The devil is in the detail — Can the European army come to life?

22 September, 2020

The European Union (EU) is versed in the recurring debates regarding the scope of European defence, among them being the creation of a European Army. With the lack of a proper framework, the concept of a united army remains fragile and uncertain. The existence of a European army seems even further a possibility, with Art.(2) par.(4) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) envisioning the national security as the ‘sole responsibility of each Member State’. Consequently, the ‘common security and defense policy’ (CSDP) is viewed as subordinate to the broader field of foreign policy, as a ‘common foreign and security policy’ (CFSP). Under this paradigm, the preoccupation for security is stuck in national parameters, leaving it up to European governments to improvise and try to converge the existing national ‘defense clusters’ in the eventuality of a threat. As the security environment has evolved and adapted to new types of threat, one must wonder if the archetype of fragmented military strategies and capabilities will suffice to maintain a secure EU.

In 2018, the EU seemed to be progressing towards the idea of having its own armed forces. The western public discourse was raising concerns about the United States‘ loosened ties with its European allies, under Donald J. Trump‘s unpredictable foreign policy. The French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the loudest voices supporting a ‘European Army’, endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The press was portraying this commotion as a stepping stone, a threshold that is finally left behind, as the European Union is ready to debate its options and consolidate as a self-helping power. The permanent structured cooperation agreement (Pesco) and its interoperability was receiving strong criticism for its shortcomings, with strong political voices asking for stronger military commitments. Unfortunately, most of the initiatives weren‘t daring enough to exceed the scope of boosting defence cooperation between member states and aim for a more expansive objective: defining and redesigning the European security paradigm as being collective.

It’s about time

After losing momentum for almost 2 years, the opportunity of discussing the scenario of a European Union army has resurfaced with the evolution of Brexit talks, the developments in the Middle East early this year, and even in the case of President Vladimir Putin‘s declaration of sending military support to Lukashenko‘s regime, if necessary. In these tumultuous times, it becomes clear that the current conventional framework of national security first is becoming obsolete.

The geopolitical playground demands a European Union that must end the reliance on third-party security guarantees, and take its place as a powerful participant in the international arena. Pushing Brussel‘s geopolitical function in the world is a much-desired objective by EU policymakers, especially when the current affairs call for enhanced crisis management and response capabilities. With the United States’ weakening its position as the forefront pillar in the Transatlantic Alliance, the European Union should capture the momentum and reaffirm its military capacities.

Familiarity breeds contempt

Until now, all the European military missions in Bosnia, the DRC, Mali, or the Horn of Africa, bridged together with the permanent intergovernmental framework and EU military bodies, have been led by forces made up of national Member States’ aggregated on an ad hoc basis. Although the ESDP is a crisis management and policy tool, the demand for proactive EU action and involvement is growing. While force alone doesn‘t help overcome all of the threats identified in the new Security Union Strategy, it definitely strengthens the position and capabilities of the Union, as it allows it to become a more strategic, independent, and powerful player.

The narrow range of scope and action of the current defence strategy is not the only obstacle for the EU securing a position as a reputable military actor. There are many  legal and technical matters that stand in the way of the fusion of the military aspect with the already interdependent Union. Commonly addressed criticism of the creation of a united army include, but are not limited to: the time-ineffectiveness of standardizing the already existent military forces, the existence of other similar but more effective initiatives, such as the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) and the stiff legal and institutional arrangements that would take years to change, in the eventuality of a willingness and a perfect consensus among the member states.

Concluding remarks

Member states should collide the efforts to assure a greater integration of every state in the field of defence. One manner of achieving that is to extend the Union’s competencies from focusing on a national security paradigm to a European security paradigm. The shortest route to achieving that is to create a new defence institution, from scratch. This institution would be assimilating the already-spread military, security, strategic and defense-oriented institutions and would operate as a vertical and horizontal efficiency enhancer.

A second option would be shifting the security paradigm from an individual, national security-centered system to a European collective security environment. Rome was not built in a day, and nor was the European Union as we know it. A prerequisite for any paradigm shift, especially one so delicate as a common European army, takes time, political will, and both internal and external triggers.

Even with the United States becoming more and more unreliable, with a troublesome Russia getting dangerously close to European affairs and China’s military build-up at a rapid pace, a sudden rupture in how European defence is perceived and constructed is improbable. Without a consensus on pooling resources for a greater security apparatus, some member states will claim the redundancy of united armed forces. A dilemma arises: how can the European Union be at the forefront of a secure Europe with its member states unwilling to commit to such a responsibility?

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