In November 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a “European army” to protect Europe from “China, Russia and even the United States of America.” This happened as a response to the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a treaty signed in 1987 that helped end the Cold War.
The rise of China alongside the fear that President Donald Trump might pull the U.S. out of NATO have pushed the EU into a time of strategic instability and uncertainty. It prompted President Macron to call for a united Europe able to defend itself without relying on the U.S. Macron’s urge for a European army was later endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though she emphasized that the army would act as a complement to NATO.
One-and-a-half years have passed since the French leader’s announcement, but signs of a European army are yet to materialize. Is the plan to establish a European army simply too ambitious or is it, as tweeted by President Trump, an insult to the U.S., whose partners should focus on paying their fair share of NATO instead? In fact, President Trump recently “confirmed plans to withdraw 9,500 American troops from bases in Germany” since Germany has not met its defence spending target. Although several initiatives have been established to strengthen the European defence, the prospects of an upcoming European army seem rather bleak, as the analysis below will show.
Strengthening European Defence: One Initiative at a Time
This is not the first time the formation of a European army has been attempted. In the early 1950s, the European Defence Community was presented by René Pleven, then Prime Minister of France. His proposal included a common budget, institutions and army. Due to political disagreements, the plan was never realized.
Since then, a number of initiatives have been launched to strengthen European defence. These include the European Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). While the EDF aims to fund defence projects and research, PESCO, with its 47 military cooperation and defence-industrial projects, seeks to enhance collaborative research between member states to develop their military capability. Hence, both the EDF and PESCO seek to strengthen European defence through research and projects that may enhance member states’ ability to defend themselves individually but not as a collective army under the Union. These initiatives have, however, been heavily criticised by US officials who argue that the EDF and PESCO would “produce duplication, non-interoperable military systems, diversion of scarce defence resources and unnecessary competition between NATO and the EU.” Thus, instead of delegating more resources to develop military projects within the EU, EU member states should focus on reinforcing NATO.
This latter point has been addressed by yet another military initiative known as the European Intervention Initiative (EI2). The EI2 is an initiative outside the EU framework spearheaded by President Macron. It aims to develop members’ ability to collaborate on military missions under the framework of the EU, UN, NATO or other ad hoc missions. Hence, the initiative does not provide its own military framework to establish a European army, rather it seeks to cultivate a collective strategic culture by reinforcing already existing frameworks, especially NATO. Although the aim of the EDF, PESCO and EI2 is to strengthen European defence through research, collaborative projects and mission coordination, none of them provide a proper framework in which a European army can be established.
Establishing a European Army: Current Legal Options
There are currently two main ways in which a European army could be established: either within the EU framework through Article 42 or 20 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU); or outside the EU framework. Article 42(2) of the TEU states that a common defence policy can be established through a unanimous decision by the European Council. If the establishment of a European army were to take place under these institutional arrangements, all member states, including their legislatures, and probably several national referendums would have to approve of these changes. With the UK having left the Union, a longstanding opponent of a European army, the prospects of a European army seem a little brighter, yet still challenging. Furthermore, Article 20 of the TEU allows a minimum of nine member states to enhance cooperation between themselves “within the framework of the Union’s non-exclusive competences.” The enhanced cooperation must be open to all other member states, and its primary aim must be to advance European integration. The authorization of said cooperation must be unanimously adopted by the Council as a last resort if the objective of the cooperation cannot be attained by the Union as a whole within a reasonable time frame. Although this Article may allow for enhanced military cooperation between member states, it has yet to be used in the context of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.
The second way to establish a European army would be to avoid the EU, at least initially. On 22 January 2019, France and Germany signed the Aachen Treaty to strengthen Franco-German cooperation and integration. The treaty’s second chapter lays out the commitments of the two states with regards to peace, security and development. Not only do they aim to strengthen Europe’s military autonomy and collaboration in foreign policy, security and defence, they are also committed to aid each other in cases of armed attacks by supplying military force “in light of their obligations under” Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and Article 42(7) of the TEU.
The Aachen Treaty, additionally, aims to foster a common military culture and joint deployments as seen in Article 4(3) and invites all EU member states to join the cooperation. Angela Merkel emphasized that the treaty would enable Germany to make a “contribution to the emergence of a European army.”
The treaty entered into force in January 2020, and one may speculate whether neighbouring states like the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium will soon join initiatives prompted by this treaty. In fact, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of Luxembourg has already expressed their willingness to enhance military cooperation between said countries in their report “Luxembourg Defence Guidelines for 2025 and Beyond.” As stated in the report: “Luxembourg’s military forces and capabilities are almost exclusively deployed in the context of multinational groups and incorporated into contingents of our key partners (Germany, Belgium, France, The Netherlands).” If the Benelux countries decide to embark on the Aachen Treaty, other countries may feel inclined to join as well, which could potentially lead the way to the establishment of a proper framework for a European army.
Obstacles: National Sovereignty, Delegation of Troops and Military Budget
There are, however, three main obstacles to both approaches. The biggest obstacle concerns national sovereignty. As a European army would touch the very heart of national sovereignty, states might be hesitant to join such a project. This could be avoided by guaranteeing that all member states retain operational autonomy of their national forces while having a veto for every decision regarding the European army and its operations. However, this would merely introduce new obstacles since all member states have to unanimously agree on a range of matters, including sceptic states like Poland and Hungary that are known for safeguarding their national sovereignty.
Another obstacle relates to the delegation of troops. Most states would prefer to supply technical support instead of delegating the command authority over their troops. A third obstacle concerns the budget. NATO’s European allies have already been criticized for not meeting their defence spending target, which amounts to 2% of their gross domestic product. Instead of allocating more resources to a potential European army, member states should, at least according to President Trump, focus on their contributions to NATO. This includes increasing security and defence policy contributions to the Indo-Pacific region to prevent China from becoming an increasing threat and from reordering “the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.”
Stepping Stones to Nowhere?
With all of these challenges combined, the prospects of an up-and-coming European army seem quite dim. Although initiatives such as the EDF, PESCO, the EI2 and the Aachen Treaty may seem like stepping stones towards a common military culture, in reality, they lay the groundwork for a rather patchy road, the destination of which remains unclear. Since all member states are not a part of the same initiatives, focusing on the legal possibility of extending some of the current initiatives to other member states could perhaps even out the patchy road a bit.
Moreover, some EU politicians have highlighted the unrealistic and undesirable features of a potential European army. As stated by Frans Timmermans, former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and currently Executive Vice-President of the European Commission: “There will be no EU army for the foreseeable future.” Not only does he believe that the project is too unrealistic with the current level of European integration, he also suggests that the member states should focus on strengthening their defence cooperation and reorganize the defence industry to increase its competitiveness. The Benelux countries have already taken this into their own hands by suggesting a coordinated vision for future European drone regulation. Other EU politicians, on the other hand, believe that a European army may soon arise. At the beginning of 2020, European Parliament President David Sassoli stated that: “It’s not a given that in the coming future we won’t have something that resembles a European army. Because today’s security issues force more and more member states to work together.”
Thus, it is still too early to conclude whether Macron’s call for a European army will be heeded in the long run. Much depends on the future political landscape. If China continues to be a rising threat and the U.S. retains its hostile demeanour, EU member states may feel increasingly inclined to re-evaluate and renegotiate their common defence policy. In the end, having a European army would allow the EU to defend certain interests, yet it may also induce more tension into a time already subject to instability and uncertainty.