Defensible Europe — How a European Army could work for everyone

Photo by Charles Clegg,
Photo by Charles Clegg,

Okay, I hear you. 
Europe’s economies aren’t in the best shape.  The Schengen free movement agreement, one of the EU’s greatest triumphs, is on the brink of collapse.  And besides the work of a couple of genuine statesmen, there appears to be little interest in the European Union at the moment.

Surely, given this context, a European Army is the last thing we should be contemplating at the minute?  Hmmm…

On top of the common belief that Europe’s in a bit of a mess at the minute, those against a European Army also put forward a couple of arguments.  Let’s run through them, and hopefully bust some myths while we’re at it.

First off, those against a military wing to the European Union suggest that having a supranational organisation to defend 28 countries’ interests would diminish the ability of those countries to look after their own national interest.

Fair enough, I hear you say, but the thing is European countries aren’t taking their military responsibilities seriously as it currently stands.  At the moment, only five countries (Cyprus, Estonia, France, Poland and the UK) spend at least 1.9% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on military spending.  That means the vast majority of EU countries care so little about their military that they don’t even spend the 2% of GDP that they (or at least some of them) committed to as members of NATO.

Did I hear someone say NATO?  The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is the elephant in the room when it comes to a European Army.  NATO is a supranational military organisation, composed of many European states, Canada, Turkey and, most significantly, the United States.  The unofficial motto of NATO is that an attack on one member country is an attack on all countries, which is great if you’re a small country in Eastern Europe fearing attack — you know that any potential aggressors will (in theory) get clobbered by the USA if they go too far.

But don’t take my word for it — this is what some European ministers had to say about it:

So — NATO is popular.
  A European Army, meanwhile, would be considered at best an annoyance that duplicates many of NATO’s functions, and at worst undermine NATO by creating a European Army without guaranteed American support.  To quote another Czech minister when asked about the European Army, “We already have NATO!”

The thing is, given how things stand in the world at the moment, a European military initiative not dependent on the United States could be exactly what both Europe and the United States need.

In recent years, the United States has shown remarkably little interest in Europe.  Despite the Russian annexation of Crimea and civil war in Ukraine, as well as multiple conflicts on Europe’s borders in the Middle East, the US appears to be continuing its ‘pivot to Asia’ in the hope of negating Chinese dominance in the South China Sea.  If the United States sees China as its main threat, why should it spend so much time thinking about Europe’s problems on the other side of the globe?

With its sights set elsewhere, it may seem slightly worrying to Washington that Europe disn’t taking much responsibility to defend itself.  As we’ve seen, European nations’ military budgets are dwindling — this can only be a boon for Russia, Islamic State and other potential threats.

A European Army, by contrast, would show Europe is strong and united in the face of adversity, while also keeping European military budgets at the same level.  By pooling intelligence, technology and manpower, the European Union nations can avoid duplicating resources with their allies (as currently happens).  This cuts costs while maintaining a strong military presence.  Above all, a European Army can work within NATO to strengthen it, by showing to the US that Europeans are taking their defence commitments seriously.

In addition to all of the above, a European Army would be a significant game changer for the European defence industries.  As Richard Basset argues in his recent pamphlet for The Federal Trust, the countries European arms manufacturers currently sell to (in the Middle East and Asia) are increasingly turning to their own manufacturers instead of Europe’s.  Large-scale, cross-border industrial projects between different EU states could be a way to offset this loss of business.  And the best way to facilitate this is to integrate Europe’s different military operations into one single European Army.

As Britain nears its referendum on whether to remain or leave the EU, the idea of a European Army is probably not one many would like to contemplate at the moment.  But it is worth thinking about — as with many other policy areas, the conundrum of how to square cutting military costs with defending national security can be solved using the EU, rather than cowering from it.  Together, the countries on this continent can build a defensible Europe.  Divided, the only victor is Putin.  And who could possibly want that?…

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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