French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent call for the creation of a ‘true European army’ was dramatically echoed by German chancellor Angela Merkel in mid-November and has brought the debate over a shared European military back into the public eye. This may mark a watershed moment in European politics. The debate has never been far from media headlines during the European Commission Presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, but as the past four years have seen seismic changes in global and European politics, the advent of a true European military seems now to be more likely than ever before. With the United Kingdom’s imminent departure from the Union, increasing instability in the transatlantic relationship, the fear of Russian military encroachment, and a worsening EU-Turkey relationship, the question in EU institutions increasingly seems to be not ‘if’ a European army ought to exist – but ‘when’ and ‘how’.
The call by Macron for a ‘true European army’ marks a significant shift in tone in French attitudes toward the idea of a shared European military. Whilst European military cooperation has existed since the Union’s foundation, the concept of a single, unified military was considered something of a taboo subject. However, with Merkel’s statement on 13 November in Strasbourg seeming to intentionally echo the language used by Macron, Europe could be seeing the first unambiguous signs of a much more cohesive Franco-German approach to a European military project than has historically been the case.
There were indications that a significant sea change in European attitudes toward shared defence was coming; the signing of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement by twenty-three of the twenty-eight European Union Member States was a watershed moment in European history and politics. In brief, whilst PESCO did not directly establish a European army, it did create unprecedented binding obligations for formal security cooperation between Member States, and contained pledges for increased defense spending across the Union that might ultimately lay the foundation for a European army in all but name. The groundwork for “permanent structured cooperation” between Member States in military affairs has existed since 2009, and since 2003 thirty-four joint missions by EU Member States have taken place under the auspices of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). However, PESCO’s signing into effect may well be seen by future generations as the harbinger of a European army given the unparalleled cooperation in security and defense to which it aspires. Enshrined within PESCO are binding plans to develop joint rapid reaction forces, new state-of-the-art European drones and armoured vehicles, and the creation of centralised European military logistics and medical command centres among other shared projects.
It should also be noted that PESCO is not the only avenue for developing military cooperation above and beyond the usual joint missions taking place under the CSDP framework. In February 2017, the Czech Republic and Romania contributed soldiers and materiel to a growing multinational military division led by Germany. This was not an unprecedented development – the Netherlands had previously contributed two army divisions to the same multinational brigade under the Bundeswehr. However, the fresh expansion of the multinational military unit led by Germany sparked media controversy for appearing to silently constitute and assemble a European army in all but name under German control. Naturally, this development gave fuel to another controversial issue at the heart of the European army concept: the issue of sovereignty.
A Franco-German Rival to NATO?
One of the earliest criticisms of the European army concept was the issue of who would hold overall command of an EU army. In other areas of EU governance, both France and Germany wield what some might consider disproportionate influence within the EU institutions. Critics of the European army concept have often expressed concern that PESCO represents a Franco-German attempt to dominate European affairs in the military sphere and rival NATO’s competencies. However, it is worth noting that – at least publicly – it does not appear that either PESCO or the proposed European army are intended to rival NATO, but rather to complement it, as Chancellor Merkel indicated in her Strasbourg speech on November 13. Indeed, whilst public discourse between President Macron and President Trump has lately been particularly scathing over the issue of NATO and shared European defense, it should be remembered that the USA plays a crucial role in European defense. Political spats between European and American leaders are unlikely to undermine more than half a century’s collective security entrenchment, particularly when the American establishment prioritises its interests in Europe’s defense.
The true goals of PESCO and the European army project – for lack of a better term – are far more likely to be as just as much political as practical. Neither Macron nor Merkel are unwise enough to challenge NATO outright with their own pet defense project; both are very aware that the USA through NATO is wholly invaluable to European defense. However, after two years of increasingly unstable transatlantic relations and upheaval in European politics, the European army project – backed by PESCO’s legislation – provides an ample opportunity. Macron and Merkel can push greater European integration to the top of the political agenda and maintain domestic political leverage at home in Europe. At the cusp of the European Union’s first loss of a Member State, and the chaotic resurgence of far-right nationalist parties across the continent, rhetoric about European defense – and particularly legislation following in its wake – is thus much more likely to be a beacon for increased integration and top-down unifying efforts of an increasingly fragmented Union. The utility of common defence as a mechanism for establishing a new sovereignty structure and boosting integration should not be forgotten when assessing the recent Franco-German calls for a European army, nor should the potential unifying role PESCO could play in European politics be ignored, particularly in the wake of the United Kingdom’s departure.
This is not to say that PESCO should be considered solely a political tool for greater European integration – clearly, it is intended to improve European military cooperation and provide further funding for defense efforts – but the very fact that it appears to mirror NATO’s priorities should indicate that it is intended as a complementary, not competitive, mechanism to supplement NATO. As for a true European army? PESCO very likely is the forerunner to just such an entity. Although, as Chancellor Merkel said herself, it will be some time before such a force is definitively established. However, the watershed moment mentioned at the start of this article has certainly arrived: with French and German voices synchronised on this subject, and Brexit looming, it is no longer a question of ‘if’ a European army will be developed, but ‘when’. The blueprint for a European army has been clearly laid out; now all that remains is to determine whether its existence will constitute more of a political statement than a practical military force.