A pragmatic approach to building a European Army

An argument in favour of merging the territorial defence forces of an inner core of EU member states

ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Imagine a group of experts was tasked to devise a security and defence structure for the European Union space, leaving aside everything they know about the history and politics of Europe. Their work would be based solely on a political map of the current EU and its neighbourhood, the Lisbon Treaty, and in particular its solidarity clause in Article 42. The group would be provided with dossiers on the security situation and developments in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhood as well as comprehensive information on the military balance in the wider region.

Europe’s current defence has no rationale other than the fact of its existence – it is neither adequate nor efficient.

Whatever designs the experts would come up with on this basis, the current mix of few larger armies and many rather small ones would certainly not be among them. The existing structure simply delivers too little effect and consumes too many resources. Taken together, EU member states still deploy around 1.5 million soldiers in far too many garrisons, equipped with partly incompatible weapons systems, inefficient procurement that is under the command of too many generals and administered by vastly oversized ministerial bureaucracies. Based on 2011 data, EU member states spent more on defence than Russia and China combined, second only to the United States, which spent about 2.5 times the combined European effort. Europe’s current defence has no rationale other than the fact of its existence – it is neither adequate nor efficient.

Viewed from this angle, Jean Claude Juncker’s remarks on a European Army seem plausible. Current efforts of pooling and sharing within EU and NATO have potential for efficiency gains, as family farmers in Europe have understood and practiced for many years now. But these are far from the defence economies of scale. Scaling up efficiency requires mergers, which means defence integration in political terms. This in turn puts the focus on the EU, since NATO is meant to be (and remain) an alliance of sovereign countries contributing nationally acquired and owned military assets to the common purpose. That’s the Achilles’ heel of Juncker’s proposal: NATO favours collaboration over integration, while the EU could deliver integration but lacks consensus over desirability or feasibility. Would such an army be built in the EU today, it could hardly be used given the differing military strategies, the various constraints on its deployment, and the diverging modes of parliamentary caveat.

Against this background, the immediate rejection of the proposal by the British government hardly comes as a surprise. Equally predictable, the German government coalition has responded positively. After all, Juncker’s vision could have been copied from the coalition agreement between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Furthermore, the ultimate perspective of a common defence is already written in the treaties – a component of an “ever closer” union. As such, a European Army as a vague and long-term goal is acceptable to both major parties in Germany. In effect, both responses from London and Berlin serve the same purpose, which is to end the debate before it can unfold.

The security of the Baltic states would be enhanced by fully integrating their defences, putting them under one command, implementing a joint procurement scheme, and ensuring common political control.

In doing so, both London and Berlin as well as other governments can avoid answering the question of how to seriously improve Europe’s defence. If they did, it would be impossible to bypass the military, industrial, and budgetary benefits of mergers in the sense of integration. Is there really a substantial argument to be made against fully merging the defences of Belgium and The Netherlands other than some political alienation in bilateral relations after the divisions of the Nice summit 15 years ago? The same question could be raised for Spain and Portugal. The security of the Baltic states would be enhanced by fully integrating their defences, putting them under one command, implementing a joint procurement scheme, and ensuring common political control.

Such partial mergers by way of integration could be implemented under the current treaties, making use of “permanent structured cooperation”. Neither obligations under the NATO-Treaty nor the requirements for UN peacekeeping would stand in the way. The same applies to collective defence: The EU’s solidarity clause (which incorporates the former Article 5 of the treaty on the Western European Union) extends beyond the wording of NATO’s Article 5. The collective defence of the EU’s territorial and political integrity has become part of the acquis; should its credibility be put into question, the legal and political cohesion of European integration would be lost.

If Germany was to take a decisive step into the direction of a European defence, it should propose to merge its defence in an integrated structure with Poland.

Merging the defences of smaller countries won’t be the real thing though. Integrating their resources with the potential of larger neighbours could be a leap forward. Germany is of particular significance in this respect. No other large EU member state devotes a similarly large proportion of its military resources to the traditional contingency of territorial defence. If Germany was to take a decisive step into the direction of a European defence, it should propose to merge its defence in an integrated structure with Poland. Collective defence would become a joint operation under one command and a single political decision, not subject to a veto from one of the two parliaments. Constitutions would have to be adapted accordingly. Insofar as both countries would wish to maintain military capabilities to be deployed out of area on the basis of a national decision alone, they would have to embed such units into the merged territorial defence force and fund such missions from the national budget. This way, France could be participating in a Polish-German defence union while maintaining its national nuclear deterrence and sizeable expeditionary forces to be deployed outside of Europe.

In light of existing military integration on troop level as is the case between Dutch and German ground forces, a Polish-German integration scheme should come with an invitation to neighbours to join; in particular, this would apply to the Benelux countries and the Baltic states. Participation of the Scandinavian EU members and Austria would be highly desirable if these countries could adapt their status in such a way to open a gap between EU solidarity and the obligations and commitments of their defence integration partners within NATO. This way, an integrated defence structure could be built, with one professional territorial defence force covering the territory of eight, or 12 or more member states. This army would be put under one command and a joint political control. It would have a single budget and a single procurement process matched by a single market for defence products. Deployment patterns would follow contingencies rather than national borders. Alongside such a territorial defence core, further layers of deeper cooperation could be added involving other member states of EU and NATO, for example on airspace and maritime surveillance air lift or intelligence and communications, all of which would add additional efficiency gains. Over time, as political consensus inside the core builds up, common approaches on missions out of area could become more frequent, ultimately reducing the need to embed separable intervention capabilities under purely national command.

Such a differentiated mode of defence integration inside the EU will not be utopian or vague but could be achieved over the coming decade. It would not weaken NATO but strengthen both the EU and NATO at a time in which the traditional alliance purpose has assumed a renewed meaning, i.e. to defend the territorial integrity, the political and social order against any armed aggression from outside. The term “European Army” evokes the odour of the 1950s and the failure of the European Defence Community. What Europe is in need of today is a Schengen approach to defence integration: ambitious and pragmatic at the same time, building on those member states which are engaged in deeper cooperation already.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow