An EU army means different things to different people. Frances Cowell joins the debate about whether the EU should be working towards a standing army and finds that the answer depends on what you mean by an army.

The EU has grown used to indulging its aversion to military adventures, relying for its defence instead on a combination of the NATO umbrella, its soft-power – not least the prospect of trade with the single market and, in some cases, of Union membership – as well as its own and the diplomacy of its members.

Henry Kissinger was hardly the only person to understand that effective diplomacy can achieve only so much unless it is backed by hard force and, in an increasingly dangerous world coupled with less-than-staunch support from NATO, few people now disagree that it is time for the EU to defend its place as a global power.

What people do disagree about is what this actually means in practice. Some propose an EU army, for example, but what do they mean by that?

A standing army made up of EU citizens? If so:

  •  Alongside existing national armed forces or replacing them altogether?
  • Volunteer or conscripted?
  • What would its mandate be:
    • peace-keeping?
    • self-defence (however defined)?
    • offensive operations?
  • Who would command it and to whom would they be responsible?
  • Where would the kit come from?
  • How would it be funded?
  • Would it benefit from defence cooperation arrangements that existing European national armed forces now participate in?
  • What would its relationship be with NATO?
  • Would it contribute resources to UN military operations? In what capacities?

Et tu, NATO?

None of this makes an EU standing army a bad idea in itself, but how you answer these questions has big implications for the EU and its relations with the rest of the world, so they need thoughtful debate. Starting with NATO – which may be less straight-forward than it first appears.

While membership of NATO and the EU overlap, they are not identical: Albania, Iceland, Montenegro, Norway and Turkey are in NATO but not the EU, while Finland and Ireland are in the EU but not in NATO. For 25 years, the UK was a NATO member but not a member of what became the EU. NATO membership is thus certain to remain distinct from EU membership, with possible implications for procurement and cooperation within the two organisations, not least the prospect of some countries answering to two, possibly conflicting, commands.

The US has long complained that European NATO members have shirked their responsibilities, effectively free-riding by spending too little on their own defence and contributing too little to NATO. In the case of Germany at least, it is worth recalling that its modest defence capability is a legacy of the constitution imposed on it after WWII by, erm, the US. But that was then. Now German pacifism seems mostly self-imposed, and there are good arguments for it, too, to contribute to EU security, including militarily. Yet a glance at a recent NATO report will tell you that this gripe is now much less justifiable, with most members approaching or exceeding their NATO budget target of two percent of their GDP. The question remains is whether two percent is enough.

Popular European reluctance to spend more on defence may be due in part to an often-heard – and understandable – reproach, that a big – some would say the main – reason for America’s insistence on increased defence spending by European NATO members is to boost orders for military kit that happens to be supplied by mainly US firms.

But the biggest impediment to a standing EU army is probably not a question of money, but the perceived hand-over of national sovereignty that this would entail. Most governments would find difficult or impossible to accept or to persuade their voters to accept their armed forces being controlled by a foreigner, no matter how apparently benign. This may of course change, but until it does, a standing EU army seems out of reach.

But you don’t have to favour a standing army of any kind to be in favour of Europe assuming more responsibility for its own defence, and to help its neighbours maintain security.

A shade of blue

One can imagine a force to which member countries would delegate existing personnel and equipment, much as now happens with the UN Blue Berets. This may seem to answer some of the questions above, but this arrangement might not win popular support, given the mixed record of such forces, for example UN and African Union personnel being accused of violating the rights of civilians they are supposed to be protecting. Also, one can easily envisage this arrangement working much less well for combat operations than for peace-keeping.

Another solution could be where nations retain their – albeit beefed-up – standing forces, with a commitment to coordinate their capabilities, military procurement and training with those of other European Union members. This would entail frequent war games, as now happens with NATO, together with the ability to deploy specific resources within agreed time-frames for agreed types of operations, for agreed purposes in agreed locations around the world. Australia and New Zealand have managed something similar, largely without difficulty for over a century, in the form of ANZAC- Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. In Europe you would still have the thorny issue about how this sits with NATO, especially members, such as Turkey, who often do not see eye-to-eye with the EU itself or with one or more of its member states. But such a force would (need to) be inherently flexible and adaptable to a wide range of security demands in different configurations and in a wide variety of environments.

Any EU defence force that co-existed with national armies would need a lot of coordination between members – not least to avoid the situation where a member state must support two, mutually-incompatible, parallel capabilities: its own and its EU-ready arsenal. Coordinated procurement of military kit and training of personnel therefore seem obvious first initiatives toward a common defence force, and can start now.

This could benefit in other ways too: in addition to the security it would bring to the EU, reduced reliance on NATO would encourage purchase of European equipment. Given the high-tech nature of most military kit, bringing procurement home and scaling it up by pooling resources would be a boon for Europe’s tech innovators and high-tech manufacturers. It would also dove-tail with the challenge of combatting cyber-warfare, which demands similar skills in advanced AI and cryptography. These are challenges that the EU is well-placed to take up.

The nuclear option

To be credible, any European pretence to self-defence would need a nuclear deterrent. Assuming the UK does in fact leave the EU, as some insist it wants to, then either the EU would have to develop its own nuclear capability, which would prompt serious concerns from many quarters, not least environmental groups, pacifists (who might be persuaded of the need for a conventional force, but find nuclear capabilities a toy too far), and of course there would be major budgetary concerns: nuclear capabilities are expensive to develop, maintain, deploy and dismantle. There is of course the French Force de Frappe. But the French guard that jealously, so persuading them to hand it over to an EU command would demand some super-human powers of persuasion. No easy answer then, but the question will not go away.

And the Other Big Challenge? Cyber-security. Technologically one of the most challenging, but of all the challenges we’ve described here, politically it is may be one of the easiest, for at least two reasons. The first is that most member states, even those most advanced in this area are, in absolute terms, still only starting to get to grips with it. That means there are few legacy systems to dispense with or to try and coordinate, so the EU effort to combat cyber-crime can be fully integrated from an early stage. It is also an effort that can largely take place within member states’ borders, as it is mainly about sharing intelligence, technological competence and computing resources, which can be housed anywhere and everywhere. Popular support would be relatively easy to build and retain, as it can be presented as an extension of existing security cooperation efforts and it is seen as essentially defensive. Most people also accept that it requires massive investment, a burden best shouldered collectively.  As a bonus, the skills and technology to develop this capability are easily redeployed in other parts of the economy.

The EU defence force is an idea whose time seems to have come, whether it takes the form of a standing army or some other configuration. It is hardly a bad idea. In fact, it is such a good idea, that progress is already well under way, most obviously, with the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, which entails cooperation, harmonisation and pooling of defence resources by 25 EU member states (it excludes Cyprus, Denmark and the UK). Coordinated procurement seems, a priori, the best way to get value for increased defence spending, but implementing PESCO is likely to prove anything but straight-forward, not least in dealing with issues of compatibility with NATO, so perhaps wise to calibrate expectations accordingly.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

A standing EU army one day may be a reality, and could happen more quickly than we imagine, now that the most important decision has been taken, which is to recognise that we need our own defence force and take the first steps toward it.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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