Saturday, March 2, 2024

It’s time to rebrand or put the idea of a European Defense Force to rest

Members of the German Bundeswehr carry torches during a ceremonial parade.

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There are a few reoccurring issues that come up around the EU water cooler and that is the idea of a European Defense Force, commonly known as a “European Army”. The concept of a European Army has its roots in the early 1950s when strengthening joint defense capabilities against threats such as the Soviet Union were in discussion. Since then, the debate reemerges often after political or security shifts in the EU but primarily when the US’s priorities shift. 

Best highlighted in 2018, when the EU found itself dealing with a disengaged US global leadership under the Trump administration. French President Emmanuel Macron has established himself as a driving force of the ‘European Army idea, calling for a united Europe able to defend itself from external threats, without the auspices of the US. Macron’s urge was later endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the caveat that such an army would complement NATO, not compete with it. 

Since then, programs such as European Defense Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) have been established to provide funding towards defense projects and research, while encouraging military cooperation and EU military-industrial projects. All aimed at enhancing collaborative research between the 27 members of the EU to develop their military capability.

On paper, it looks a lot like the points driving a European Defense Army, but without creating an actual autonomous EU army – hence lies the confusion. 

Another issue is that the idea of a European Army has become synonymous with the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy which essentially means military, economic and technological independence from the US. 

To take various strains of strategic autonomy forward, the EU has implemented a Strategic Compass that sets out a common strategic vision for EU security and defense which includes improving the readiness of EU armed forces on a multitude of fronts. With the Strategic Compass set to be rolled out in March 2022, the confusion and lack of clear messaging has caused EU members, as well as Europe’s allies, to be confused as to what the end goal is for Brussels when it comes to a proposed pan-European military.

The messaging has and continues to be wrong

The recent withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan is just the latest example of the latest murmurs of developing a European army. It was even echoed by top EU leadership. In September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated in response to the situation in Afghanistan that “the EU should seek to beef up its military capabilities to confront security threats and global crises”. Essentially, cultivating the political will to intervene militarily without reliance on the US or a US-led NATO. 

The development of a rapid response force, alongside the already established battlegroups, have already been discussed, but many critics explained that due to a lack of political will and their effectiveness, the battlegroups, in whichever form, have not proved to be an efficient endeavor.  

Unfortunately, the idea of a European Army continues to generate more questions than answers. Ongoing questions linger – what would a European Army look like? Would each country give up their national armies to merge into one force? Who would be in charge? With the French driving the strategic autonomy and European army debate, would they take charge or would Germany’s approach of keeping NATO integrated take the lead? How would Brussels develop this theoretical fighting force without duplicating resources and capabilities with NATO? 

The lack of framework and a full concept has led to division, increased acrimony and confusion within the EU, itself, and with its key allies, namely the US and UK. If not approached correctly, it can weaken the trust between the EU and the US and potentially EU cohesion.

Why the division? 

A previous Eurobarometer survey examining perceptions from the individual European Union members from 2017 mentioned that “three quarters (75%) are in favor of a common EU defence and security policy” and “a majority (55%) were in favor of creating an EU army”. In 2018, “68% of Europeans said they would like the EU to do more on defense.”

The survey showed a clear split with countries in Eastern Europe, mainly driven by Poland, who have voiced concerns both around creating a European Army. Generated by fears that a more assertive European military plan would simply erode the EU-US relationship. And not to mention that divisive history within Europe of trying to jointly build military equipment. 

Issues around incentivization and low defense spending among European countries remain an obstacle when it comes to both strategic autonomy as well as a European Army. Another point driving countries like Poland, who remain a top defense spender in the EU, who still view the US as a security provider and NATO as a security umbrella. 

That is why if the EU wants to further invest in defense and security cooperation, it should do just that but within the existing framework. In the end, a stronger EU defense means stronger NATO and transatlantic defense. 

Rebrand or put the European Army to rest?

If the EU wants to pursue its objectives within the Strategic Compass, it needs to get the messaging both internally and externally, right. The end goal of having a more independent EU defense force, utilizing existing forces and capabilities needs to be clearer. The political clout often hovering around the European Army distracts from the goals of the EU – to ensure a stronger and more cohesive defense partnership.

As outlined before, the EU has mechanisms in place to bolster and upgrade its military and defense capabilities – but more needs to be done to further exchange and incentivize Europe’s more than two dozen members to invest in programs like the EDF (the European Defense Fund) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).  

2022 offers a unique opportunity, as the NATO Strategic Concept and Strategic Compass roll out, it is a moment to align on security priorities while deepening cooperation. This is essential as the EU faces growing challenges along its borders and needs to be on the same page security-wise. 

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