“…a vision of one day establishing a real, true European army.”
Some have long suspected that a European army is on the way, but now the idea is breathing fresh air. This is thanks to recent statements by French President Emmanuel Macron that a “true, European army” is needed to create “a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States.” The comment was taken as an insult by President Trump, whose relationship with Macron is on the ropes following a recent visit to Paris, but some European leaders have been keen to jump on the bandwagon.
Macron was quickly backed up by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – arguably the most powerful national leader on the continent – saying in the European parliament, “We should work on a vision of one day establishing a real, true European army.” The two leaders met in Berlin on Nov. 19 to reaffirm their shared stance; Macron, speaking alongside his German colleague, said that the E.U. must “take more responsibility for its defense and security,” adding that “Franco-German responsibility in preparing for the future and the re-founding of Europe” was “invested with this obligation not to allow the world to slide into chaos.”
The concept of a future E.U. army has been alternately dismissed (notably during the U.K. Brexit campaign) and promoted by Europhiles – a spokesperson for the European Commission president seemed put out that his boss’s thunder had been stolen: “Let me clarify that the first one who spoke about the EU army four years ago was someone called Jean-Claude Juncker.”
So what is the E.U. defense situation, what would an E.U. army look like, and what would it mean for NATO?
The E.U.’s military development has been underway for some time, although media coverage has been sparse. In June 2017, the E.U. launched the European Defence Fund with the stated goal to “promote cooperation and cost savings among Member States to produce state-of-the-art defence technology and equipment.” The fund offers incentives for inter-state cooperation and “grants for collaborative research projects in the areas of drones, strategic technology foresight and soldier protection and equipment.” Only collaborative projects are eligible for funding.
In late 2017, the union began its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) program, which – despite its vague title – was set up aiming “to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations.”
According to an E.U. fact sheet:
PESCO is designed to contribute to making European defence more efficient and to deliver more output by providing enhanced coordination and collaboration in the areas of investment, capability development, and operational readiness. Permanent structured cooperation in this domain will allow decreasing the number of different weapons’ systems in Europe, and therefore strengthen operational cooperation among Member States, connect their forces through increased interoperability, and enhance industrial competitiveness.
The program was joined by 25 E.U. member states (leaving only three as non-participants) and, in March 2018, set out 17 initial projects that would be undertaken in a range of areas, including but not limited to cybersecurity, maritime surveillance, development of infantry and armored vehicles, military mobility, a network of logistics hubs, EuroArtillery, and more. In June 2018, the program set up a number of rules, with member states obliged to report annually on their success in living up to their legally binding contributions – although each country’s military is otherwise independent thus far.
PESCO is only one project of the European Defence Agency (founded 2004) and European External Action Service (EEAS) (founded 2010), and with Europe’s most powerful leaders beginning to promote openly the idea of a European army, it’s doubtful that the program represents the endpoint of the E.U.’s military ambitions.
Alternative to NATO?
Overall, PESCO in its current form seems fairly similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where all members are committed to the principle of “collective defense” while maintaining control over their own military otherwise. Since PESCO forces have not cooperated on the frontline so far, it’s unclear what the program would mean during active wartime operations.
It’s hardly a surprise that the E.U. central bureaucracy wants an equally centralized European army to play with, but what could tempt member states to join these programs for military integration (as, according to the Eurobarometer public opinion commission, three-quarters of them want)? One answer is money.
Since Donald J. Trump burst onto the scene of U.S. politics, he has not been shy in his criticism of European defense spending or, rather, the relative lack of it. With Trump determined to boost Europe’s NATO contributions, leaders on the continent may be wondering from where they will get the funds. The E.U. has claimed that its own military cooperation will allow members to save money rather than spend it. A Defence Fund fact sheet claims:
Lack of cooperation between Member States in the field of defence and security is estimated to cost between €25 billion and €100 billion every year. The European Defence Fund will help Member States to spend taxpayer money more efficiently and get better value for their investment …. Currently, around 80% of defence procurement is run on a purely national basis, leading to a costly duplication of military capabilities.
An EEAS video on pooling European resources echoes these sentiments, saying that “28 E.U. member states spend €200 billion per year on defence …. We can save at least €25 billion if we work together.”
Although some have questioned the viability of NATO being able to coexist with a joint European defense force, the E.U. is insistent that a European army will cooperate with NATO rather than compete with it. A 2015 defense strategy paper emphasizes that “Above all, PESCO can significantly strengthen the European pillar within NATO and ensure that the two main suppliers of collective security in Europe can live up to future demands.” This is an idea both Macron and Merkel have insisted on, with Merkel saying in E.U. parliament, “This is not an army against NATO, it can be a good complement to NATO.”
Whether this is a realistic hope is unclear, especially if the U.S. continues to demand higher defense commitments on the continent. It is far from obvious that a European army acting alone – with many individual nations having neglected their militaries – would be victorious in any major conflict against likely opponents, such as Russia, with which the E.U. increasingly has a beef. And with Trump on the outs with European leaders, how will this trend affect the alliance that spans the Atlantic?