Global diplomacy has been stirring with chatter about a pan-European military. A unified European defence force, how would that be? Just imagine that; after centuries of fighting, an eternity, really, European nations come together under one banner to vanquish the forces of evil and fight for Human RightsTM. At least, that is what France’s President Macron seems to have in mind when he re-kindled the old conversation last week. In two interviews and at the Armistice Day commemorations, he called for a “real European Army”, and as a first step, an effective European intervention force. This is in line with Macron’s fierce pro-European agenda, that won him a bruising election last year. Earlier today, Merkel threw in her lot with Macron, speaking to the European Parliament. Referencing the parting European Commission President Juncker, she voiced her general support for a European Security Council that “complements NATO”, not undermines it. If there seems to be political enthusiasm for the project, why not make it happen? Well, there are multiple reasons. Three obstacles would need to be overcome before European defence can be harmonised further and an EU army can become a reality.
The first one is that the US-EU relationship would need to change drastically, and with it, the NATO. US-President Trump took quite a bit of offence at Macron’s initiative, accusing him of making the message for publicity reasons. While he might not be entirely wrong with that judgement, Trump’s answer was also ambivalent. On the one hand, he repeated his demands that European countries meet the 2%-of-GDP spending goal to NATO. On the other hand, he reassured Macron that he wants them to stay part of the US’ protection umbrella no matter what.
Before anything happens to advance Europe’s common defence dreams, a clear American impulse is needed. Either the EU decides to back away or not – and that depends on Mr. Trump. Because frankly, Frau Merkel, any European defence cooperation would rival NATO by design.
The second obstacle to an integrated EU army is purely emotional, but no less real and valid. European politicians and citizens, too, would have to be okay with, for example, a Dutch officer commanding Belgian forces. Or imagine an even more explosive mix; German generals steering Polish troops. Traumatic memories of violence in the 20th century are still determining public consciousness in many states. Consequently, surrendering such a delicate part of national sovereignty like army control is out of the question for many politicians and civil societies. I cannot think of anything to change their minds right now, considering the reborn nationalist vigour in many countries. At its design’s core, “the global order is still Westphalian at heart. It’s nation states making the important decisions.”, a NATO official explained to the MD, “Therefore, an intergovernmental organisation like NATO will be the way to go”. Nation states are simply not ready yet to delegate this much sovereignty to the EU and instead, will prefer to work via unanimity and compromise.
The third obstacle is of financial and political nature. Macron echoed Trump in calling for more military spending by Europeans. To Macron, arms purchases should be done at European companies, though, not American ones, as Trump envisions. Funny that France has a huge weapons manufacturing industry. Nevertheless, the political appetite in the EU for more spending is, well, fluctuating. Some commentators even argue that the topic is always brought up when leaders have no other solutions to more pressing Union issues. While Merkel supports the vision after she was reluctant in the past now that she has announced her departure, she has by no means unanimous backing in Germany. Some politicians agree, some do not, and the public generally does not like the idea of more military spending. Macron’s pro-European agenda is also not universally loved, and as his ratings are in the gutter, his re-election is not guaranteed. However, a European Army would be a project for the decades. Contrastingly, NATO is not going anywhere soon, and as many security crises loom on the global stage, it is likely politicians will prefer stability over reform. If the current discussion shows anything it is that European leaders have become tired and weary of Trump’s impulses. We shall see whether that actually translates into anything radically new.