up defense jobs, feeding the European Defence Fund would help defend the EU as threats grow, they wrote.

“Indeed, COVID-19 will not stop or mitigate the ongoing worsening of the international security environment threatening European security and interests. On the contrary, it is likely to make the world more unstable and more insecure,” they added.

Defense spending had been slashed after 2008, the experts said, and faces a similar fate now, just as “Europe is trying to develop next-generation fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, frigates and other capabilities such as unmanned systems crucial for its military and technological edge.”

Cutting budgets would not only increase Europe’s dependency on “third states” but would “significantly hinder the credibility of European nations as military partners, notably within NATO,” they added.

Prior to the spread of coronavirus, pressure had grown inside the EU to halve the €13 billion (U.S. $14 billion) planned for the European Defence Fund during 2021-2027.

Now, the EU should halt any plans to cut the fund and instead increase it, the experts wrote. “As Europe gradually emerges from the pandemic, there [cannot be a] secure ‘new normal’ without a solid European defence,” they concluded.

The letter’s release coincided with a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute that found total global military spending rose 3.6 percent in 2019 to $1.917 trillion — marking the largest annual growth in spending since 2010.

The think tank report also found that U.S. spending grew by 5.3 percent to a total of $732 billion in 2019, at 38 percent of the global total. The increase alone in U.S. spending was roughly equal to the entire budget of Germany. The European country’s military spending rose by 10 percent last year to $49.3 billion, which the think tank said was the largest increase in spending among the top 15 military spenders in 2019.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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