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Is the time ripe for an EU army?

Door Roberta N. Haar - 22 november 2017

Last week I was a panelist in an event organized by Maastricht Student Forum, a conference held at Maastricht University’s Brussels Campus.  The title of the event was ‘The Limits of European Foreign Policy’, with a large focus on whether the European Union (EU) should have a ‘joint army’.

Conference attendees voted on whether they supported an EU army or not.  They did—overwhelmingly.  Moreover, this attitude mirrors similar ones found across European member states, where a large majority (75 per cent) are in favor of an EU common security and defense.

Are we in a window of opportunity?  Have the combination of doubts about America’s commitment to NATO combined with real threats to Europe’s territorial integrity, created the best prospects since 1954 for Europeans to move towards a security and defense union?

The time is ripe

In 1954, the French parliament failed to ratify the Treaty establishing the European Defense Community (EDC), which would have complemented the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) by creating a supranational European Army.  The main goal was to reanimate the West German military as a bulwark against the Soviets.

There were several reasons why the French did not ratify their own proposal, with the most important ones being that Joseph Stalin died in 1953 and that the six members were not ready to hand over such core elements of their sovereignty.  With NATO assuming the role of defending territory, European countries carried on with their independent armies, air forces and navies.

Today, the personnel serving in those 27 armies, 24 air forces and 21 navies absorb most of the expenditure member states outlay for security and defense.  The second largest part of their budgets is spending on equipment, mostly to maintain Cold War armaments that are falling apart.  For instance, in October 2017 it emerged that no German submarines were operational, that helicopter pilots could not practice because most helicopters were in need of repair and that half of the Bundeswehr’s tanks were out of order.

It might surprise readers to learn that the combined expenditure of all these service members and the maintenance of legacy equipment is substantial.  Taken together, the EU member states spend more on defense than any other power except the United States.  The European Commission’s June 2017 Reflection Paper on European Defense made the point that the European allies not only duplicate effort but also spend far more on personnel than the U.S., which spends more on research and development.

How do you square these current spending levels with militaries that are ‘virtually nondeployable for collective defense’, as Germany’s parliamentary commissioner for armed forces concluded in early 2018?  Simply put, according to Professor Jolyon Howorth, an expert on these matters, the EU appears to be getting ‘very little bang for its buck’.

Cooperation is the answer

Pooling, sharing and specialization is one answer to overcome the misuse of funds. Moreover, the need to cooperate has not been lost on member states, with several bottom-up approaches already in progress.  For example, Dutch scholar Paul van Hooft recently wrote in Atlantisch Perspectief about Germany’s cluster approach: a Bundeswehr-led network of mini-armies with key neighboring states, including the Dutch 43rd Mechanized Brigade, which joined the Bundeswehr’s 1st Panzer Division, and the Dutch 11th Air Manoeuver, which joined Germany’s Rapid Reaction Force.

Perhaps most ambitiously, the Council of the European Union launched PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense) in December 2017, a series of cooperation projects to develop defense capabilities.  Goals for the 17 PESCO projects are ambitious, with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stating that the possibilities to make European defense more efficient with higher levels of output “are immense.”

The prospects for Autonomy

There are signs that the time is ripe for genuine European defense cooperation.  However, there are still some formidable hurdles that need to be overcome before Europeans can take over from NATO the job of their own defense.  Professor Simon Duke, in a recent article in European Foreign Affairs Review, points out several impediments.  For example, since PESCO takes an “opt-in” approach exactly how “common” will the permanent framework be.  Might PESCO discover the same free rider, burden-sharing conundrum that NATO currently experiences?

Additionally, how will the sovereignty-linked mindset of the members be overcome?  The reality of 27 different armies point to hardwired attitudes that defense is the core of what it means to be a nation-state.  This obstacle must be set alongside the equally thwarting viewpoint by some member states, like Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden, that taking part in defense cooperation goes against their ideals of being neutral and nonaligned.

Add to this that any truly autonomous defense must include a credible nuclear deterrent under an EU command, a perhaps insurmountable factor that France’s Force de frappe looks unable to provide.

More red cards than green cards

In December 2017, I attended a session entitled “Breakthrough in European Defense Cooperation?” that was part of a symposium held by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Since the session operated under Chatham House rules (participants are free to use the information received, but identities and affiliations of speakers may not be revealed), I will stick to some basic facts.

At the beginning of the session, the speakers and the audience were given two cards, a green one and a red one, and asked to give their viewpoints on the statement, “Are we witnessing a true breakthrough in EU defense cooperation?”  The audience overwhelming held up red cards while the four speakers held up green ones.  However, during the discussion, the speakers with military backgrounds admitted that holding up both cards simultaneously was more realistic, with one admitting that he thought a red card was appropriate.

What is the take away?  If we compare today’s attitudes and documents with those of the past, we can see progression at the political and public levels.  However, it is also clear that cooperation is not happening at the military level for a variety of reasons.  Without formal financial obligations and with PESCO and other initiatives remaining voluntary, what will sustain the current momentum?  Especially, if Trump is no longer in the White House.  There is the possibility that, like 1954, enthusiasm for a European Defense Union wanes, not only with the French, but also with participants at a future Maastricht Student Forum.