EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

On March 6th, the joint meeting of foreign affairs and defence ministers came to an agreement on a Military Planning and Conduct Capability which will coordinate three training missions in Somalia, Mali and the DRC. These three missions are quite small and mostly serve as a test phase for the new institution. Next year, the coordination might be expanded to other missions like the Sophia mission against human traffickers in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the joint meeting discussed the possibility of using the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a cooperation structure that was established by the treaty of Lisbon. PESCO was envisaged to enable some of the member states to cooperate more closely on a voluntary basis, but so far has not been used. The meeting also further explored the possibility of the use of Coordinated Annual Revue on Defence (CARD), which aims to streamline budgetary cooperation between member states. Federica Mogherini stated that “The global environment invites us to take more responsibility and the way to take more responsibility in defence and security is through the European Union.”

The three areas of cooperation seem to be the first step in bringing the various European armies closer together. Until last fall, most member states did not show much interest in using these tools, but two major developments changed the game. Firstly, Brexit removed the issue of Franco-British disagreement on the exact set-up of any European Defence cooperation and its position vis-à-vis NATO. Secondly, the oscillating attitude of Donald Trump towards NATO creates uncertainty about the future of the alliance, which urged European leaders to think more seriously about setting up a European Defence cooperation. Already in September at the Bratislava Summit, the 27 remaining member states showed a commitment to pursue more cooperation in the area of Defence. So it seems that most of the European leaders have a keen interest in a true European cooperation on Defence, but for now, the cooperation remains limited, and it will be a long time until we can really speak of a true European Army, not least because of the many difficulties in setting up such an unprecedented military cooperation. Mogherini herself also explicitly stated that this proposal should in no way be seen as the intention to create a common army, and it is questionable whether the Member states have the political will to do so anyway. However, the Council and the Commission are clearly heading in the direction of more cooperation.

These developments raise many questions, both short- and long term, whether European Defence cooperation or even a European army is really the right way forward. In the short run, it is true that some cooperation will bring some much-needed efficiency into the European defence budgets. As Mogherini rightly pointed out in her remarks on the meeting on Monday, “I always say these two numbers, on the one side, Europeans invest 50 per cent of the United States, but our output is 15 per cent which means we can work on the economy of scale and improve the way we spend together better.“

However, a deeper kind of cooperation would be a more ambitious and expensive project. It remains to be seen whether the national leaders will be able to garner the political and financial support for such a project, when already now almost none of the NATO member states fulfil the budget goal of 2 percent of GDP.

This also begs the question why the European NATO members cannot simply integrate and try to fulfil their obligations within that framework. Perhaps more importantly, this kind of unprecedented cooperation will have to navigate intricacies of both national and international law, which will be difficult enough on its own. And whereas the UK, as the staunchest opponent of a European substitute for NATO, is no longer a barrier, the exact position of the European cooperation vis-à-vis NATO is still a complicated issue. Closer defence cooperation could potentially contribute to the EU’s geopolitical power, which could enable it to better influence conflicts like the ones in Syria, Ukraine and the Caucasus, where so far Russia and the US able to outbid the EU and dictate their own geopolitical will.

Having one standing army could add some teeth to Europe’s foreign policy, but it remains questionable whether European leaders will have the political will to use those teeth. In any case, agreeing upon the command structure and power division of any such army will likely be difficult. Who will take the decision to deploy troops will be a major political struggle, and because of the many differences in opinion between member states on issues such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the Middle-East, the potential for protracted disagreements and schisms seems overwhelming..

In the short term, more cooperation might streamline some efforts and increase efficiency, but it would likely also create problems. For instance, what happens when soldiers under the European flag are wounded or killed because of a mistake from a commander under orders from the European Commission? The public outrage will likely be directed at the EU, possibly causing another crisis to deal with and diminishing the argument that the EU brings peace.

Additionally, aside from the budgetary and practical questions, a more long-term existential question looms: Do we want the EU to be a geopolitical power? The forging of a European army (or at least the continuous integration) will likely put the EU on equal footing as the other major powers in the world as a geopolitical player to be reckoned with. But should the EU really take on this role? It would lock itself in geopolitical competitions with other powers and more importantly, giving up its normative strength in return. It is simply not in the DNA of the EU to become a geopolitical power. Quite the opposite in fact, the EU was meant to bring peace to a war-torn continent. Putting an army at the head of a peace that project would be quite counterintuitive. The fundamental nature of the EU does not suit the idea of military cooperation, and vice versa. A European army would not have a clear purpose, because it is in conflict with Europe’s current geopolitical alignment as well as its role as promoter of peace and democratic values.

As it stands, the prospect of a European army seems distant, and it is not clear that it will ever materialize, at least in the foreseeable future. Trumps presidency may be over after 4 years or even less and experience shows that agreement on large cooperation projects such as these take many years to reach. But this does not mean that European lawmakers should not consider the implications of their proposed policies, even if they don’t go beyond tighter cooperation. They should ask themselves what Europe should look like in the future, and the direction they take now has a crucial impact on that.

Emiel Dijkman







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