Europe Is Ready for Its Own Army

As the United States retreats, the EU is shaping its own military.

German chancellor Angela Merkel talks to brigadier-general Ullrich Spannuth while watching a NATO tank unit at the military training area in Munster, northern Germany, on May 20, 2019.
German chancellor Angela Merkel talks to brigadier-general Ullrich Spannuth while watching a NATO tank unit at the military training area in Munster, northern Germany, on May 20, 2019. Christophe Gateau/AFP/Getty Images

The phones at the White House switchboard are ringing nonstop. World leaders are jostling to get through to congratulate a newly reelected U.S. President Donald Trump. Trumpism is no longer a blip or a political aberration of the natural order but the new political direction. An emboldened President is determined to continue his policies with renewed vigor and ensure his legacy is entrenched in this new world. A world where the United States no longer wishes to be the “world’s policeman.” A world where an American president declares NATO, the cornerstone of American defense policy since World War II, obsolete. A world where political instability is used as leverage to extract monetary contributions or trade concessions from nominal allies. A world where the political base of the president of the United States regards the Kremlin as a closer ally and friend than any American of a different political party.

Four years ago this would have been a pretty tenuous premise for an alternative-history fiction film. Today, that world is very real. And European leaders are already thinking about how to cope with a scenario where they face a resurgent empire to the east, and a fading—and no longer friendly—superpower in the west. Under these conditions, a real European army could emerge for the first time.

The first question for Europe in a post-American world is the place of NATO. NATO itself best understood as a modern day incarnation of the Delian League in ancient Greece—perhaps better recognized today as the “Athenian Empire,” but nominally an alliance of equals. Athenians encouraged both their own public and their allies as a meeting of equals underpinned by common interest. In the same way, the political reality after World War II required the United States, as the “leader of the free world,” to present NATO as just this kind of alliance of mutual benefit between equal partners. But the United States, like Athens, was the dominant military power in this arrangement by a wide margin, and the United States called all the shots.

For their part, the “free world” enjoyed the Pax Americana for the nominal fee of the statutory (if often skipped) 2 percent of GDP defense spending, and by contributing auxiliary troops to NATO deployments. Not a bad deal for countries which had had enough of war, and which very much preferred to focus on rebuilding after World War II, both physically and socially. And if individual countries fell behind on the fee schedule, the United States used to take that as further confirmation of its preeminence, and was willing to overlook it in exchange for some other favors off the books.

The incumbent U.S. administration clearly does not want to pay for its empire any longer. It believes the time has come to cash in on the edifice built by the previous generations, even if—or perhaps especially if—this destroys it in the process.

The subject nations have not been too thrilled about it. But Europe’s loss will not be the United States’ gain. This was never a zero-sum game—as U.S. policymakers used to understand. Europe got peace and the scope to build social democracy, and the United States gained prosperous markets, political authority, and a substantial military buffer zone against Russia which meant that the U.S. core would never be under direct threat, no matter what else happened in the world. Trump’s statements have undermined all that.

The United States still has military bases all over the world and significant troop deployments on NATO’s eastern borders, so it could still intervene to stop, for example, direct military aggression against NATO members from a resurgent Russia. Washington can still choose to project power in the region as it pleases. But if European NATO countries cannot know for certain that the United States will do so in any given circumstance, they must now start taking the idea of defending themselves seriously. In effect, Trump has granted Europe its political independence. European leaders, foremost among them French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have grasped the new reality with a speed that should alarm policymakers in Washington.

Some quarters of Europe, most prominently in French defense circles, have long aspired to a continental military force powerful enough to grant Europe a degree of autonomy in global affairs proportionate to its population and level of economic development.

France has resisted the temptation to offload its security entirely onto the Americans all along, and has maintained a unique and outspoken degree of independence even within NATO. France has its own, highly developed arms industry and runs its own missions and deployments, notably in Francophone Africa, without asking anyone for permission. The French army is almost never not at war somewhere, officially or otherwise. France coordinates European defense projects where it alone lacks the capacity to sustain an entire sector, as in the case of airpower (Airbus) and space (the European Space Agency).

So it should not be surprising that France has been the first to call for the formation of a European army. What is new, is that most other Western European countries agree, and most significantly that Germany agrees. Merkel agrees, former German Defense Minister and incoming President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen agrees, Merkel’s appointed successor in the German center-right Christian Democratic Union party agrees, and Germany’s main center-left party agrees. That last is especially unusual—the West German left has been the most opposed to anything military, for obvious historical reasons. But a European army would let Germany project power without getting into the constitutional and political mess of reconfiguring the Bundeswehr itself, a strictly self-defense force.

There’s a traditional division of roles. France is the muscle, Germany is the money. The union of the two is a game changer.

Even so, the establishment of a European army is far from a done deal. The main problem comes down to different views of the European project. Some, like the British, have always seen it as an economic project first and foremost, and only unfortunately also having a political dimension on top. Others have always seen it as a political project whose main aim is peace on the continent, and where economic integration is just a means to that end. For some the union is just a platform for cooperation between sovereign nation-states. For others, some degree of meaningful sovereignty is only really achieved when the small nation-states of Europe pool their legal prerogatives together to achieve real power and leverage on the global stage.

This is a problem. The formation of a European army is as consequential to the reality of national sovereignty for the nation-states of Europe as the withdrawal of the U.S. empire from the continent is. Those who view the nation-state as the natural unit of sovereignty will be extremely wary of the scope and capacity of any proposed European army. In effect, the only way the formation of such an army will not impinge on national sovereignty is if individual member states retain their own separate forces with complete operational autonomy and each state has a veto on anything the European force might want to do.

With the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the formation of a European army would no longer be vetoed by the U.K. So that does increase the likelihood that efforts in this area will be successful. But the U.K. is hardly the only country in Europe which jealously guards its nominal national sovereignty. Poland and Hungary are quite likely to seek to block this initiative unless they have cast-iron vetoes on operational matters. Italy may soon join the chorus of skeptics.

But if done this way, the European army will be a largely meaningless project. EU foreign policy is already institutionally entrenched as weak and dysfunctional—deliberately so. The first commissioner for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton of the U.K., specifically defined the role as a weak one, in accordance to the Anglo-American view of deferring to the United States and NATO in all matters of European defense and foreign policy. And if a common EU defense policy were to be articulated to command the European army, that policy would have to be subordinate to EU foreign policy, and therefore also weak, dysfunctional, and fragmented.

Collective decision-making with 28 countries having to unanimously agree on a course of action in matters as sensitive as war and peace is just not a recipe for swift, effective action. Even outside of the nationalist awkward squad, how likely are countries like Sweden or Finland to vote for war in any circumstance short of an outright Russian invasion? Then there would be the inevitable national conflicts on how operations are conducted: Every country would want to avoid their troops serving on the front line, and every country would seek to be the one providing highly technical support—from a distance.

France and Germany already signed a preliminary treaty which aims to build a “common military culture” this January, and that was quite separate from anything to do with the EU.

That said, however, the stewards of the U.S. empire at the Pentagon can’t relax. Because while the first instinct for the Europeans themselves is to try and form a European military within the institutional framework of the European Union, nothing about the project inherently requires this. And when it comes down to it, a Franco-German army is unlikely to let Budapest get in the way.

The formation of a European army under the institutional arrangements of the EU would require EU treaty changes, which would have to be approved by all governments and legislatures in the 28 countries, and probably have to get approval from at least a handful of public referendums. Building the army through this path is already nigh impossible. And if it were ever to succeed, as we have seen, the compromises needed to persuade all stakeholders to come on board would render the entire project largely pointless.

But France and Germany already signed a preliminary treaty which aims to build a “common military culture” this January, and that was quite separate from anything to do with the EU. So the two core European powers have already set things in motion. No doubt, smaller Western European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg will volunteer to join any Franco-German initiatives as they develop in practice, and before long, most of the members of the EU will be signed up, as the project gains steam and establishes its credibility. That might eventually be integrated into the EU—but that’s a secondary consideration toward making it a reality.

It is still early days, but right now the political will is there to make all this happen. And so long as Russia keeps escalating in the east, and the United States remains an unreliable friend in the west, that determination will endure. If it endures long enough, Europe won’t just be a continent. It will be a military power that matches its economic clout.

Azeem Ibrahim  is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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