Could European Army go it alone?

    WORLD  27 February 2024 - 23:00

    Newsweek carried an article about the idea of a European or European Union army, Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    A pipe dream, a fantasy—just two of the phrases bandied about whenever the idea of a European or European Union army resurfaces.

    This time, it was the Italian foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, who prodded the conversation awake again. "If we want to be peacekeepers in the world, we need a European military," Tajani told Italy's La Stampa newspaper in early January. "This is a fundamental precondition to be able to have an effective European foreign policy."

    The idea is bound up in complications from the get-go. There is no harmony on even the terminology—would this be is a European force, or one only open for European Union members? Would it be an army, or a fully-fledged military with all the capabilities that come with it?

    "It's never really come anywhere near anything real," former NATO official Edward Hunter Christie told Newsweek.

    But times are changing. War has raged in Ukraine for two years, and many NATO countries, including EU member states, have had a nasty wake-up call about lax defense spending. "More effort, money, and risk appetite is needed in Europe, a continent where most allies have yet to grasp the cost of security," argued the Center for European Policy Analysis in late November.

    Comments from former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, fuel the fire. Speaking during a rally in South Carolina in February, the GOP favorite suggested the US would not shield fellow NATO members falling behind on defense spending.

    In fact, he would "encourage" Russia to strike at the US partners, Trump said.

    The words were an unwelcome and anxiety-inducing dash of cold water to the US European allies. With just a few sentences, the potential future US leader undermined NATO's Article 5, the bedrock of the alliance.

    Trump's remarks pull the vague conceptualizations of an EU or European army back into the light. If NATO's dominant nation turns away from the commitment to defend any country in the alliance with all its might, Europe needs a way to protect itself, and it could need it soon.

    "This is a more severe warning shot than we've had in quite some time," Christie told Newsweek.

    Yet without the dramatic collapse of NATO's credibility, or the death of the alliance as we know it, there's very little chance of a formal European army coming to life. There's no incentive, and European NATO countries are broadly eager to keep the US as tied to continental defense as possible. If NATO still works, a new European army could step on the alliance's toes, or undermine it.

    Others are more optimistic that NATO and a European military force could coexist in harmony. Washington has been pressing European nations to invest in defense capabilities for decades, and would rejoice at Europe building up its own stocks of what the US currently provides for the continent, Kurt Volker, former US Ambassador to NATO, told Newsweek.

    NATO and a European military "can work toward the same goal, and should work towards the same goal," he added.

    The EU itself seems to think the same. "A stronger and more capable EU in security and defense will contribute positively to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to NATO, which remains the foundation of collective defense for its members," the bloc has said.

    Trump's comments aside, the signaling from the US is that Washington may want Europeans to spend more on defense, but it is not abandoning Europe. In the past few months, the US signed several Defense Cooperation Agreements with countries including Denmark and Sweden. Unless there is a major shift with the US and NATO, the decades of uncertainty and indecision on a European army are unlikely to come to any kind of resolution.

    What Would a European Army Look Like?

    "Defining what a European army would be and what it would look like is the first hurdle in making a move towards a functioning European Army, and is a hurdle that is difficult to pass," said William Freer, a research fellow with the U.K.-based Council on Geostrategy.

    "The theory sounds great, except that the theory always founders on the rocks of reality," retired US Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus, told Newsweek on the sidelines of a lunch event organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation during the Munich Security Conference in Germany.

    Two main options emerge for a European military. Each state could disband its forces, funneling its military strength into a larger, common super-force. Experts are skeptical—national interests and deep attachments to sovereignty will likely always prevail.

    "It's very, very unusual to try to merge your armed forces with those of another state," Christie said.

    Or the member states could offer up a chunk of resources to a common pool, much like how NATO operates. There's more precedent, too; there is already an EU military staff, Germany and the Netherlands have integrated brigades, and outside of the E.U., the U.K. has the Joint Expeditionary Force with a litany of states like Latvia, Norway, Estonia and the Netherlands. Pockets of regional cooperation exist, such as Nordic Defence Cooperation, also known as NORDEFCO, and some form of European military could build on pre-existing structures.

    The EU already has battlegroups, or units of around 1,500 personnel from different nations, with their deployment only greenlit by a unanimous decision from the European Council.

    But even the EU concedes its failings. "Issues relating to political will, usability, and financial solidarity have prevented them from being deployed," the bloc said.

    Ultimately, "there's no consensus," said Ed Arnold, research fellow for European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank.

    EU vs. NATO

    The critical consideration is where NATO stands. In a world of a strong NATO, a European army woven in EU structures "would risk duplicating not only the role of NATO forces but also the bureaucracy" without offering any additional military strength to Europe, argued Freer.

    It also puts countries that are part of both NATO and the EU in a tricky position, said Christie. "They all have slightly different opinions about where the biggest effort, or what the priorities should be." The big drivers of military reform and innovation in Europe often lean more towards NATO than European military frameworks, Mathieu Boulègue of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Newsweek.

    With the UK leaving the bloc after its 2016 Brexit referendum and Finland and Sweden moving into the NATO alliance, "the idea that the EU is a valuable place to talk about defense matters has actually dropped like a stone," said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and former NATO official.

    Without NATO, the calculations around a European military are somewhat easier. The EU or a collection of European countries could use the bones of the alliance for the skeleton of a new, European force in NATO's image.

    "But it may struggle to inherit the role," Freer said. "A European army would look like NATO without the US and so it could not possibly hope to fulfill the same role without a massive increase in defense spending from European states."

    The US has shouldered expensive military burdens in Europe for years, including providing logistics, airlift, communication, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. Without the U.S, European countries would have to provide this themselves.

    "Right now, there's no European military that can conduct sustained, out-of-area combat operations," Alberque told Newsweek.

    The EU knows this. "Persistent underinvestment and insufficient European cooperation have created substantial defence capability gaps," the European Defense Agency conceded in November 2023.

    The US leads NATO because it has the capabilities that few others possess for all sorts of operations, from refueling, space-based intelligence, and logistics to other enablers, Volker said. "It all comes down to capability."

    With NATO still in the picture, then, an EU or European military is more likely to be shorthand for upped defense spending across Europe, and the continuation of pushes already in motion to bring EU countries in line with NATO's target of 2 per cent of GDP for defense spending. Global defense spending hit a new record of $2.2 trillion in 2023, increasing by 9 per cent, according to the IISS think tank, largely motivated by the Ukraine war.

    NATO is in the midst of a real push for its members to hit the 2 percent threshold, although it remains to be seen which countries clear the bar come 2025.

    But the acknowledgement that Europe is behind is there. "The European Union urgently needs to assume more responsibility for its own security by acting in its neighborhood and beyond," the European Parliament said in a resolution in April 2023.

    Who Would Lead?

    Without Washington to prod along major defense decisions, the picture of leadership of an exclusively European force is murky.

    Without a clear leader, there's no one to sift through the complicated dynamics at play and push through changes. "Gaining consensus is really quite difficult," Arnold told Newsweek, particularly in a "fragmented" Europe.

    The default leaders would traditionally be France and Germany. Crucially, France would be the only nuclear power, but experts note that in any European military, there would need to be frank, clear discussions about just when Paris would be willing to leverage its nuclear arsenal for the protection of the group, and exactly which states it would defend.

    Germany now lacks the capability and credibility to be at the forefront of a European military force of this nature, Alberque said.

    But Poland is ascendent, a burgeoning eastern military power on the eastern flank, staring down Russia. Warsaw has been pouring lots of money into defense, set to soon become "the largest and most capable land army" in Europe, Alberque said.

    A strictly EU force would mean discounting the U.K. and its nuclear deterrent. "The UK would want to help shape how this European army was established," and most European countries would court British involvement, particularly for its naval power and nuclear weapons, Freer argued.

    Ultimately, with the UK out of Europe and the likes of Finland and Sweden committing wholeheartedly to NATO, "the idea of a European military structure separate from NATO makes less sense than it did a year ago or two years ago," Alberque said.

    But "the time is never wrong" for Europe to knuckle down and build up its defense capabilities, Volker added.


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