It’s a sound idea to set up a European defence force, but the practicalities are daunting. Where does the EU’s territory stop, and can states agree on funding and rules of engagement?
France’s president Emmanuel Macron told Europe 1 on 6 November last year, ‘We will not be able to protect Europe unless we decide to have a real European army. Russia is at our borders and has shown that it can be threatening ... we must have a Europe that is better able to defend itself alone and in a more sovereign way, without relying on the United States.’ German chancellor Angela Merkel told the European Parliament on November 13 that the EU ‘should work on the idea of one day creating a real European army’. She repeated her proposal for the creation of a ‘European Security Council’ with a rotating presidency, in which important decisions could be made faster, and envisaged abandoning the principle of unanimity in this context.
That’s easier said than done. ‘European Defence’ is currently limited to coordinating the efforts of member states at a basic level. It does not organise the protection of EU territory (which has yet to be defined, since the union is constantly growing) and does not have a full-scale intervention force or a working military command structure, key features of any proper defence system.
The EU is split between the concerns of the Baltic states and northern and eastern European countries over Russia, and those of western and southern member states over the destabilisation of Africa and the Middle East, and has been unable to formulate a single strategy. Former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine says Europe has equated peace with happiness for so long that its leaders have fallen into ‘strategic lethargy’. As Christian Malis, a former strategic research director at Thales, points out, that is why efforts to establish priorities or identify common enemies have come to little more than ‘incantatory declarations and acknowledged failures’ (1). The end result is a ‘tiny military project pompously titled European Defence’, restricted to ‘exotic’ or ‘Petersberg’ missions (2), seen as ‘complementary’ to and constituting a ‘division of labour’ with, the US-led NATO, which effectively still has exclusive control of the defence of Europe.
Yet there are many arguments for increasing the EU’s military strength, including what Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former UN under-secretary-general, calls the end of Europe’s ‘ideological and strategic centrality’; the US geopolitical pivot to Asia, which means, as General Vincent Desportes warns, that ‘Private Ryan (3) will never again land on a European beach’; the expansion of the battlefield ‘from the Donbass to the Sahel, and all the way to the Bataclan’ (Desportes), blurring the line between defence and security; the vulnerability of society to terrorist attacks; and the soaring cost of long-distance operations, naval and aerial combat systems, missiles, robots, drones, mine warfare, amphibious and airborne operations, and electronic and satellite surveillance. In the very near future, there will be no national army in Europe with the resources to enter a theatre of operations or pursue a long-term intervention alone.
Brexit openings for the EU
Another argument is that Europe’s security architecture is crumbling. Within a few months, the US has withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia has withdrawn from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and does not plan to renew the 2010 New START arms reduction treaty in 2021. At the same time, Brexit opens up more possibilities for the EU as the UK has for decades opposed any project that could be seen as competing with NATO or inimical to the US, such as the establishment of a permanent EU military staff, or the expansion of the European Defence Agency.
We must have a Europe that is better able to defend itself alone and in a more sovereign way, without relying on the United States
There have been signs of change over the past two years, including the creation of a European Defence Fund with a budget of €13bn over seven years; the strengthening to 2,500 of the small military staff in charge of operations under EU or international mandates; the identification of 30 capability shortfalls to be made up, which will produce projects — including the MALE (medium-altitude long-endurance) drone — to be handled by volunteer groups of member states, under the Permanent Structured Cooperation policy; the launch of a €6.5bn fund to improve military mobility and the renewal of the European Peace Facility (€10.5bn) to support initiatives by partner countries, especially in Africa. These budgets will be available from 2021.
As yet, most of these projects only exist on paper. The European Parliament approved the budget on 18 April, but the way each will work has yet to be negotiated by the member states. Will access to the European Defence Fund be restricted to European firms, as French-style sovereignist political logic would require? Or will it be wide open, as advocated by Dutch Liberals, German Social Democrats, the Polish government and US officials, who have already threatened the EU with retaliatory measures if US companies are excluded? Hélène Conway-Mouret, Socialist vice-president of the French Senate, has condemned this as ‘a dangerous game to play with some of the US’s traditional and strongest allies’, claiming that the US is ‘trying to undermine Europe’s efforts to become more autonomous over security’ (4).
We will not be able to protect Europe unless we decide to have a real European army. Russia is at our borders and has shown that it can be threatening
Opening up the market, partly in order not to isolate the UK, could be a Trojan horse policy, allowing the US, Israel and even China to apply for EU funding earmarked for arms-related R&D.There is currently no ‘European preference’ governing the procurement of military equipment, which each member state does without reference to the others. Member states’ armed forces use 178 different weapons systems (compared with only 30 in the US), around 20 different types of armoured vehicle and three types of fighter aircraft. Out of a total expenditure by all European armies in 2017 of €227bn, non-European procurement is estimated at €25bn (5).
Made in America
Significantly, Belgium has just decided to buy the US-made F-35 fighter jet, rather than a European aircraft such as the Rafale, the Eurofighter or the Gripen. The F-35, adopted by a dozen EU member states, is just entering service, and is a defence budget sinkhole because of the conditions imposed on purchasers: a closed system, confidentiality requirements, software tying the user to its manufacturer (Lockheed Martin) and exorbitant prices. French defence minister Florence Parly told the Atlantic Council on 18 March, ‘NATO’s solidarity clause is called article 5, not article F-35.’
For now, the EU military staff has to be satisfied with training missions as it has no troops permanently at its disposal. In 13 years, the EU Battlegroups (each made up of 1,500 troops provided on a six-monthly rotating basis) have never seen action. A shortage of funds means that relatively sophisticated missions such as Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003) and Operation Atlanta in the western Indian Ocean (since 2008) would probably not be possible today.
The debate is now focused on equipment sharing programmes. But it remains difficult to achieve convergence of rules of engagement, schedules and strategic priorities between producer and purchaser countries. There are exceptions: the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, begun in 2001, is only now coming into service, because of launch delays and soaring costs ( (6). It was the same for the Airbus A400M Atlas military transport aircraft and the Eurocopter (now Airbus) EC665 Tiger.
That EU member states feel almost obliged to buy arms from the US is akin to a double punishment: besides depriving their own or their neighbours’ firms of business, it drains their defence budgets and they risk being left with ‘bonsai armies’ (7).
France, though its forces are among the largest and most frequently engaged in Europe, and the least dependent on international procurement, cannot afford simultaneously to modernise its nuclear deterrent, acquire a second aircraft carrier, pursue a space policy and build unmanned aerial combat systems. It would need to spend not 1.8% of GFP, as it does now, nor 2% (as President Trump and NATO demand), but 3%.
Given the political differences within the EU, there is little prospect of significant institutional evolution. At best, it may be possible to form a ‘European defence group’ on the margins ofthe EU treaties, like that formed to support the single currency. The European Intervention Initiative, launched on 25 June 2018 by nine member states (8) keen to develop a common strategic culture, could be a foundation for this. It would be a voluntary organisation, making decisions by qualified majority and based on division of labour among ‘framework nations’ according to national areas of expertise. The issue would then be coordination with EU institutions.
No common strategic culture
France and Germany — which now bear most of the burden of common defence — are far from sharing a military culture: Germany, because of its past, cannot imagine committing its armed forces without the approval of the Bundestag, which is not conducive to offensive action or rapid response. In Afghanistan, German troops focused on development projects, and German Tornado fighter jets were used only for aerial observation. France’s executive model, which makes it possible to go to war on the president’s decision alone, is unique in the EU. It guarantees a rapid response, but escapes almost all political control.
The EU should work on the idea of one day creating a real European army
Under the influence of the Social Democratic Party, Germany has imposed restrictions on arms sales and stopped shipments to Saudi Arabia. Until now, at least, France has been less particular, even when the Saudis commit war crimes in Yemen. It prefers to protect its arms industry, to ensure a minimum level of sovereignty and autonomy at national and European level. Forming a European defence group would also run up against the extension of France’s nuclear guarantee: with Brexit, France may become the only member of the EU with an independent nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council — which some German politicians want it to share.
Whether Brexit happens or not, the European security equation will have to include the UK. France and the UK, cooperating under the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, account for 80% of Europe’s military R&D and 50% of its investment in capacity, with mutually agreed dependencies in sensitive areas, such as forming joint expeditionary forces, developing missiles or conducting nuclear simulations. It may be necessary to find a way of including the UK in the defence and security treaty that Macron dreams of and which, he says, must ‘define our fundamental obligations in association with NATO and our European allies: increased defence spending and a truly operational mutual defence clause’ (9). Reduced to a series of variable-geometry alliances and arrangements, can European Defence be more than a lowest common denominator centred on declarations of intent and the interests of industry?
(1) ‘Autopsie de l’Europe de la défense: Entretien avec Christian Malis’ (Autopsy of European Defence: an interview with Christian Malis), Inflexions, no 33, Paris, 2016.
(2) The 1992 Petersberg declaration defines tasks for which military forces may be employed, including humanitarian and rescue missions, conflict prevention and peacekeeping, and crisis management.
(3) A reference to Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan (1998), which depicts the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944.
(4) Financial Times, London, 12 April 2019.
(5) ‘The sword and the marketplace: Europe needs a defence union to support its economic integration’, European Issues, no 486, Robert Schuman Foundation, Paris/Brussels, 1 October 2018.
(6) See Charles Perragin and Guillaume Renouard, ‘Europe in space’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June 2019.
(7) Frédéric Mauro and Olivier Jehin, ‘Why do we need a European army?’, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS), Paris, January 2019.
(8) Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK.
(9) Article published in European media on 4 March 2019.