Members of Ukraine’s 10th Mountain Brigade arm artillery shells before firing on Russian positions
EU countries want to continue providing ammunition to Ukraine, but are increasingly also thinking of their own needs. © John Moore/Getty Images

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Good morning. A scoop to start: A Turkish human rights lawyer has admitted paying the main suspects in the European parliament corruption scandal for “ethical lobbying services.”

Today, I explain the options EU defence ministers will look at today to increase ammunition supplies, plus a dispatch from our Rome bureau chief on the deepening impact of last month’s migrant tragedy off Italy’s coast.

Up in arms

In warfare, amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics. A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the scale of the latter is dawning on the EU.

Context: The war has exposed Europe’s woeful defence shortcomings. Supporting Kyiv has drained weapons stockpiles and the continent’s arms factories cannot produce enough to meet current demand, let alone replenish inventories.

Fixing that was on the menu last night as EU defence ministers dined in Stockholm. Practical measures will be discussed in a series of meetings today. The focus is on artillery shells: how to urgently get more to Ukraine and then manufacture more for Europe’s own future needs.

The first is a straightforward question of cash. Estonia has proposed a voluntary fund of €4bn to buy 1mn shells. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign and security chief, is offering the ministers €1bn from the bloc’s joint weapons fund. Those haggling for more will probably realise that the longer they argue, the longer Ukraine will wait.

The second is more complex. EU capitals are reluctant to give more to Ukraine without guarantees that their armouries will be restocked.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, says there are 15 companies in 11 EU countries that manufacture 155mm artillery shells. His task today is to get the 27 ministers to agree on how to scale them up.

Breton yesterday confirmed that the commission thinks EU budget money can be used, suggesting a fund for part-financing joint defence projects could be repurposed to deal “immediately and directly with [defence] companies.”

In addition, Breton wants the EU-controlled European Investment Bank to tweak its rules and pump cash into the defence industry.

Both ideas are controversial, with resistance both in national capitals and inside the commission. The EU’s governing treaties ban funds from being used for armament.

But those pushing the idea inside the commission say that, first, it would fund industry and not weapons directly, and second, well, desperate needs call for desperate measures. It’s not lost on military planners that if Russia is fighting an artillery war against Ukraine, it would probably use similar tactics in a possible war with an EU state.

“We will do what we believe we have to do,” Breton said yesterday. “It will probably be a game-changer.”

Chart du jour: Cash piles

Column chart of BIS reporting banks' liabilities to Russian banks, cumulative change since start of 2022, USD bn showing Russian banks’ bulging foreign deposits

A huge jump in Belgian liabilities to Russian banks is just one intriguing data clue in this investigation by Martin Sandbu into the “shadow reserves” of Moscow’s unsanctioned cash pile.

Tragic questions

Italy’s tough-on-migration prime minister Giorgia Meloni is wrestling with the reality of dealing with the issue in practice, facing intense scrutiny over the deaths of dozens of people off the Italian coast — and whether the tragedy could have been prevented, writes Amy Kazmin.

Context: A wooden boat carrying some 200 people fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere smashed against rocks just 40 metres from shore on February 26. Seventy-two people, including 28 children, are confirmed drowned, with others still missing. Though Italian authorities were alerted to the incoming boat, they did not intercept it.

Meloni, who has vowed to stop migrants arriving in Italy without permission, has previously insisted that the government is not to blame and has done what it could.

But her government is facing mounting accusations that the authorities deliberately failed to rescue the doomed passengers. Questions abound over the exact chain of events in the hours between when the boat was first spotted and when it broke apart, and why the coastguard was not dispatched to rescue the imperilled.

Meloni is holding a cabinet meeting tomorrow near the site of the deadly shipwreck.

Whether this can calm the anguish is unclear. In the coastal town in Calabria where the disaster took place, thousands of people, led by the local Catholic priest and imam, marched to shore carrying a wooden cross fashioned out of the planks of the fishing boat to honour the victims.

Among those who drowned was a prominent Afghan journalist, Torpekai Amarkhel, who worked for years with the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. She died along with her husband and children.

Others include Shahida Raza, a former member of Pakistan’s women’s field hockey team and single mother of a disabled son.

At its meeting tomorrow, the cabinet is expected to reaffirm its determination to crack down on human trafficking, which Meloni says is the only way to prevent such tragedies.

What to watch today

  1. The European Commission provides fiscal guidance to member states for 2024, at 11.30am (central European Time).

  2. Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg speaks at an EU defence ministers’ meeting in Stockholm.

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