Around the centennial commemorations remembering the end of World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his calls for an EU army — an idea not new to the European defence and security debate.
In 1950, France pushed for the creation of a European Defence Community, later known as the Pleven Plan, but the ambitions were put on ice when (a different) French government voted against the initiative four years later.
Multiple proponents have tried to revive the idea, including former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French Prime Minister Alan Juppé, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others. The 1992 Maastricht treaty introduced a common security policy and the 2007 Lisbon treaty laid the foundation for a theoretical European defence architecture. That sees tools such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) working alongside institutions such as the European Defence Agency and the European Defence Fund.
The EU and its member states have advanced their cooperation on common defence and security policy over the last two decades, motivated in part by White House rhetoric on common defence spending and capabilities within NATO. President Trump has taken common American criticisms of European defence spending to a new level by voicing the idea of pulling out of the organisation.
President Macron’s words were quickly endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her speech to the European Parliament, raising the vision of ‘a real European army one day’. However, she refrained from proposing anything concrete other than a European security council that might make faster decisions.
As many have pointed out, certain measures and tools are already in place in terms of an ‘EU army’: EU battlegroups were formed 2007 but have never been deployed due to political unwillingness and a lack of unity. Like these battlegroups, an EU Army would need a majority in favour of deployment (if not a unanimous decision), leaving a big question mark over the concept’s viability.
Equally, Merkel’s proposition for a European intervention unit sound surprisingly similar to the European Intervention Initiative (also referred to as EI2) which Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK agreed upon in June 2018. EI2 offers the potential for coordination between participating nations to respond and collaborate militarily in situations of crisis.
Missions and operations with civil-military or military mandates have been launched as part of the EU’s common defence and security policy in the past.
Another positive development has been the increasing integration of some parts of the EU member states’ defence forces and increasing multinational cooperation. There are a number of multilateral brigades between Germany, Denmark and Poland, and bilateral brigades between Germany and France, and Germany and the Dutch.
This daily collaboration increases interoperability and capabilities and allows for better resource-application. All of those side-effects benefit the EU’s security and defence capabilities and improve NATO’s preparedness.
In short, the creation of an EU army any time soon is very unlikely. National governments of EU member states are reluctant to give up on coordinating deployments and engagements of their defence forces, and there are differing national legal requirements.
Rather than attempting to revive old debates of visions without proper suggestions of design and organisation, EU members could try to eliminate current challenges that create hurdles in closer military cooperation across Europe, particularly the issues of troop and arms movement across EU territory. Diplomatic clearances also vary immensely between the member states.
Former US Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges has for years advocated for a ‘military Schengen area’, mirroring the agreement that has abolished almost all of the EU’s internal borders.
Note: Jacky Westermann is a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.