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Talks about the creation of a European army have been lingering ever since the creation of the European Union. In fact, such an idea was first proposed by Jean Monnet (one of the founding fathers of the EU) who came up with the idea of creating an army that enjoyed an own budget, weaponry, and a command shared amongst the six founding nations. Back then, all nations were in favour of Monnet’s plan; everyone but France, who eventually vetoed the proposal in its national assembly thereby marking the breakdown of the project.
The declaration of Saint-Malo (1998) epitomised the second attempt of moving towards the formation of an EU-force. This time, France changed shores and pushed for the federal army’s realisation together with the UK. At the Franco-British summit it was agreed that the Union needed the capacity for autonomous decision-making and action backed by credible military forces so as to respond to international crises when the Atlantic Alliance was not involved. However, the realisation of the goals proposed during the summit started to fade away with the passing of time – and so did all the subsequent propositions regarding this matter. A clear shift in Brussels’ military ambitions became visible with the so-called EU battlegroups. Developed in 2007 to face crises and wars in eastern Europe and the Middle-Eastern and North-African region, it soon transformed into a number of Advisory Missions that aimed at assisting countries at war with intelligence and tactical knowledge instead of military support.
There are several factors that tanked the creation of a shared European army. Apart from France and Germany, many other Member States do not see this plan as being a priority of the EU. An argument in their favour is that many are already members of NATO, an organisation that Macron described as being in a status of “cerebral death”, though others believe it is enough for guaranteeing the security of the bloc. What is more, the importance of military spending is key, too. Even though EU Member States have increased their share of annual spending meant for the defence budget, its military capabilities are not yet at the point that would allow Brussels a complete independence from the US. In addition, with Brexit, the main military power of the EU exited the Union. This event hampered even more the desire of the remaining Member States to pursue the realisation of the military unification of the bloc.
In more recent times, European defence has returned to the forefront, especially due to the role played by the US in the world. The EU started to lose faith in the Atlantic Alliance after Trump’s presidency managed to thwart most of Washington’s alliances due to his isolationist approach. Hence, veteran of a deterioration of the relationship with the US after the controversial presidency of Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels found itself in an unusual situation: lonelier than ever, yet with its future in its own hands. Having been left on its own by the States for four years has opened doors, or better, spurred the EU to find new ones to stay afloat in the developing new world order by maintaining and ideally augmenting its power. This situation explains the Franco-German desperate attempts to find a European common cause that would enhance the Union’s independence and, thus, security. Faith in the US as a protector further deteriorated after the recent fiasco in Afghanistan that unveiled how little prepared and reliable the States momentarily are to handle important challenges. The EU should not only perceive this as a red flag, but also the fact that the Biden administration is shifting its attention to the Pacific region to try to contrast the rise of China. This strategic swing means that Washington is giving less importance to establishing itself as the protector of the EU.
Although the need for a European army seems to be increasingly pressing, reaching an agreement on the topic seems to be equally arduous. EU treaties established that, in order to reach an agreement on matters of Common Foreign and Defence Policy, unanimity has to be reached amongst the Member States. Achieving such an outcome is extremely difficult, especially when talking about as sensible matters as the creation of a European army is. Questions arise whether it should be a symbol of ever-closer union, a moving gendarmerie to control the continent’s side-line, or rather a force that could beat off the very largest powers, such as Russia and China.
While Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s president, argued that she was leading a “Geopolitical Commission ”, Borrell suggested that the EU has to learn to speak the “language of power”. Both suggestions imply that Brussels has to take on a more autonomous role in the international scene, though it is questionable whether it is succeeding in its attempt. In fact, the only effort the Union has undertaken so far has been putting emphasis on the already existing acronyms PESCO (Permanent Structured Co-operation), EDF (European Fund) and E21 (European Intervention Initiative) without engaging in more concrete actions. Producing bureaucracy instead of battalions seems to be the strongest asset of the EU so far. Yet it has to be understood that the time is ripe to undertake real efforts that would guarantee a European military independence; not doing so could cast a shadow on the EU that might bring to an end the leading role it used to play worldwide.