Europe’s roads and rails are not suitable for a fight with Russia – POLITICO

Having a better army doesn’t matter if you can’t get it moving.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn attention to preparing the EU’s roads, railways, ports and airports for the rapid movement of troops and tanks. Clearing bottlenecks and supporting railroad tracks and bridges used by both military and civilians is vital to the continent’s defense program. But despite these concerns, the EU has no immediate plans to increase spending on the issue.

“The further east you go, the infrastructure is bearing the heavy weight of the US, German, British and Dutch tanks, it’s the bridges,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former US Army Europe commander and now a member the think tank CEPA. “We have to show that we can move at least as fast as the Russian Federation in the Suwałki Gap [between Poland and Lithuania] or in Romania.”

The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), the EU’s financing instrument for infrastructure projects, was agreed last year and will provide 1.7 billion euros for military mobility – less than the original 6.5 billion euros suggested (but more than the zero that some advocated). Cutting the budget seemed like a good idea at the time when EU leaders thought war was a distant prospect.

EU diplomats on Thursday I Agree with the European Commission on the spending of almost 340 million euros of CEF military equipment on 22 mostly small projects under this program – mainly in Central Europe.

These projects include strengthening rail links from Antwerp to Germany to allow longer trains to run east, upgrades at two airports in Poland, and improving transport links to Tapa military base in Estonia.

An official involved in the talks said the countries also agreed to bring the next round of project funding forward from September to May, although that will not change the overall budget size.

Critics complain that the level of funding is far below what is needed to prepare the continent for a military threat, and some MEPs are pushing for a much faster increase in spending.

“The money is ridiculous,” said Romanian MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu. The European People’s Party lawmaker was one of Parliament’s leading figures in the negotiations on the CEF. The final sum agreed is “almost nothing” compared to the bloc’s strategic needs, he said.

Despite previous skepticism, the need for military mobility spending has “turned 180 degrees” thanks to the war, according to a senior commission official working on the issue.

“There was a sense in Europe that we didn’t need defense spending,” said Georg Riekeles, security director at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. “Since February 24th [when Russia attacked Ukraine]this picture has completely changed.”

Infrastructure problems have been evident for years as NATO expanded eastward, but spending on roads and railroads has not followed suit.

In 2017, Hodges led the landing of US troops in Bremerhaven, northwest Germany. While the port infrastructure was up to date, the exit routes were not. “There’s a bottleneck in how quickly you can get on the road,” he said. “No matter the size of the port, if you’re not prepared for fast movement, everything will pile up.”

Fit for a fight

It’s a problem as the alliance seeks to increase its forces in the east to deter Russia.

“It’s very difficult to get to Romania just through the Carpathians with a tank on the back of a van,” Hodges said.

While NATO coordinates military action, it does not fund bridges, railroads, and roads. This is where the EU should start with the CEF.

“[Militaries] use the same infrastructure as civilians and therefore face the same problems,” the Commission official said, or with equally shortened train lengths, they face the same problems that certain airports are not served by rail.”

CEF military mobility funds aim to connect airports to railways, strengthen bridges and make space in ports for rapid landing. Other major projects — such as Rail Baltica, a €5.8 billion European standard-gauge rail link that runs through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Poland — are also said to be critical to defence.

As part of Thursday’s project approval round, €5 million will go towards strengthening military capabilities on Rail Baltica’s Latvian route.

The biggest funding pledge was €60 million for Via Baltica, a road link through the Baltic States, hardly a big investment as new projects typically cost billions.

Marinescu wants the bloc to move now, rather than waiting for the next seven-year CEF infrastructure budget in 2028: “We need to have something now,” he said.

In a debate in Parliament’s Transport Committee last week, he proposed drawing on the EU’s recovery and resilience facility, as some €232 billion of the post-pandemic fund’s loans still have to be earmarked for use.

“Some of that money … could be used for our dual-use infrastructure needs,” Marinescu said.

This week, more than 60 MEPs from groups across the political spectrum sent a letter obtained by POLITICO to EU leaders and French President Emmanuel Macron to “draw attention to the urgent need to revamp the programme for military mobility”.

That means more EU money for “strategically urgent projects, especially in the eastern part of the EU” and simplified procedures for project appraisals and environmental impact assessments, they wrote.

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