Until recently, even those in Europe who favour the development of an autonomous EU defense capability avoided referring to the setting up of a “European army”.

When the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) was included in the Nice treaty in December 2000, the British government of Tony Blair was adamant about the exclusion of a European army as a final objective, even if he had been the one to launch the project in August 1998 as part of an effort to get the UK closer to the EU mainstream.

It was therefore surprising to hear French president Emmanuel Macron use the words in a radio interview in November 2018: “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America, he said, “we will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army”. Even more surprising was hearing Angela Merkel a week later endorse the formulation in a speech to the European Parliament: “The times when we could rely on others is past,” she said, “we have to look at the vision of one day creating a real, true European army.” And a few weeks later, the German defense minister Ursula Von der Leyen went even further: “Europe’s army”, she declared, “is already taking shape”.

Should these comments just be dismissed as wishful thinking or political posturing? Are we talking of a “paper army”, to quote “the Economist”? Or are we already there, as Ursula Von Der Leyen seems to believe?

The question needs to be looked at under three different angles:

  • The current political context
  • Changes in the institutional framework
  • Joint procurement and “pooling and sharing” of capabilities

*   *   *

The current political context

President Macron and Chancellor Merkel clearly linked the need for a European army to the new threats facing Europe, including the weakening of the transatlantic relationship. That it is indeed weakening is a now widely shared view in Europe, well summed up by Wolfgang Ischinger the chairman of the Munich security conference whose annual session took place on February 15-17: “The EU for decades has profited from the protection the U.S. has provided. Today, this protection is not a certainty anymore”.

This is clearly a change of tone: having been under the American umbrella during the cold war, the European allies, with the menace receding, developed a limited crisis management capability – while quietly reducing their defense spending. But European defense was clearly not conceived as an alternative to the Alliance. Even when after September Eleven and the divisions about the Iraq war NATO suffered a severe crisis, the organisation as such participated in the war in Afghanistan.

With the Arab spring however, the perception in Europe of the American engagement in the world started to change: in the war in Libya in 2012, NATO was involved but the US decided to “lead from behind”, letting the UK and France in the front. President Obama had already proceeded with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He deliberately stayed out of the Syrian war, even when chemical weapons were used by the regime against its own people, which prompted the Russian intervention in the conflict.

The Libyan war was also a serious awakening for the Europeans: even for such a limited military operation, they badly needed US participation, with smart munitions, air-to-air refuelling, and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy was not in state to go to war, even in its close neighbourhood.

The first reaction – and the first reflexion about Europe’s “strategic autonomy” came in a European Council meeting in December 2013. The EU leaders launched a major program aimed at developing defense capabilities in the sectors identified as shortcomings, which was clearly aimed at allowing the EU in the future to conduct a full military operation without US participation.

Then,  in June 2016, a few days after the Brexit referendum, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini presented an “EU Global Strategy”, a sort of new strategic concept for European Security and Defense, in which she tried, very carefully, to identify and differentiate the various threats to the Union in order to define the military tasks CSDP should plan in the current geopolitical context. Some of them are clearly in competition with NATO tasks, even if the strategy is still presented as “complementary” to the Alliance.

Common EU action was also encouraged by a more assertive German defense policy, even if the German military capabilities remain weak, with only limited budgetary efforts until recently, to modernise outdated equipment.

The arrival of the new US administration and the perspective of Brexit only accelerated the process.

The deliberate disdain of the new US president for the Alliance, his hesitation to mention the article 5 of the treaty in his first appearance in a NATO summit and further comments gave the impression that he considered that the Europeans should take over responsibility themselves for the defense of their continent.

The American unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA with Iran, the unexpected announcement of the withdrawal from Syria of the troops combating the Islamic State and the unfolding collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces  Treaty (INF) are creating shockwaves in Europe, and it has become more and more difficult, even for the most devoted Atlanticists, to object to the efforts at reinforcing the European “strategic autonomy”.

On top of this, the perspective of Brexit has subtly changed the British position with regard to European defense. Clear signals have been sent that post-Brexit, the UK wants to  remain closely linked to the Union in the defense field. But it will no longer be on its terms: Being no longer part of the decision-making at EU level, the UK  will not be able to challenge, as it did until 2016, the development of autonomous European defense capabilities, for the reason that it “duplicates” what is done in NATO (see our blog “European Defense Strengthened after Brexit?, 22 September 2016).

The current security context has also changed the EU narrative to its citizens: the Russian actions in Ukraine, migration from crisis area in the Middle East and the overall problem of illegal migration encouraged EU leaders to present as one of the main priorities of the Union in the future, the enhancement of the protection of its citizens. “A Europe that protects” was the major slogan at the first European Council which discussed the future of Europe after Brexit.

Changes in the Institutional Framework

The development of CSDP, since the Maastricht treaty of 1992, happened in parallel but outside the EU “community” instruments. Defense, as well as Foreign Policy, are located in a specific “pillar” of the Union with the Commission and the European Parliament playing only a marginal role and  decisions in the Council being made by consensus.

The danger of having the “supranational” EU Commission interfere with military matters – seen by them as a step towards the creation of a European army – was even considered by many in London as a threat to national security.

Nevertheless, when he became president of the European Commission in 2014, Jean Claude Juncker did not hesitate to comment on defense issues. He even openly defended the idea of a European army. But his comments were not just an institutional provocation: in 2016, a few months after the presentation of the “Global Strategy”, Juncker issued a proposal for the setting up of a “European Defense Fund”, which would support investment in joint research and development of defense equipment and technologies. The fund would be integrated in the EU budget and managed by the EU Commission.

As mentioned above, since the Commission is not directly competent in the defense field, it used as legal base in the EU treaty provisions that give it the right to take “any useful initiative” to promote co-ordination between member states in order to promote the Union’s industrial competitiveness. This explains why the fund is managed by the directorate of the Commission dealing with the internal market and the Common Research Program of the Union.

This does not mean that defense as such has become a community matter. It remains, with Foreign policy, in the separate pillar where all decisions are made by consensus. But the fact that future defense spending, for research but also for the development of capabilities, will benefit from the formidable framework of the EU budget, and no longer only from national budgets, is a major breakthrough.

Until then, indeed, the only instrument supposed to favour EU integration in the defense field by encouraging common defense procurement, was the European Defense Agency, created in 2004 but which never developed, because, every year until 2016, the UK vetoed any increase in its meagre budget.

No EU member protested on institutional grounds, even the UK and the fund was quickly endorsed. Juncker had chosen the timing well: a few weeks after the American election, a few months after the Brexit referendum.

Joint Procurement and “Pooling and Sharing” of Capabilities

Political will and financing by the EU budget are not sufficient to create an integrated army. Despite all the efforts made since 2000, the national armies of the member states continue to have major difficulties in using integrated structures. And Europe’s defence market remains seriously fragmented.

For a long time, the creation of a military headquarters was rejected, mainly under British pressure. An embryo was finally established in 2016 under the form of a ‘Command Centre for EU military training and advisory missions’.

Efforts were made early on to integrate better force planning: the concept of EU ‘battle Groups’ was agreed in 2004: these are high-readiness multinational forces consisting of 1,500 personnel that can be deployed within 10 days and sustained for up to 30 days, extendible to 120 days with rotation. This concept however was more theoretical than operational: no battle group has been deployed until now.

But by far the main obstacle to progress towards a European army is the absence, until recently, of a co-operative approach to defense spending and investments. Most EU countries indeed continue to put the interest of their national industries ahead of European capability building, military cooperation and even interoperability.

According to the head of the European Defense Agency Jorge Domecq, Europe has six times more types of major weapons systems than the US. In 2016, for example, EU member states had 20 different types of fighter aircraft (compared to 6 in the US), 29 types of frigates (4 in the US) and 20 types armoured fighting vehicles (2 in the US).

A report published by the Munich Security Conference suggests that European governments could save almost a third of what they spend on military equipment if they decided to coordinate investments. Better planning, joint procurement and the pooling and sharing of defence capabilities would not only improve the output of military spending and save large amounts of taxpayers’ money, but it would also result in better inter-operability and increased effectiveness.

This is now recognized at the highest level and the political will is there to make progress. The changed geopolitical context described above encourages member states to increase their defense budgets. And the involvement of the EU budget through the European Defense Fund has been agreed precisely to help achieve a more cooperative approach on defence spending.

The European Defense Fund has two “windows”: one is for research, and is  already open. It could receive 500 million Euros a year as from 2020. The other window is for capabilities. It will act as a financial tool encouraging participating member states to purchase certain assets together – for instance drones or helicopters, to reduce their costs. The capabilities would be agreed by the participating member states, who would  own the technology and equipment. The “capability window” might receive up to 1 billion Euros per year after 2020 but, since the programme should leverage national financing with an expected multiplying effect of 5, it could generate a total investment in defence capability development of €5 billion per year after 2020.

Another initiative has been taken recently to encourage co-operation among member states: the “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO), a tool included in the Lisbon treaty but left dormant. PESCO commits its members to jointly plan, develop and invest in shared capability projects and develop a coherent full spectrum force package. This co-operation, based on legally binding commitments, was intended to start with only a few countries. But when the final decision was made in December 2017, 25 member-states (all except Denmark, Malta and, of course, the UK) announced they would participate. Since then, 34 projects have already been launched, covering areas such as training, capability development and operational readiness in various fields.

*   *   *

I leave to military experts to define what a ‘European Army’ really means – notably at what level national forces should be integrated and how strong the command structure should be.

But the most important condition to consider is the strength of the consensus among the participants on strategic objectives. Indeed, a fundamental obstacle to the creation of a European army remains – and will remain for a certain time – the fact that EU countries continue to have, for various historical and geographical reasons, conflicting strategic priorities.

The evolution towards a European army will be slow but incremental, as it has been until now for all elements of the European “construction”.

The pace of progress will depend on the cohesion of the member states – which is not very strong for the moment. It will also depend on the international context – the evolution of the threats in the EU neighbourhood but also the evolution of the transatlantic relationship.  If the European army needs to be able to operate alone, without the support of the United States, defense spending at national level will need to be well beyond the 2 % of national GDPs.