The idea of a EU defense cooperation is everything but new. Up until now, the most relevant form of defense cooperation among most of the EU member states has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (also known as NATO) since 22 European member states took part to the organization (along with some non-EU countries among which the USA).
An important aspect that needs to be taken into account is the relation between a potential EU military defense system and NATO. Opponents of this program, argue that the safety of Europe is already taken care of by NATO. If this is true to the extent that the North Atlantic Organization aims at guaranteeing peace among its members and defending member states from attacks of external countries, it’s also true that only a part of European countries is within NATO. At the same time, the organization has much wider geographical range of intervention (as it includes for example also the US and Canada) which makes it more difficult to focus mainly on EU issues requiring a common strategy focused at the European level.
When asked whether a common military force would interfere with NATO, J.C.
Juncker answered: “[A common military force] should be in complement with NATO, more defense in Europe doesn’t mean less transatlantic solidarity”. In this regard, it’s important to point out that the Lisbon Treaty refers to NATO in article 42. This article states that defense policies cannot prejudice obligations of those member states whose common defense policy is realized in the NATO framework.
Recent instabilities called for further cooperation with respect to military defense. Among these we have migrant crisis,
fight against terrorism and Russian threats. As for the migrant crisis, there’s the need to strengthen controls on EU external borders with the primary objective to prevent illegal migration (e.g. prosecuting smugglers’ networks) and saving lives (rescue operations). As for the fight against terrorism, it’s necessary to have a strategy based on further cohesion between security services in all different member states and a EU army would be a key actor involved in granting security around Europe.
Considering the Russian threat, it’s necessary to have a European defense system protecting eastern countries and Europe as a whole.
At the same time, a EU army –regardless of its actual size- can be seen as a powerful statement towards nationalist movements in member states since it would show an interest from the EU institutions to directly enhance security of European citizens.
For such reason, the common army proposal was seen positively also by some eastern “Euroskeptic” nations which saw themselves onboard with the project as this would be a guarantee of EU strongest nations’ help (mainly Germany and France) against Russia’s threat.
Another hint of the right timing for a EU army can be seen by looking at article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty mentioned above which states that “The common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides”. According to this article, the consensus of all member states is necessary in order to implement a common EU defense. The country that most of all opposed the creation of an EU army was the UK, claiming that there is no need due to NATO. In the aftermath of Brexit referendum in June 2016, although Article 50 has not been trigged yet, things changed in this context, making the EU army seem more possible.
NATO Alliance direct contributions. Cost share by member states in millions of US dollars, 2012.
Moreover, the recent US Presidential elections, in which the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump was elected President, make a stronger EU defense coordination more urgent for two main reasons. First, it increased the Russian threat over Europe mentioned above, due to the newly elected US President’s good relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Second, during his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump questioned current alliances with his European partners and with the NATO. As a consequence, the restrictions on a EU Army due to NATO are lifted and the existence of the only current practical military protection of Europe is endangered since the US is currently the country that contributes the most to the NATO budget.
Possible issues that could be criticized to a potential EU army can concern more practical aspects. For example, the advent of a EU Army at the current situation could imply a duplication of costs because of same structures present at national level and at the EU level. Such duplications can be avoided by single member states deciding to notably reduce national armies (i.e. giving up national state’s monopoly on the use of power). If, on the one hand, such decision is not politically easy since the monopoly of use of power is a fundamental feature of sovereign states, on the other hand it would bring economic (but also strategic) benefits that might counterbalance the loss of sovereignty. A second relevant problem related to a unified army is linked to cultural/linguistic barriers. Considering that the European Union is made up of countries having different cultural identities, this hardship is quite obvious. A possible solution could be army training programs at the EU level in order to have cultural cohesion, such programs could further strengthen European identity and EU cultural integration. An army at the continental level would also call for a legislative cohesion regarding the use of armed forces. Such need could be solved by delegating EU institutions with the -almost exclusive- power of defining legislation regarding internal and external defense. This shift of authority would create the necessary legislative integration to ease the facing of issues such as terrorism and border control since, due to the free movement of people (one of the major achievements of Europe), we need continental-scale interventions.
A concrete recent achievement was the launch of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency in early October 2016. Although longer times for implementation were expected, the recent migration crisis and terrorist attacks (Paris and Brussels) called for an immediate solution. Even if at a first glance the resources invested seem scarce -in terms of money and personnel- compared to those of other powers (e.g. USA), we need to consider that EU inputs are to be added up to national military resources of all member states. Moreover, this first achievement has a
European Border and Coast Guard launched on October 6th 2016
strong symbolic relevance since it’s a major step towards what can be considered a superstate. The Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos commented this event: “From now onwards, the external EU border of one member state is the external border of all member states- both legally and operationally”. From these words we can have an idea of the importance of the European Board and Coast Guard Agency for the future development of the EU.
Plans about the future strengthening of EU defense cooperation include the creation of a single European headquarter and structure of command, proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker. Considering that all EU members actually have national military forces, there’s the necessity to organize them aiming at developing a decision-making body and clear chain of command in order to guarantee greater security. Other plans, mainly backed by France and Germany, include the creation of a European military academy as a way to build up a European spirit within national militaries. As we’re still at the first steps towards a EU defense cohesion, there is the possibility of resource scarcity in terms of staff and funds- as it happened for the European Board and Coast Guard Agency- however, once the building blocks are created it will be possible to have a powerful force.
If we think of the origins of the European Union, they can be dated back to the post World War II period. During these years, European nations had to deal with the destructive aftermath of the war and the idea of a cooperation of countries was mainly aimed at ensuring peace and prevent nationalisms. So far the EU satisfied this objective and this effort was rewarded with a Nobel Peace prize in 2012 since “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe". A strengthened European defense system (including a common military force), can be seen as the ultimate instrument to reach the objective of ensuring peace within the continent especially since it has been threatened by recent events.