One hundred years have passed since 11th November 1918, when the greatest and bloodiest war the world has ever seen came to an end. For the following 20 years, the world apparently came together to try and stop such a tragic event happening again by creating the League of Nations. It quickly became obvious, however, that the organisation was defunct and not able to stop another World War. The league of Nations was the first attempt to unite the nations of the world. That idea seemingly stuck and eventually led to the birth of the European Union (EU). The EU has been fundamental in keeping peace on the continent but has not done so by standing still. First it started off as the European Coal and Steel community, with six founding members: Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. The idea was to bind Germany and France, who historically had been constantly fighting, so close that they would be deterred from going to war with each other. That first objective has been a resounding success. Following that came the European Economic Community (ECC), otherwise known as the common market in 1957, born out of the Treaty of Rome. From there, the EU has grown continously, adding new members every decade. The 90s were an important decade for the EU. In those years, the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) and the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) were agreed on, which saw the birth of the ‘four freedoms’, now a cornerstone of the EU and the creation Euro and Eurozone. The EU’s history was one of moving from strength to strength, with all the above policy changes and moves proving to be successes of varying degrees - I can already hear critics clawing away at this point and I in no way deny the many problems that exist. However, the Euro has become one of the most stable currencies in the world and is now considered a de facto currency for reserves behind only the US dollar. The Euro, for better or worse is undeniably one of the biggest currencies in the world. Furthermore, the EU has become a powerful bloc in International Relations as seen with the numerous free trade deals being agreed across the globe.
That brings us to European Union of today. The EU faces many challenges, has many critics and undoubtedly has many pressing areas that require attention. Yet, slowly but steadily a new item has crept onto the agenda. This item, like all the major changes before it, has the power to change the landscape of the EU once more. I am referring to European defence. Ever since the end of the Second World War, European countries and the US struck a deal that largely went like this: The US will provide Europe with a security umbrella, offering by far the majority of defence spending and protection of any one country in exchange for accepting the US as the de facto leader of the West, and allying themselves with the US, especially during the Cold War. The US became the closest thing to a world policeman that international relations have ever seen, backed by Europe and other Western allies. This relationship has lasted for a long time, and seen European countries grow significantly, unburdened by not having to have strong and expensive armies to protect themselves either from their neighbours, or other threats such as the Soviet Union and Russia.
In 2016, this relationship changed. As with so many other things, the election of President Donald Trump sent shockwaves and was the beginning of a change in the US-EU dynamic. This change includes trade (Trump’s threat to slap 25% tariffs on EU cars), foreign policy (the US pulling out of the Iran deal despite strong European resistance) and defence (Trump’s complaints regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) revolves around members not pulling their weight in contributions.) I have never hidden that I largely disagree with many of President Trump’s statements and policies but there is one area where we are largely in agreement; Europe is not spending enough on defence. Most EU countries are part of NATO and those who are not, such as Sweden and Finland, maintain close ties, have conscription and generally stay out for strategic and geopolitical reasons, specifically for their proximity to Russia. One of NATO’s guidelines is that each country spends 2% of their GDP on defence, something which Europe has largely failed especially in the last decade. In 2016, of the EU28, only 2 countries were spending more than 2% on defence, as the graph below shows.
To further qualify that statement, Britain, France, Italy and Germany make up 75% of EU defence budget. The point of this article is not just to point out the flaws in European defence but also to address what should be done. French President Macron is a big advocate for the EU to adopt new institutions regarding defence. As recent as the 6th November (earlier this month), he called for the adoption of a ‘real EU army’. Just what exactly is a real EU army though and is it the right option for Europe?
What is to be done?
The first option is for EU countries to increase spending. As has already been mentioned, 22 out of 28 countries are in NATO and each of those individual countries should strive to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. This could be helped along with a common defence budget. A form of such a budget does already exist. Introduced in 2017, the European Defence Fund’s goal is to ‘coordinate, supplement and amplify national investments in defence research, in the development of prototypes and in the acquisition of defence equipment and technology’. The fund is set to receive some 20 billion Euros in funding over the course of the next decade. I argue however that it is not enough. The 2% goal is a minimum spending target and preferably states would spend more. Of course, spending more money on defence is associated with potential war and distrust amongst nations. Nonetheless, EU countries have left this area or kicked into the tallgrass for far too long. Countries are no longer prepared or have the right structures in this case of war or invasion. If each EU country met the 2% target, a percentage of that budget could be sent straight to the EU defence budget. This budget could then be used to build foundations for stronger defence institutions. These institutions could direct EU military spending, especially regarding increasing integration and reducing duplicates across numerous states. The money could also be used to invest in key infrastructures such as strengthening cyber securities, fighting terrorism in Europe and pre-empting security threats rather than reacting to them. NATO already does a similar job at the moment; however, the majority of the funding comes from the US. I still advocate for a separate organisation which is specifically European. The funding would come and go to Europe, it would support the European project while not being politically toxic and would strengthen the core objective of the EU, that of maintaining peace on the European continent. An EU defence fund could also have unexpected benefits. Civic projects would also benefit from this as the EU could make investments in roads to allow for quick transport of military personnel to the crisis area. A lot of military technology ends up in the civilian market benefitting millions of people. More funding could therefore have widespread benefits beyond just the security sphere.
Having mentioned NATO and its structures numerous times, I think it is appropriate to explain the structures that exist and how a European Defence Agency and/or Army could either complement or detract from the Alliance. NATO was founded in 1949, as an alliance to ward of communism’s spread to the West, with the principal motive being anti-Soviet Union (USSR). Over the following decades it expanded, and the collapse of the USSR saw many former Soviet satellite states join the Western Alliance. The main attraction of NATO is article 5, which states that any attack against one member is considered to be an attack against all. The Alliance currently has 30 members and a lot of close partnerships with countries such as Finland and Sweden for example (both part of the EU but not NATO). Article 5 has only been triggered once, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The NATO budget is approximately 1.7 billion dollars, with 250 million for civilian budget and the rest for the military. Of this budget, more than a 1/5 is contributed by the United States. Another point of interest is that the total military budget of all NATO countries is just short of 1 trillion dollars, but once more the bulk is made of the US (67% in fact). To qualify this statement, it should be mentioned that the US has by far the largest military budget in the world. The nature of war has changed from sheer manpower to less personnel, more robotics, especially autonomous and this change of direction has also seen warfare into the arena of cyberspace. Accordingly, NATO priorities and spending are and have changed to meet these new requirements. This is an area where NATO and the EU could go hand in hand. EU defence agencies and funds would in many ways be welcomed by NATO. This is under the assumption that by establishing such institutions and foundations, EU states would be more inclined (or perhaps forced too by EU law), to increase spending on their defences, which even if it is split with NATO) would see a welcome increase in funds coming from other countries other than the US. Furthermore, it could go some way to mending the increasingly strained relations between the US and Europe (although that is a different topic to explore in itself). One aspect to assess, however, is if it’s possible to expand and build existing and new institutions to the point where an EU army and military budget can be created. For this part I refer to an interview that I held earlier this year in March with Alexander Stubb, ex-candidate for the EPP, the party expected to win and nominate the new commission president in the upcoming European elections in March. While the focus on the interview was largely on Finland, some of the questions focused on the EU and more specifically on European Defence. Below is an extract from that interview:
‘The first, is that it [the EU] is the strongest and most credible security alliance in the west. It has guaranteed peace in Europe since World War Two. Most members abide by European values including liberal democracy and fundamental human rights and also its natural for EU members states to be part of NATO because I think 22 out of 28 of the EU members are part of NATO. If you look at the EU population that’s about 94%. It’s the natural and most secure security alliance in the west’ (2018).
When asked more specifically about the idea of an EU defence, similar to that of NATO, Stubb replied:
It’s quite clear the EU has moved from what was called officially European political corporation to a common foreign security policy and from there to a common defence and security policy. Whether that will at end of the day will lead to a fully blown security alliance we don’t know but again but I do think we need to stress that all EU NATO member states rely their security guarantees on NATO plus we are not members of NATO but fully compatible with NATO as Finland is, we don’t have to rely on our European neighbours like others do.
I think we will see more development towards a more independent security and defence but we are still quite far away from the NATO command structures or strategic sites so it will take a while (2018).
I have included these extracts because as a potential future leader of the EU, these words could carry a huge amount of weight for the future of the EU. It is also interesting to analyse what Stubb said because from it arises a question that has not had to be answered yet but could maybe one day. If an EU country that is non-NATO gets invaded by a foreign power, would other EU countries come to their rescue. Stubb effectively said yes to this question and it is something I agree with. The EU would lose all credibility and would induce a crisis if members were allowed to be invaded, without any intervention, by foreign powers. The EU has done a great job at promoting peace from within but if the attack is from an outside threat then EU countries would be forced to intervene. Of course, in the case of EU countries that are part of NATO this is a moot point as the whole alliance is underpinned by the notion that an attack on one is an attack on all. However, this point then leads to another. If such an attack were to happen, how would the response be coordinated, especially in the case of non-NATO countries. Without an EU army at the ready, having multiple countries trying to coordinate quickly on an attack in their own backyard would be hard and potentially politically contentious. It is enough to look at the invasion of the Crimea and how uneasy EU leaders were. They were relieved that they did not have to rescue Ukraine because they are not part of the Western umbrella. That is a worrying sign for many reasons and leads to my final point to explore. Should there be a common EU army?
There are many reasons why a common EU army is unlikely to materialise in the short to mid-term. Firstly, as has already been mentioned, NATO already exists and is increasingly focused on diminishing costs and increasing efficiency, meaning allied armies can integrate easily. Despite President Macron’s wishes, creating an EU army would be an extremely hard sell. In a time, where Brexit, nationalism, populism, a retreat from globalisation and strongman dictatorships dominate national and international politics, further integration is a very hard sell. That is not to say that is not a good idea or one that won’t happen but rather that in this political climate it is simply not feasible. The EU needs to focus on far more pressing matters, while also trying to find a way to make the citizens of Europe fall in love with Europe again, rather than shun it for fear mongering nationalists. It simply is not the time to attempt such an initiative. A further problem arises from the message that creating an EU army would create. While it is true that the EU increasingly is concerned about their security umbrella that is underpinned by America, by making such an aggressive move it would signal to our allies (especially the US) that there isn’t enough trust and to potential threats such as Russia or China, as an overtly hostile move. To top all of this, if it is not implemented properly, the army could then be at loggerheads with NATO, especially in deciding who is command and where each organisations jurisdiction begins and ends. From all the doom and gloom I have just written about, it would come across that I am fully against an EU army. This is not the case. However, in a world with a threat in every direction, you must make sure that you can walk before you try to run. For the EU, that means stepping up cooperation, funding and laying the groundwork for such institutions before any real talk and action is taken towards a common European defence.
It will be many years and will take a lot of time and effort for a proper EU defence to be born, however that may look. I believe that some security dilemma will trigger a continent-wide debate that sees public opinion move towards more defence spending and creating and reinforcing new and existing structures. Personally, I would be in favour of a high defence budget contributed by all EU countries. This money could then be used to ensure that European defence systems that are on the frontline (whether that is physical, cyber or any other form) are modern and robust. The defence debate is one that will rage on continuously, but as Europe slowly wakes up to the fact that they have fallen behind, they must ensure that they change course immediately before it is too late. It is time for the EU to get serious about defence, whichever direction it chooses to take.