This paper originally appeared in the New Direction, The European Journal at https://newdirection.online/the-european-journal/article/why_an_eu_army_is_a_bad_idea_we_dont_need_a_political_bloc_of_the_unwilling)
By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow
The re-election of president Macron will give a further boost to the idea of an “EU Army”. Over the centuries there have been many attempts to put together a multi-national European army, always under the leadership of one nation and for military purposes. Wellington’s army at Waterloo had more German-speaking soldiers than English. It also included Dutch, Belgians, and many other nationalities. But the current idea of an EU Army is an entirely different project. It has little military value. Its purpose is essentially political – to further European political integration. Far from being a multi-national coalition it is intended to absorb national capabilities into a single Defence Union under the auspices of Brussels. The idea of a European Army without American involvement has been a French obsession since the 1950s. To provide some additional justification, President Macron developed the terms “European sovereignty” and “EU strategic autonomy”- two essentially meaningless but inevitably divisive concepts that can only please Moscow.
You might argue that it can only be a good thing if the Europeans step up their defence arrangements. But this has little to do with increasing military muscle. It is not the answer to the plea by successive US presidents for the Europeans to do more on defence. NATO is well established, well proven and credible. 27 of its 30 member countries are European, including 21 that also happen to be EU countries. So why create another structure?
Any EU force would have to draw on the same limited military resources and would be a duplicative, divisive distraction. EU ambitions already intrude into NATO where coordination structures between the two organisations have now been set up, in spite of the fact that their membership is largely the same. The EU wants to become the European leg of NATO – so where would that leave key non-EU European members of NATO such as the UK, Norway and Turkey? In any case, the EU countries can’t even agree among themselves. Many pay lip service to the idea of CSDP while refusing to participate in any meaningful way. Even the arch-federalist European Parliament, in its most recent report on EU defence, noted that “in over 15 years of existence EU battlegroups have never been used, in particular due to the lack of political consensus among Member States and the complexity of implementation and funding…”
At NATO HQ in the early ‘90s, the French were already pushing for European military capabilities separate from NATO. When the Bosnian crisis began they demanded that the matter should be discussed not at NATO but ‘in another place’ – by which they meant the Western European Union (WEU), a purely European group whose headquarters was just down the road in central Brussels. As a consequence, nonsensically, two allied navies operated in the Adriatic and Mediterranean, one under NATO command and the other under WEU, with more or less the same ships rotating between the two. Once the Bosnian military operations got more serious, even France gave up on this farce and backed the NATO option.
And imagine if the fate of the Ukraine had been left to the EU leadership in Brussels or the French or German governments with their ambivalent relationships with Moscow. Less than a month ago Berlin was refusing to send heavy armour to support the Ukrainians, while both France and Germany were found to have been supplying some €300 million of military equipment to Russia. It has taken the example of the UK, along with front-line nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic, to set an example by providing desperately needed military aid to Ukraine.
There may well be occasions when the US might not wish to get involved in some particular crisis but the best military and civil response should be discussed around the table with all NATO allies. In recognition of this and in order to encourage greater effort by the continental Europeans, the idea of a “separable but not separate” European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) was floated at the NATO Ministerial in Berlin in 1996. At this time France was not part of NATO’s integrated military structure (which it left in 1966) but it remained a member of the NATO alliance and of the crucial North Atlantic Council where it continued to demand flattery of its vanities. It even retained a seat on NATO’s top-level Military Committee, albeit as an ‘observer’. It insisted that ESDI was inadequate and somehow managed to get its way. Nothing short of a separate military capability under EU political control would suffice. The WEU was soon absorbed into the EU.
Arguments are made that limited European resources would be more effective if integrated. This has become one of the EU’s main selling points for EU defence. It sounds plausible – but if you add up the defence budgets of 26 EU countries (Denmark has opted out of EU defence) you arrive at a figure of approximately $200 billion (2020) or 1.5% of the accumulated GDPs of these countries. The US spent about $800 billion, which is some 3.7% of GDP. And you certainly do not need EU involvement to create joint forces with allies. The history of purposeful coalitions goes back centuries. In recent times, under NATO, we have had the 14-nation ACE Mobile Force, the UK/Netherlands Amphibious Force, and the German/Dutch Corps as examples of closely aligned national formations. All this has worked perfectly well. There is no need for EU involvement – unless of course your motives are political rather than military.
But wouldn’t it make sense to seize the advantages of economies of scale and procure military equipment together? Again, that happens anyway for a variety of reasons. You don’t need the EU to get involved. There are examples of both successful and failed collaborations. "Successes" might include the Anglo-French Jaguar and the Tornado and Typhoon fighter projects. Most spending on defence equipment in Europe has been by just five countries, most notably the UK, but the UK, of course, is not now an EU country. Collaboration is usually inefficient but it opens the way to a bigger defence market. That’s the key. But many in the EU would like to close off their defence market from outsiders. That would rapidly run foul of those countries who want to buy US or British or other equipment. Even Germany has just announced its intention to buy US F-35A fighters.
The most profound case against a single EU Army comes back to the degree to which the nations of Europe wish to retain their national independence. You cannot get closer to the bone of national sovereignty than over the status of national armed forces. I doubt that the citizens of many EU countries would be willing to see decisions about conscription, about the deployment and use of their troops, about fighting on or surrendering, indeed about life and death – handed over to Brussels. Remember, a highly significant distinction between NATO and the EU is that NATO decisions are inter-governmental, they are taken consensually by representatives of the governments of the NATO members. The EU is a hybrid organisation where governments have handed over certain powers to the EU Commission. At this moment EU defence and military matters are still largely in the hands of member country governments who can exercise a veto. But there is now strong pressure for such military decisions to be taken by a majority vote. If this were to be conceded then Brussels would rapidly be in the driving seat and national capitals would be increasingly side-lined. Certainly the European powers need to increase their spending on defence. But this does not mean handing over strategic decision-making and their military to the EU. What is needed is a revitalised and reinforced NATO, an enhanced coalition of the capable, resilient and willing, not a political bloc of the unwilling.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a Distinguished Fellow of the Gold Institute for International Strategy, former British Conservative Leader and Defence Spokesman in the European Parliament and Founding President of New Direction. As a former senior military officer he was a counter-terrorism specialist, served in the front-line of the Cold War including 5 years in Berlin, and at NATO headquarters.