European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently called for creating an army for the troubled European Union. Noting accurately that the EU isn’t “taken entirely seriously,” Juncker suggested standing up its own army “would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”
Juncker’s comments got considerable attention, as he is the top bureaucrat in Brussels and his suggestions carry weight, although he is a high-flying Eurocrat from central casting who lacks any strategic or military background.
Moreover, the notion that what the EU lacks is an army is misguided, since what an increasingly disarmed Europe is actually short on is the will to defend itself, as demonstrated by deficits in spending and thinking seriously on defense. What EU countries lack is political will and seriousness about defense matters, not a common army. Since the EU cannot manage to assemble a coherent foreign policy on any matter of substance, one wonders what an all-European defense ministry in Brussels would actually do.
The EU Can’t Handle Existing Military Resources
Just how bad things have gotten across the EU in military affairs has been laid bare by the Ukraine crisis. A decade ago, the EU began assembling multinational battlegroups of between one and two thousand troops to be deployed in the event of crises but, despite no lack of crises lately, no battlegroups have been deployed anywhere, so low is the EU’s confidence in their flagship defense program.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) whip-hand about defense spending has had little effect on the alliance’s European members—nearly all of whom are also EU members—as hardly any of them spend the notionally required 2 percent of gross domestic product on a military. Nearly four years ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a stern warning at Brussels, noting that low European defense spending was leading the Atlantic alliance to “military irrelevance” and a “dim if not dismal future.” Yet Gates’s caution that America, facing its own budget problems, was losing patience with parsimonious Europe in defense matters did not spur action.
Vladimir Putin’s savaging of Ukraine over the last year has concentrated some European minds, but not enough. Last summer’s alliance summit in Wales, in the aftermath of Moscow’s theft of Crimea, led to more promises about doing better, but only a small handful of NATO members spend the “required” 2 percent. There are positive developments—directly threatened by Putin, Poland and Estonia are on something of a spending binge, relatively speaking, while others ought to copy Lithuania’s restoration of conscription to deter the Russians—but the bad news is more substantial.
The erosion of military power across the EU is astonishing. For all its economic and political clout, Germany has hardly any deployable military to speak of, while even NATO stalwart Britain faces terminal military decline. The ability of British forces to join any United States-led coalition is now in serious doubt, thanks to deep defense cuts, while recent warnings that soon the British Army may fall to just 50,000 active troops, the smallest land force since London failed to subdue the American rebellion of the 1770s, has generated headlines.
Arguments for a European Army Lack Merit
There are arguments in favor of a European Army, and they are not new. At the onset of the Cold War, Paris in particular was worried about rearming a recently defeated West Germany, which the Americans wanted, and pushed for a unified military for Western Europe—de facto under French control, of course. Unsurprisingly, the project went nowhere when British and West German politicians realized the real objective behind any European Army, while the Americans were skeptical a from the start.
Certainly, developing common defense initiatives to save money on research and development and acquisition programs is commendable, but this is already happening and does not require a European Army. Most big-ticket items being purchased by EU militaries are already pan-European projects. A dozen European armies use the German Leopard 2 battle tank, while most leading EU air forces fly the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Moreover, creating a European Army, with national units no larger than battalions, does not guarantee any more coherent defense or security policy. National frictions will endure, no matter how Europe organizes defense. Here history is instructive. Multinational militaries are fragile things by nature, and require delicate political handling, not to mention that common threat pictures can be hard to come by.
For centuries, the Habsburg Empire managed one of Europe’s largest military machines, drawn from a dozen ethnic groups. While that fissiparous force held together down to the end of World War I in the autumn of 1918, it was not always efficient nor effective, despite important exceptions, and backbiting among ethnic groups was a perennial problem for Vienna. Worse, it’s hard to see how the twenty-first century EU, which has difficulty maintaining minimal political coherence in peacetime, would stand up to the rigors of even the smallest war, much less a major struggle against a resurgent Russia.
Individual Countries Need to Man Up on Defense
What Europe needs is seriousness about defense. While countries on the EU’s eastern frontier, who suffered under Soviet domination, have woken up to the new era of threats to the continent, many others have not. The Netherlands, which once had more than 400 modern Leopard 2 tanks, decided to take them out of service back in 2011, selling most of them off, since how could the Dutch Army ever need tanks again? Such short-term thinking, amounting to a kind of strategic stupidity, is a luxury a Europe that wants to survive can no longer afford.
Creating a European Army is a bad idea that would waste scarce EU defense cash on lavish headquarters and well-catered meetings, which are Brussels’ real acumen, so Juncker’s suggestion has generated much discussion. Moscow is no doubt excited, since for decades the Kremlin liked the idea of a European Army, which would not be under NATO (read: American) control, and such viewpoints still exist. Indeed, they are getting louder by the day in places like Germany.
The answer to Europe’s growing defense shortfall isn’t a European Army, it’s funding the armies European countries already have adequately, which means taking defense seriously again.