In an era of mounting rivalry between great powers, and with the Trump administration raising doubts over the America’s commitment to protect Europe, the recent declarations by French President Emmanuel Macron over the need of a “European Army” to protect the continent against Russia, China and even the United States have caused much political debate. But will there ever be a European Union Army?
The debate over the establishment of a European common policy on defence and therefore over the creation of a unified armed force is as old as the European integration process itself. The first step in this sense was came with the Brussels Treaty of 1948 which established the Western Union, an alliance that included the United Kingdom, France and the three Benelux countries. Knowing that their military forces would be insufficient to defend the continent from a Soviet invasion, one year later these and other countries (including the United States) formed NATO, which soon became the main collective defence pact in Europe. Still, the European countries wanted to increase their cooperation in defence in order not to be completely reliant on America. In 1952, France, Italy, West Germany and the three Benelux states signed a treaty to form the European Defence Community. This was an ambitious project that was supposed to create a unified European Army. However, it ended in a failure: the French Parliament did not ratify the Treaty and consequently it never entered into force; which is quite notable considering that today France’s Macron is calling for a common military structure. At that point, the European countries opted for a revision of the Western Union. In 1954 its founding Treaty was modified, transforming the organization into the Western European Union, which included the original members plus Italy and West Germany. This was essentially a political-military mutual defence pact, and did not include any plans for a common armed force. The WEU continued existing as a separate organization until 2011, when it was finally dismantled.
All these initiatives ran in parallel to the European integration process that would later create the EU, which back then was simply the European Coal and Steel Community and therefore had a primarily economic connotation. In 1957, its scope was enlarged and it became the European Economic Community (EEC), whose aim remained essentially that of creating a common market as a premise to greater political cooperation, but which had practically no military ambitions. But various international crises raised the need to at least coordinate the foreign policy actions of its member states. Because of this, the European Political Cooperation was launched in 1970. Yet, it was merely a mechanism to attempt coordinating the positions of members states on foreign policy issues. It did not devolve specific competences to communitarian institutions, did not oblige member states to comply with the decisions that were taken (provided a common agreement was reached) and had essentially no military content. After a series of other international crises in the late 70s and early 80s, the EPC was gradually improved and was finally renamed as Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that transformed the EEC into the European Union. The CFSP was one of the three pillars of the Treaty, something that signalled the willingness to do more on foreign affairs but also, and quite notably, on defence issues. As a matter of fact, the CFSP included the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), that was conceived as the crisis management component of the CFSP. Later, the ESDP was transformed into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in 2009.
However, the name “Common Foreign and Security Policy” is highly misleading, as seems to imply that such issues are treated via the communitarian procedures and therefore that member states devolved at least part of these core sovereign competences to the EU institutions; as it is the case with trade or agricultural policies. In reality, it is exactly the opposite: the CFSP remains under the intergovernmental procedure, so security and defence are still competences of single member states. As the EPC before it, the CFSP is essentially a mechanism to coordinate the action of EU members in security and defence issues.
Even though defence remain a competence of member states, and in spite of the fact that the EU is and wants to appear essentially a civil power, this does not mean that it has not its own military means. In particular, in the framework of the CSDP, the Union can deploy troops under its mandate for accomplishing the so-called “Petersberg Tasks”, established by the now-extinct Western European Union in 1992 and integrated in the EU’s juridical body since the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. These missions are essentially humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and crisis management, which includes peace enforcement. The decision-making procedure is based upon four bodies. The first is the European Union Military Staff (EUMS), whose task is to monitor international crises, evaluate the situation, raise the alert, plan operations according to the Petersberg Tasks, and in general to provide military expertise. On the basis of its assessments, a second organ (the European Union Military Committee, EUMC) advises the Political and Security Committee (PSC); which in turn advances its proposals for EU military actions that are ultimately approved by the member states via the Foreign Affairs Council, a particular formation of the EU Council. As of today, the EU has launched a series of missions abroad; notably in Africa, the Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these had a military nature and were meant to provide either peacekeeping or training; whereas the others were civilian operations.
The broader strategic vision upon which the whole of the CFSP is based (therefore including military operations in the CSDP framework) is defined by the European Security Strategy, whose first version was released in 2003 and that has been updated and enlarged twice in 2008 and finally in 2016. As a matter of fact, it is possible to note an evolution in scope through time. The 2003 paper was rather vague and simply presented the EU’s view on the world and its main threats (notably terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction). The 2008 version was essentially an update of the previous: it included more issues, notably energy security, but remains a declaration of objectives rather than a proper strategy. The latest document is the most complete one. It describes the challenges that the EU is facing in various domains and regions, notably in the Middle East and Africa but also in trans-Atlantic relations, in Asia and in regards to Russia. It also declares the EU’s objectives: to promote security, stability, prosperity, state resilience and the rule of law. A notable point to note is that it states that Europeans should take the responsibility to defend themselves and that they should be ready to deter external threats; adding that in NATO’s framework they must become more capable of participating to collective self-defence but also – and this is the most interesting part – to act autonomously if necessary.
This raises the issue of the coordination between the EU and NATO on security. By now, the matter is regulated by the so-called “Berlin Plus Agreement”, which can be summed up by the “Three Ds”: no discrimination, no decoupling and no duplication. In practice, they mean that both the EU and NATO can perform peacekeeping and crisis management operations, that non-EU states can participate to missions managed by the Union, and that if one of the two organizations intervenes the other will restrain from doing so. The EUMC ensures the military coordination between NATO and the EU. However, the Berlin Plus arrangements only regulate the interventions that fall in the scope of the Petersberg Tasks, as in spite of the declaration that Europeans must be able to act on their own that appeared in the 2016 EU Strategy, by now collective self-defence remains a prerogative of NATO, and the EU has neither the juridical powers nor the practical means for this.
Yet, the EU has its own military units: the EU Battlegroups. Established in 2005, the first of them became operational two years later, but have still not seen any actual action. The Battlegroups are multinational battalion-size units established at the EU level; in contrast to multinational forces created by member states outside of the EU framework but that can still be deployed for EU missions as well as for those of other organizations. The Battlegroups’ composition varies, but normally they consist of around 1,500 infantrymen plus support personnel. They are under the political control of the Council, while operational command goes to the “leading country” that gives the main contribution to the Battlegroup in terms of personnel and equipment. Non-EU countries can also participate. Today, a total of 18 Battlegroups exists, and they rotate on a six-months period so that there are always two of them ready for deployment. As of today, the Battlegroups are what gets closer to a EU Army, but they are essentially rapid intervention forces meant for crisis management operations and they are clearly not sufficient for protecting Europe from an external invasion in the optic of collective self-defence; a task that by now only be carried out by NATO.
Over the decades, the EU has slowly increased the capabilities and the scope of its military means, but its foreign policy tools remain largely civilian and it is still very far away from having its own armed forces. As a matter of fact, there are various challenges along this path.
The first are political and juridical: according to the norms introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty, giving the EU collective defence competences requires a decision of the European Council, which is an institution that acts by unanimity; notably for what concerns the CFSP and consequently the CSDP. Also, creating a EU Army would require a higher level of political integration and a common defence budget, which may exist in parallel with national ones or substitute them. This demands in turn to establish the rules related to drafting and approving the budget, to weapons procurement, to strategic planning and command, and others. Considering the political divergences and the different strategic needs of member states, reaching a common position on such matters is very difficult. For instance, other member states may likely oppose or at least refuse to support Macron’s EU Army project by interpreting it as a French-centric initiative aimed at expanding France’s influence and at pursuing its national interests in the EU and abroad.
Second, there are the actual military aspects. Having a single EU Army would require the coherent standardization of equipment, doctrines, practices, trainings, uniforms, denominations, and more. Again, given the different national priorities of member states, this is complicated to achieve.
Finally, there is the linguistic dimension: the number of idioms used in the EU makes creating a unified Army more complicated. This could be solved with relative ease by adopting a single “official” language for the military, but there would still be disagreements over which one to choose.
As such, it is extremely unlikely and probably impossible that a EU Army will be created anytime soon, if ever. At best, some progress may be made over expanding the number, size, capabilities and roles of the Battlegroups; which after all would already be a quite considerable achievement considering all the obstacles towards some form of collective defence. As the international context becomes more challenging, the EU member states may find the political willingness to deepen their defence cooperation, but this will surely be a long and complicated process.