Following the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan which many have branded as shambolic, some European Union (EU) members will be looking for a way to challenge the US's military dominance and defence spending. With the US spending an astronomical $778 billion, many see the only solution to be the formation of a European army.
For hundreds of years, Europe was at war with itself culminating in the fight against ethnic cleansing and fascism in World War II. In the decades that followed this tragedy, Europe decided it must stop any further wars within the continent and the EU was created.
The idea of an EU army was first proposed by France in the treaty of Paris in 1952 between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany and the Netherlands. During the Cold War, the proposal took a backseat as the main focus shifted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) unity and the fight against communism.
After the 9/11 attacks, the concept regained traction as Europe began to feel vulnerable in the wake of new threats presented by terror groups like Al-Qaeda. In response to this, the EU joined the US to take down the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although, they did this as individual countries as part of NATO’s article 5 rather than a whole organisation.
In 2003, the first EU military operation took place in the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia taking over from NATO’s Operation Allied Harmony. The Lisbon treaty (signed 2007) says “the common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of common foreign and security policy”. This confirmed that defence policy, and thus the military, could be part of an ever closer union.
Could an EU army really happen?
Over the past decade, the idea of a European army has gained more traction than ever before.
One hurdle to its creation was the United Kingdom (where it only had 36% approval in 2015 when it was a member state) but since Brexit, that issue is no longer a consideration. Alternatively, this may prove to be more of a curse than a blessing as the UK was the biggest European military spender ($59.2 billion) in 2020.
In 2018 the Chancellor of Germany said (in a speech to the EU parliament) that “The times when we could rely on others are over” which mirrored Macron’s view that Europe could no longer rely on the US to insure Europe's defence.
Merkel went on to say: “We have to work on a vision to establish a real European army” suggesting that she wants nothing short of total military integration.
The President of France Emanuel Macron also said, in an interview with the Economist in 2019, that ”we are currently experiencing the brain death of NATO” suggesting that something will need to replace NATO, if western democracies hope to defend themselves. Even the EU's arguably most Eurosceptic leader, former Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, came out in favour of an EU army in 2016 which demonstrates its broad appeal across Europe.
Amongst Europeans, the idea seems to be fairly popular too. A 2017 Eurobarometer survey on security defence saying said that 55% of EU citizens are in favour of an EU army. This does differ from country to country, however, with the highest level of support coming from the Netherlands at 74% to the lowest level of support being in Sweden at 40%. No action is likely to be taken without unanimous consent and those leaders whose countries have the loaest levels of support may still be wary of consenting to any proposal.
Regarding the process of actually forming the army, according to common EU procedure a law would need to be passed for this to happen. First, the idea must be agreed upon by the EU council, then worked on by the EU Commission and finally passed by the EU parliament.
What would an EU army look like?
If the EU army was to become a reality, numerous components would have to be established.
Firstly, they would have to decide who would run the army. The director of the modern deterrence program at RUSI, Elisabeth Braw, said: “For a European army to happen it would have to have one centralised command”. This would mean that nations would have to give up more of their sovereignty to form (what Braw describes as) “a European government” that would decide when to act.
This raises the question of whether all military action would have to be as one or would nations be able to opt out of missions if they chose to. Angela Merkel believes that EU decisions should be taken by a qualified majority of member countries to prevent individual countries from blocking further integration and action.
Would an EU army be effective?
Would the EU’s trademark bureaucracy limit its ability to act quickly in the face of danger? Military decisions need to be made with as much information as possible in a timely manner. This is in stark contrast to the way the EU works now which was described as “too slow” by its own Council President Charles Michel.
Overall, details on what an EU army would like and therefore, how effective it would be are few and far between. If there is even to be an EU army of sorts, there will be many discussions and negotiations of what form it will take in the coming years.
NATO and the US
The picture between the US and NATO is complex with many different people falling on both sides of the debate.
Jens Stoltenberg (NATO Secretary) said that “we need to avoid any perception that Europe can manage without NATO”. Many in NATO hold the opinion that Europe needs to remain somewhat reliant on the US for its defence.
They point to the fact that the US spends 2.82% more on its military as a percentage of GDP than the EU, indicating it is much more of a priority for the US. Furthermore, only 3 EU states meet or exceed their NATO commitments according to the World Population Review. This shows a lack of military commitment amongst member states..
Within the US itself, opinion seems to be more moderate. Former US defence secretary under Donald Trump, Jim Mattis, expressed: “We in the NATO alliance, we see NATO as the cornerstone for the protection of Europe in the security realm and we fully support nations doing more to carry the load”.
This otherwise suggests that the US believes that Europe is better within NATO and would prefer the EU started to pay more towards its upkeep rather than forming a new organisation.
With regards to the Biden administration, Politico reported that a think-tank with close ties to the White House wants President Biden to “stop the US thwarting Europe’s ambitions on defence”. With a Democrat in the White House, the idea of an EU army may have become more acceptable than in the previous administrations. Furthermore, Biden may welcome the change in media focus as he is currently facing both a debt crisis and a border crisis.
To many, the concept of an EU army seems more likely now than ever. The lack of leadership in Afghanistan, the UK leaving the EU and its broad popularity amongst Europeans set the scene almost perfectly. However, many country's support for an EU army is below 50%. Not to mention, the possible political consequences of focusing on this issue rather than the aftermath of the Coronavirus crisis could be dire. It is unlikely any leader will push hard for this idea in the current climate.