The idea of a so-called ‘European Army’ has come in and out of fashion in the Brussels bubble for about 20 years. After each global event where armed conflict becomes a possibility, the viability of a pan-European military force is discussed by the EU’s elite ad Infinitum.
Donald Trump’s dangerous threats to unilaterally pull the United States out of NATO, followed by the Biden Administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan this past August and Washington’s decision to pivot American military might towards the Asia-Pacific region in order to blunt the increasingly aggressive expansionist policies of China’s hardline leader, Xi Jinping, has once again raised the question about the viability of a unified European military force.
The country pushing most aggressively for this project is France. Germany, Europe’s most powerful country, is far less enthusiastic about the idea, but in principle supports the general concept. In the years since outgoing German Chancellor Angla Merkel began to make policy decisions for Germany that would de facto become EU policy, the process of further distancing Europe from the US has sped up.
For France, the project for creating a pan-European military actually dates back to the time of former French president, Charles de Gaulle, a man who wanted to France into a fully independent military power that would make a clean break with the US and UK and would, instead, focus on Continental Europe. De Gaulle, whose open disdain for the Anglophone world dated back to World War I, had hoped to turn a united Europe into a French-led military entity that would have a global reach.
France is trying to cling to the remnants of a long-dead empire
France is no longer the global great power that it was prior to the beginning of the First World War or even the Franco-Prussian War in the late 1870s. That was a time when Paris could legitimately challenge other European powers on multiple levels of soft and hard power, and it remains true that present-day France remains a major player within the European Union and is still a permanent member of the UN’s National Security Council. Furthermore, France’s status as the fourth-largest nuclear-armed nation in the world and its post-colonial spheres of influence in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean guarantees that France continues to wield influence far beyond the country’s borders.
For well over a century, however, on a cultural, economic or military level, France has lagged far behind the world’s global powers – the United States, the UK, China, Japan or Russia. That list, to some extent, also includes Paris’ historic rival, on the Continent, Germany.
Due to the fact that France cannot influence the global agenda the way it did at the height of its power in the 18th and 19th centuries, the French have had to play second-fiddle on most international affairs – areas where French decision-makers would, in fact, like to exert France’s power.
In the Mediterranean, France believes it national interests will eventually clash with Turkey. Paris has not opted for a policy of direct confrontation with the Turks but has instead opted for a more nuanced chess match that has seen Paris build alliances with Turkey’s enemies. France has openly sided with the Kurds in the Syrian Civil War, a move that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views as a major threat to Turkey and an affront to the Turks’ main ally in Syria, the Syrian National Army, a fighting force that the Turks, themselves, helped establish in 2017.
In Libya, France and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of that country’s civil wars. Paris threw its support behind the supported the National Libyan Army, the main enemy of the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord. France has also joined Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus in forming an alliance aimed at thwarting Erdogan’s increasingly outlandish territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean.
France also appears to be on the retreat and losing its once-substantial political clout in Africa to the Chinese and Russians. A diplomatic row between Paris and Algeria has escalated after Algiers banned French military planes from flying over its airspace and comments from President Emmanuel Macron about the Algerian War of Independence. In the Central African Republic, Russian mercenaries have become major power brokers in the country’s internal conflicts, while in Mali the same members of the Russian soldiers-for-hire group Wagner have signed a security deal that shuts France out in terms of Paris’ influence with local officials.
The situation is just as bad, or worse, in the Asia-Pacific area. France has little sway in the region and has been regarded as an afterthought by Washington and Beijing. Macron has tried to boost France’s ties with Japan, India, and Australia. but the American-led Five Eyes project with the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zeeland, and more recently AUKUS (the trilateral military alliance between the US, the UK and Australia), as well as the loss of an enormous submarine contract with Australia after several delays and disagreements with Canberra over the vessels’ delivery have utterly overridden French interests in the Pacific.
Armies cost money
A key tenet of the teachings of Sun Tzu in his The Art of War is that armies cost a lot of money. A nation must be well off at home if it hopes to be a major power abroad. As no European country can no longer amass enough defense-spending resources to compete with the US, Russia or China, France has decided to spearhead the movement to create a pan-European military force.
By profiting from Trump’s chaotic presidency, by the withdrawal performed by the USA in Afghanistan and by Brexit, Paris hopes that the rancour and bad blood that emerged between the US and Europe during the Trump presidency can be translated into a new sense of European solidarity, which can then be channelled to the questions of the EU’s defense capabilities.
As the architect of this project, France hopes to use its status in the EU to amplify its hoped-to-be-newly-acquired power globally. For Paris, the plan is worth considering even if the economies of many European are not what they need to be. This so-called “European Army” would not be designed to go toe-to-toe with the militaries that China, Turkey or Russia could put into the field, but it would have some tactical influence when it comes to certain regional conflicts.
The current projections envisage a force of 50,000 troops that would act in full collaboration with NATO. This discourse is aimed at underlining that this military effort wouldn’t compete with NATO. But even under such an umbrella, France and the rest of the members of the European Union are not ready for such a project.
Not a single Western European nation contributes 2% of its GDP to military expenditures, as called for in the NATO charter. Rather, the average percentage for defense spending in Europe amounted to just 1.6 percent for 2020. Additional military costs for training, exercises and logistics would be difficult for the populations of the EU’s 27 members to countenance due to the fact that most people in Europe are, in general, highly averse to military matters as a result of the Second World War, the Cold War and the multiple wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The nations of Europe, themselves, with the notable exception of France, are incapable of projecting military power for long periods of time. If the Americans had not shouldered so much of the financial and military burden, most European countries could not have remained in a place like Afghanistan for long, let alone for nearly 20 years.
France’s plan goes against East European realities
On the surface, and in ideological terms, a common defense European project has some merit. In reality, however, the issue is far more contentious and complicated because many European nations simply don’t trust French guarantees that it would be truly pan-European.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary-General, has highly criticized France’s European defense project, saying that it creates tensions within the EU and strains transatlantic relations. Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states remain deeply pro- American and would never do anything to weaken the NATO alliance, regardless of Paris’ promises. None of these former Warsaw Pact nations has shown any interest in wanting to be a part of two military alliances, simply because they could not afford it.
Only recently, Poland was reminded of this predicament when an illegal migrant crisis erupted on its border with Belarus. The first countries to offer security support were fellow NATO members Estonia and the United Kingdom, not France. Instead, Paris and Germany both publicly declared that they were still “analyzing” the situation.
In Eastern Europe, the perceived real threat comes from Russia. The Kremlin has made sure to keep this threat remains alive in the minds of Europe’s ex-Communist states. What complicates the situation is that France and Germany invest a great deal of time into maintaining a close relationship with Moscow. This is mainly tied to Berlin’s dependence on Russian gas and France’s historic cultural bond to the Russian elite.
The suggestion of creating a European army is closely tied to Macron’s hopes of being re-elected to a new five-year term in 2022. An EU defense force could present Macron with a face-saving project after the US and UK humiliated him over the Australian nuclear deal. What’s more important from both Macron and France is that the project could position Macron as the leader of Europe now that Angela Merkel has retired as Germany’s chancellor. However, electoral plans are far from reality.
Due to his low approval ratings in France, Macron’s re-election is, however, not a guarantee and his plans for a French-led European army will be hard to realize. Merkel’s retirement should not be taken lightly, but Germany’s powerful lawmakers and even more powerful defense industry will fight to maintain Berlin’s leadership status. This will likely doom the project for a European defense force from the start as Paris and Berlin would be too preoccupied with internal battles for influence amongst themselves to have the time to challenge other real superpowers around the globe.