An EU army? Four reasons it will not happen

Sophia Besch
12 May 2016

Britain's eurosceptics have spent years frightening people with the idea of an 'EU Army'. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the subject is once again rearing its head in the referendum campaign. But the reality of European defence co-operation does not match the rhetoric – whether eurosceptic or federalist.

Conspiracy-minded Brexiters insist that, were the UK to stay in the European Union, British troops might soon be faced with conscription into a Brussels-controlled army. More sober eurosceptics warn that "the European Union has its sights on NATO". Allegedly designed in the same Brussels and Berlin offices where dreams of an ever closer European union are fostered, a European army is often envisioned together with common armament programmes, a common budget and institutions. It has become a symbol of EU over-reach in one of the most sensitive areas of national sovereignty – defence.

Today, it is still easy for British eurosceptics to raise the spectre of an EU army, because they are helped by proponents of the idea in Europe. In March 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker advocated a common European army as a means to increase the EU’s standing on the world stage, not least in the eyes of Russia. Recent reports on a forthcoming defence white paper from Germany will do nothing to end the scare-mongering: it may contain proposals for a joint EU headquarters or even an EU army in the context of a ‘defence union’ and an increased German commitment to defence multilateralism.

The creation of EU armed forces, with a role in defending Europe’s borders, would signal a qualitative shift in EU policy towards territorial defence – far beyond the more limited ambition of the current EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Through the CSDP, the EU aims to be able to undertake humanitarian and rescue tasks, crisis management, and peacekeeping. CSDP does not, however, cover collective defence of EU territory. Nor does any EU government seriously envisage it doing so, given that NATO plays that role.

Moreover, member-states do not want to cede sovereignty on defence policy. As such, decisions on defence (and foreign) policy require unanimity in the Council of Ministers. This is what David Cameron referred to in his speech on May 9th, when he said that “suggestions of an EU army are fanciful: national security is a national competence, and we would veto any suggestion of an EU army”.

Euroenthusiasts are not alone in arguing that, faced with multiple security crises at Europe’s borders, European defence efforts must become more credible, fast. Whoever wins the US presidential election in November is likely to put more pressure on America's European allies to spend more on defence and to provide for their own security. Donald Trump may be alone in saying that NATO is obsolete, and extreme in his view that Europe should pay for America's role in its defence; but across both US political parties there is growing frustration that only five out of 28 NATO members meet the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

Europeans will therefore have to respond to American pressure, or else risk the "dim if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance" that then US defence secretary Robert Gates foresaw in 2011. But the justifiable need for more defence integration should not be confused with the creation of an EU army. The latter remains a mirage for four reasons. 

One: Mixing apples and oranges

History has shaped the defence cultures of different EU member-states in very different ways. Some countries may therefore find it easier to work together than others.

Proponents of an EU army often refer to existing examples of different countries integrating their militaries as a blueprint for pan-European forces. Nordic defence co-operation (NORDEFCO), for instance, has long seen Scandinavian and Finnish forces train alongside each other. Proponents have also paid particular attention to Dutch-German co-operation – the two countries today are effectively sharing soldiers, as well as tanks and other capabilities.

But Dutch-German integration was driven primarily by economics; the Netherlands scrapped its armour in the face of budgetary pressures and sought to offset the impact of these cuts by forging a partnership that allows Dutch forces to train with German tanks. Co-operation at this intimate level was possible only because the two armies already possessed long-standing ties: a joint headquarters, active since 1995; similar political processes preceding deployment; and familiarity in both armies with German-made equipment.

Without these similarities, true integration becomes much harder. The Franco-German joint brigade illustrates as much. Though created in 1989, it was only first deployed (and then only partially) as part of a training mission in Mali last year. In Afghanistan, the two countries were unable to agree on an acceptable level of risk for the troops involved, blocking deployment. The problem would only be worse in multinational EU units.  

Two: Unwillingness to deploy

The lack of a shared vision of how to use EU forces would be an enormous problem in a crisis. Member-states would be keen to protect their sovereignty, which means that a single government could block a deployment.

Europeans have learned this the hard way, through the EU Battle Groups. Created in 2007, these consist of rotating troop contingents from member-states, in theory ready to deploy at ten days’ notice. In practice, they have never been used. Differing national military strategies and threat assessments deter EU members from volunteering soldiers for operations. An unattractive system of cost distribution, which places the brunt of an operation’s financial burden on the deploying country, does not help. Indeed, the longer battle groups have gone unused, the weightier the symbolism of deciding to use them has become.

Today, governments shy away from even trying: in 2013, the UK blocked these forces from supporting French operations in the Central African Republic, fearful of the potential effect on Britain's EU membership debate. Even the staunchest supporters of an EU army cannot conceive of a supranational defence authority that could over-rule such decisions by national parliaments.

Three: Re-inventing the wheel

Some member states worry that an EU army would compete with NATO structures. With 22 of 28 EU states also being NATO members, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has urged Europeans to avoid duplicating NATO – money invested in an EU army would be money lost for the alliance.

Institutional squabbling between the EU and NATO is rooted in a long-standing and largely ideological divide. On one side were the so-called ‘Gaullists’, advocating a strong and independent Europe de la défense. On the other, the ‘Atlanticists’ wanted to protect NATO’s role as Europe’s security provider and favoured strong American involvement. They reject the idea of EU territorial defence, fearing this would remove the raison d'être for America to keep its forces in Europe.

These days, NATO's problem is not that the US may abandon Europe’s defence because Europeans are doing too much for themselves, but rather that Americans might tire of European "free riders" (as President Obama has termed them). Washington has repeatedly signalled that it does not care through which institution European defence is channelled; the priority is getting Europeans to take their own defence more seriously. But central and eastern European states see US capabilities as a vital hedge against an aggressive Russia. As a result, they have also expressed their strong preference for NATO and rejected the idea of a European army. They are unlikely to give up this resistance anytime soon.

Four: Lord make me pure but not yet

Finally, a European army would fall foul of politics in key EU capitals. Paris, while not explicitly opposing the idea (foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault indeed spoke recently about the need for "strategic autonomy for Europe and Europeans"), would rather get the rest of Europe to support French operations in Mali and the Sahel. Britain, as noted above, considers any debate on an EU army dangerous. Ireland, which guards its neutrality zealously, opposes the idea of an EU army and secured a protocol to the Lisbon Treaty stating explicitly that the treaty did not provide for the creation of such a force.

Germany's alleged commitment to creating an EU army is also weaker than it may appear. Though the project features explicitly in the government’s coalition agreement and is supported by almost all political parties, German politicians all stress the long-term nature of this ambition. It is considered good form for a 'good European' in Germany to reaffirm the commitment to a European army. But Christian Moelling, a senior fellow for security policy at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, who was involved in the ministry of defence’s white book consultation process, says that no one is preparing concrete implementation plans.

Another stillborn of EU defence co-operation, the ‘Permanent structured co-operation’, or PESCO, also demonstrates the member-states’ unwillingness to involve the European Union in their efforts at military co-operation. The Lisbon Treaty introduced PESCO to allow a core group of EU members to deepen their co-operation on military matters, when certain criteria were met. But the mechanism has never been used – countries chose instead to pursue military integration in small clusters outside EU structures. The political will for small-scale EU co-operation was never there, so it will not be strong enough to enable the creation of an EU army.

There will be no European army for the foreseeable future; but the EU can and should do more to strengthen European defence. Collectively, its member-states are the world’s second largest spender on defence, surpassed only by America. This spending does not translate into a proportionate amount of military power, however. Inefficiencies and a lack of co-ordination and interoperability prevent the EU from taking advantage of obvious economies of scale. Money wasted on duplication and protectionist policies is money that cannot be invested in capability development. Shared infrastructure, joint procurement and a closely integrated defence market would all help ensure European governments get more for their money.

There have been some positive developments, including the creation of the European Defence Agency (EDA) to co-ordinate defence planning between member-states, or the multinational European Air Transport Command (EATC), which commands almost 150 aircraft from Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. EATC works for two reasons: there is an agreed financing model, and though EATC determines how to use aircraft most efficiently, every country can refuse to take part in a particular operation, without blocking others. The EDA is investigating whether this framework could be used as a model for other capabilities in the future.[1]

The EU can add value to European defence by integrating European defence markets, or co-ordinating multinational procurement projects. But these initiatives do not set the stage for an EU army, a project which has few true friends and many enemies. European leaders should not allow debates over the creation of such an army to get in the way of decisions on how best to meet Europe's defence needs. Instead they should use existing structures to ensure that member-states waste money on neither unnecessary duplications, nor a distracting and unrealistic European pipe-dream.

Sophia Besch is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

[1] Clara Marina O’Donnell: ‘The trials and tribulations of European defence co-operation’, CER Policy Brief, July 2013.