By Andrew Gray
BRUSSELS - Several European Union countries will sign an agreement on Monday to team up to buy artillery rounds for Ukraine as part of an effort to speed up and increase the supply of shells that Kyiv says it urgently needs to fight Russia's invasion.
A senior EU official said many of the bloc's 27 countries were expected to sign the so-called project arrangement, which sets out the terms of reference for the plan, but the precise number was unclear as some were still examining the proposal.
The pact to jointly procure 155 mm artillery shells will be signed on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers in Brussels on Monday, officials said. First orders under the plan could be placed by the end of May.
"This arrangement has been set up very, very quickly," the senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told a news briefing on Friday. "All (EU) member states and Norway can participate."
Ukraine has identified the supply of 155 mm shells as a critical need as it engages in a fierce war of attrition with invading Russian forces, in which both sides are firing thousands of artillery rounds every day.
Ukrainian and Western leaders have warned in recent weeks that Kyiv is burning through the shells more quickly than its allies can produce them, leading to a renewed push to send supplies and find ways to ramp up production.
A big joint munitions-buying initiative would mark a significant step in EU integration, as defence procurement has largely been the preserve of the bloc's national governments.
The project to be initiated on Monday would be spearheaded by the EU's European Defence Agency.
EU officials say the move should result in larger single orders for arms firms, thereby encouraging them to invest in increasing capacity, and reduce competition between governments that are driving up prices by trying to place similar orders.
The initiative is part of a plan presented by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to earmark 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) to reimburse EU countries for sending shells from their own stocks to Ukraine and a further 1 billion euros for joint procurement.
Diplomats said EU governments were still wrangling over key details on Friday, due to disagreements over how the plan should work and a lack of clarity on the current levels of ammunition in EU members' stockpiles, which is kept secret.
Ambassadors to the EU from member countries will meet on Sunday to try to finalise details of the overall plan so that it can be approved by foreign ministers on Monday, diplomats said.
EU officials say it will be months, at least, before any shells ordered as part of joint procurement reach Ukraine.
But they argue that knowing a major joint procurement effort is under way should encourage member countries to send more of their current stockpiles to Ukraine.
The money would come from the European Peace Facility, an EU-run fund that has financed 3.6 billion euros of military aid to Ukraine since Russia's invasion in February 2022.
Many Western governments' ammunition stockpiles have been badly depleted by supplying shells to Ukraine. EU joint procurement would also aim to replenish them.