The French call it l’Europe de la Défence. At first glance this seems to suggest, at least to non-French observers, a concept based on the complementarity and synergy of NATO’s military muscle and hard security guarantees, and the economic might and soft power (and capacity for resilience) provided by the European Union.
When it comes to Europe’s defence, hardly anyone doubts that new initiatives and political will are needed to strengthen our security in response to the substantially worsened security environment; despite this, many European allies still struggle to reverse the post-Cold War tendency of reducing their defence expenditures and military capabilities.
Actually, L’Europe de la Défense is neither new nor clear-cut. France advanced the idea of a European Defence Community (EDC) in 1952 (together with Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries) in the aftermath of the establishment of NATO and considering the US’s interest in rearming (West) Germany and including it in the Alliance. But largely incompatible ambitions and fears meant that France itself was unable to ratify the treaty it had proposed. French political parties and leaders wanted France to emerge as the leading nation in Europe, sovereign in its own security and defence matters, and independent of American political and military tutelage. France had also to be capable of restraining Germany economically and militarily (hence the offer of the EDC as an “alternative” to NATO membership), become a nuclear power, and play a major role in avoiding conflict with the Soviet Union.
In 2009, France finally reintegrated into NATO’s military structures after 43 years of absence, but only after successive European defence initiatives had failed to produce the results the French desired. For example, in 1998, France and the UK adopted at Saint-Malo a declaration that laid the foundations of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP – later to become the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP). This was followed by the Helsinki Headline Goal, a target set in 1999 for creating by 2003 a formidable European force of up to 60000 troops capable of intervening in any crisis where European interests were affected. At NATO’s Summit in Strasbourg-Kehl (April 2009), France retook its rightful place in the Alliance’s military structures, but President Nicolas Sarkozy had to pacify domestic political forces by promising to boost – in parallel – l’Europe de la Défense. The main focus then was on Europe’s defence industries, which needed consolidation (mergers and/or major joint projects) in order to remain competitive in the world armaments market. This also did not fully work out. The merger of EADS (now Airbus Group) and BAE Systems was abandoned in 2012, partly due to Germany’s doubt about the huge deal’s “industrial logic”.
The list goes on. Most notably, the EU’s battalion size Battlegroups (eventually augmented with some additional Combat Support and/or Combat Service Support elements) became fully operational in 2007, but have never been employed as instruments of crisis management (as perhaps they might have been in DR Congo in 2008, or in Libya in 2011). Some observers even regarded the EU Battlegroups as the embryonic stage of development of a “European Army”. The Battlegroups certainly helped to enhance military cooperation and interoperability among EU member states, but the lack of political will to use them has made the whole enterprise largely futile.
The EU’s CSDP saw a new wave of political enthusiasm and optimism in 2017, when the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) format was established, alongside the European Defence Fund, a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, and the Military Planning and Conduct Capability. One PESCO project that should be expected to actually produce real and tangible practical results, as well as advancing the far too long obstructed cooperation between NATO and the EU, is the military mobility initiative, begun in response to concerns originally raised by the former Commander of US Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges.
The most recent European defence project, the French-proposed European Intervention Initiative (EI2), does not fall under the EU due to French concerns regarding the speed of decision-making in the Union, reinforced by the experiences of the Battlegroups. France was joined in this by nine member states, including Estonia and Finland. EI2 clearly aims to attract more political and military support from fellow European nations for French operations, primarily those in the Sahel. On the other hand, contributors, especially those from NATO’s north-eastern flank, obviously expect the continuing support of France in collective defence missions, particularly the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), in return.
Against this background, the President of France Emmanuel Macron commented in a radio interview just ahead of the recent commemorations of the Great War’s Armistice, and the arrival in France of dozens of world leaders including US President Donald Trump, that a “real European Army” was needed in order to protect the Old Continent against Russia, China, and even the United States of America. President Macron surely did not mean that Europeans should fear aggression from their North-American Ally. He probably wished to suggest that Europe should both strengthen its military capabilities, and be ready to stand firmly for its political and economic interests whenever necessary vis-à-vis the US. Unfortunately he did not elaborate on his thoughts. President Trump took Macron at his word, called the statement an “insult”, and defended the transatlantic alliance. This exchange of views is even more bizarre, considering that President Trump was months ago repeatedly and loudly accused of pursuing a destructive policy towards NATO while European leaders, including President Macron, rushed to its defence. Not to mention that in arguing for a militarily stronger Europe, Macron was essentially pushing the same point as Trump, who has repeatedly chastened Europe for its lack of investment in defence.
France seems to be upset by the lack of political support from other European leaders, even if German chancellor Angela Merkel approved Macron’s proposition. An opinion poll by Eurobarometer in June 2017 showed that 75% of Europeans supported CSDP, while 55% even favoured a “European army”. Nevertheless, no one – presumably including those who conducted the opinion poll – really knows or understands what is meant by a “European Army”. If it means something along the lines of EI2, then there should no problem in continuing to develop this initiative, putting it into practice and attracting new contributors. However, EI2 is not an EU initiative, and the main pillars of EU defence policy, as they have been considered for decades, are well known: integration of the defence industries, increase of capabilities and interoperability through cooperation, and participation in joint operations under the EU’s aegis.
The EU will not have an army unless it develops into a United States of Europe, which, in spite of continuous integration, is very unlikely. NATO too does not have standing forces, just the armed formations provided by its member states for various operations and missions, if that is a consolation for the supporters of a “European Army”. European defence initiatives that may endanger NATO’s future have no chance of gaining support from those countries whose security and defence is very much dependent on the Alliance. The fact that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has also welcomed the “European Army”, in a way that antagonizes the US, is a clear indication of who has the most to gain from such an initiative.