By Mathias Gjesdal Hammer
Considering the future of the EU Army.
What do Silvio Berlusconi, Winston Churchill, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have in common? They have all called for the formation of a European army. As early as 1950, Churchill declared a need for the ‘immediate creation of a European army under unified command’. For 70 years, the idea has lingered on in backrooms and policy documents, a largely overlooked remnant in the European imagination. In a speech on the future of Europe in 2018, Merkel called for the creation of a ‘real, true European army’. As the normally tepid European Parliament came alive with jeers and applause, the German chancellor warned, ‘the times when we could rely on others are over. This means nothing less than for us Europeans to take our destiny in our own hands if we want to survive as a Union.’
While the idea of the European army has been floated every few years, Russian aggression on Europe’s Eastern frontier and fear that America is deprioritizing its European commitments means that enthusiasm for military collaboration is higher than ever. In late March, EU leaders approved the establishment of a rapid deployment force of 5,000 soldiers independent of NATO or American support. The EU’s military funding has drastically increased since 2016, and European state leaders, functionaries and bureaucrats have called for a united European front.
To some extent, Euroarmy exists but in the eye of the beholder. For Tory Brexiteers, the vision of British soldiers in starred uniforms marching to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ nightmarishly symbolised the EU’s dystopian future. As Nigel Farage said in response to Merkel’s 2018 speech, ‘leaving the European Union is now indeed a liberation’, for the EU has become ‘an empire, a militarised European Union, an undemocratic European Union’. By contrast, Macron’s embrace of this alternative to American-led NATO operations allows him to underpin his Gaullist leanings, presenting a vision of an autonomous Europe with France at its head. Yet the European army remains largely a mirage; supporters and critics alike conjure the concept with the knowledge that the full integration of the Union’s 27 armies remains far from possible in the near future.
Europe came closest to creating a unified military force during the aftermath of World War II. In 1950, the Korean War showed how easily the US could lose interest in Europe. More worryingly, in the Cold War context, military research predicted that Europe lacked the military power to prevent the USSR from taking over the continent. In 1952, European leaders drafted a plan for the European Defence Community (EDC), which would merge the armies of West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux states. The plan called for the ‘fusion of its human and military components under a single political and military authority’. Each country would commit four to six percent of its GDP to a mass armaments program that would ensure Europe’s safety from the perceived Soviet threat. (By comparison, EU states currently spend 1.2% of GDP on defence.) At the last moment, however, the plan collapsed, as the French prioritised quelling nationalist movements in its colonies over continental security. Instead, NATO admitted West Germany, and ambitions for an independent European military force all but disappeared. Seventy years on from its failure, the EDC remains the most ambitious vision of European military collaboration yet.
Hints of this vision were preserved in the EU’s founding documents. According to article J.4.1 of the Maastricht Treaty, one of the founding aims of the EU was to form a ‘common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence’. Over the last 20 years, the EU’s military cooperation has increased drastically. An alphabet soup of treaties and organisations – CARD, CDP, CSDP, EDA, EDF, EDIDP, EPF, EUFOR CROC, MPCC, NIP and PESCO – has emerged. What hides behind this grab bag of letters is a wide range of institutions that were formed to coordinate Europe’s militaries. If a ‘European army’ is to materialise, it will take this form: not soldiers in EU uniforms stationed in military bases from Svalbard to the Sahel, but an ever-proliferating network of cryptic agencies, funding mechanisms and operations to coordinate and consolidate the EU’s 27 national militaries.
The onset of Europe’s military consolidation can be traced back to the 1990s. As Yugoslavia fell apart and ethnic violence broke out in 1991, Jacques Poos, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, declared that ‘the hour of Europe has dawned’. ‘If one problem can be solved by the Europeans,’ he said, ‘it’s the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country, and it’s not up to the Americans and not up to anybody else.’ In the end, it was American-led military action that halted the wars. As the then-head of NATO, George Robertson, said, summing up the common-sense view of the EU’s strength, ‘you cannot send a wiring diagram to a crisis’. Out of this abysmal failure came a conviction that the EU had to become a military power.
Although the EU’s rhetoric on increasing its military capacity has strengthened since the 1990s, it has yet to become a military power. In 1999, the EU agreed to create a rapid response force of 50,000 soldiers that could be deployed within 60 days of receiving a mission. By 2007, the EU had reduced this plan to the creation of two battlegroups of 1,500 troops. So far, their missions have been limited to war games (fake missions that simulate military deployments): European Endeavour, in which the group protected the fragile state of Vontinalys from a band of mercenaries, pirates and mafia; and Operation Quick Lion, in which a battlegroup of 3,000 entered Belgium to stop violence between the ‘greys’ and the ‘whites’ in ‘blueland’. So far, European battalions have faced only fictional enemies. Most militaries, of course, engage in regular practice exercises. Due to the controversy surrounding these battalions, though, it seems unlikely that they will do anything more than LARPing for the foreseeable future.
Since 2003, the EU has conducted 14 military operations under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Rather than advancing via organised EU battalions, these were organised by ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Despite their administration by the EU, these missions are subject to national approval. These include missions in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chad, Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic and Mozambique. Largely small-scale missions, they reveal both the EU’s extensive military cooperation but also its severe challenges when operating on its own.
Among the EU’s most ambitious missions was a military operation in Chad (EUFOR Tchad/RCA) to protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the civil war in Darfur. Although the mission was scheduled to begin in November 2007, bickering between the parties and equipment shortages delayed it til February of the following year. Without air support, the mission could proceed only after Russia had offered to lend the EU helicopters and Ukraine had leased out military equipment to the European effort. In the end, the EU deployed 3,700 troops from 24 states. And support for the mission was far from evenly distributed across Europe: France – the most assertive of the EU powers (especially in its former North African colonies) – provided over half of the total troops, while Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and the UK provided but 14 officers between them. While patrolling the border between Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan on 4 March 2008, an EU Land Rover accidentally crossed into Sudan and came under fire. Giles Polin, a French sergeant, became the very first soldier to die under the stars of the European flag.
The EU is also taking an increasingly large role in developing military technology. In 2014, is granted an initial €1.4 million towards research into RPAS, TRAWA and EuroSWARM, projects intended to develop Europe’s burgeoning fleet of drones. Since 2017, the EU has provided €500 million yearly to its European Defence Fund and since 2020 it has set aside €1.5 billion per year on research and acquisition of military technology. Projects include adaptive camouflage, artificial intelligence, laser weapons, railguns and quantum technology. When it comes to development and procurement, the EU has surpassed most of Europe, barring France, the UK and Germany. In doing so, it hopes to develop a shared technological basis across the continent’s militaries.
Any serious program for creating a federal European army must standardise the Union’s 27 national armies. Numerically, joint EU forces would appear to be a potent military force, on the basis of funding alone. EU member states collectively have the second most powerful military capabilities, after the US. In 2020, EU countries spent €198 billion on defence; this number is set to rise drastically in the coming year. Resources notwithstanding, however, effective coordination across the many component armed forces in Europe has proven a costly logistical nightmare. While the American and Russian armies each employ a single kind of battle tank, European forces use 17 variations among them. The US employs 30 different battle platforms; European navies and air forces, combined, use 180. When Germany and the Netherlands tried to integrate a single tank battalion of 400 soldiers in 2016, it took three years for the force to become operational. Everything – from driver’s licences to radio equipment, military tactics and training exercises – had to be synchronised. A handful of other integrated European battalions exist; Dutch and Belgian navies serve under a single command and Nordic, Visegrad and Balkan battlegroups have all conducted training operations together. At most, these joint efforts represent a few thousand soldiers out of Europe’s almost two million armed forces.
To aid in the Euroarmy coordination effort, the EU launched its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in December 2017. The Lisbon Treaty’s ‘sleeping beauty’, as former EU President Jean-Claude Juncker described it, seeks to reduce duplication, combine defence industries and set standards for everything from battlefield medicine to military radios. The project has funded projects for spy schools, drones, helicopters, joint medical operations and an inter-space missile defence project.
The more difficult hurdle to overcome is that many EU states are simply uninterested in close military cooperation. Politicians remain reluctant to send their soldiers to possibly die for the Union. While the people of Denmark voted in favour of joining the EU’s common defence policy in a referendum held last June, Foreign Minister Jeffe Kopod said that supporting an EU army would be ‘unthinkable’. And even as Austria seeks to double its defence spending, Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted that ‘the EU army is not an agenda item’.
In Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, enthusiasm is equally low. Years of NATO support have rendered Russia’s neighbour-states fearful of an American withdrawal. Unsurprisingly, the US favours organising European defence policies primarily through NATO, where all decisions are under Washington’s supervision. If faced with a choice between Brussels and Washington, then, there is little question of where Eastern Europe’s loyalties lie.
For years, the EU has built a reputation as a civilian power allergic to military force. The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, despite protests from previous Nobel laureates, speaks volumes to this effect. As the Union looks to stand on its own two feet on the international stage, its pacifist image likely to wane. If the EU is unlikely to rival NATO or become a military superpower on par with the US or China anytime soon, the bloc’s rising military expenditures will allow it to play a greater geopolitical role in the years to come.
MATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER reads International Relations at Balliol. He hopes to learn to kickflip.
Art by Izzy Fergusson