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Rapidly Increasing European Defense Capabilities 

By By Maxwell Zhu – American leadership and NATO have been the linchpin of European defense since the end of the Cold War, but the Trump administration’s actions have irrevocably damaged this relationship. President Trump has repeatedly and publicly called out European contributions to NATO, seriously considered withdrawing the United States from NATO, and has already withdrawn the US from both the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty. In doing so, the administration has not only eroded the trust that underpins the trans-Atlantic security commitment, but has also damaged the credibility of any future security agreements.

As a result, European leaders have started to ramp up their defense programs. For example, in 2017, the European Union established the European Defense Fund, which earmarks €5.5 billion per year for defense research, development and acquisition projects, and activated the Permanent Structured Cooperation defense projects. Additionally, the EU created the Military Planning and Conduct Capability, a centralized command for EU military missions. And with President Trump’s re-election potentially on the horizon as well as fears of continuing Russian aggression, pressure on the European community to increase their independent defense capabilities will only increase.

Sovereignty and Leadership Issues Hindering Military Integration 

Despite these milestones, however, there still exists a significant gap between the current Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and Macron’s stated goal of a “true European army”. First of all, any attempt to form a pan-European army will face opposition from member states unwilling to relinquish sovereignty over their armed forces. In 1952, for example, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries signed the Treaty of Paris establishing a European Defense Community (EDC). The EDC would have created a supranational army with a common budget and shared institutions, but the French parliament failed to ratify the treaty. Their unwillingness to cede sovereignty as well as fears of German re-armament resulted in NATO alone assuming the responsibility of European defense.

The intervening decades of Franco-German friendship have alleviated the specter of German rearmament, but France’s historical reluctance to cede military (and especially nuclear) sovereignty persists. Macron’s comments to the contrary, it is unlikely that the French would accept a Hungarian officer commanding French soldiers, and vice versa. Without national contingents answering to a unified, supranational chain of command, this army would simply be a military alliance, not a military.

Even if the EU could find a satisfactory command structure, how would 27 countries develop a unified military policy? The European Union is one of the great achievements of the postwar era, but its representative governance makes it difficult to agree upon a common defense policy, much less wield a common army. 

The EU’s current Common Security and Defence Policy focuses largely on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions; a fundamental retooling would require the consent of all 27 countries. The resulting lowest common denominator force would likely lack the hard military power of NATO. Instead, the EU could look to create a horizontally integrated force that incorporates cyber and economic warfare as well as internal security policy, focusing on broad spectrum power projection to complement, rather than replace, NATO. This structure would certainly be more amenable to unanimous acceptance, but nonetheless a far cry from a standing European army.

Alternatively, the European countries could pursue a standing army independent of both the EU and NATO. Europeans themselves increasingly support a pan-European army, and Franco-German political and military cooperation provide a plausible nucleus for such an organization. This way, there would be no need to bring in the entire continent. 

However, a European army without all the EU countries could prove disastrous to European solidarity. Paris and Berlin were forced to confront this exact issue when the EU activated their Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) defense projects. Discussion centered around two competing approaches: a French vision promoting robust operational and commitment standards and a German vision emphasizing inclusiveness to avoid alienating other member states. While contentious, PESCOs are only limited defense integration projects. A European army created to be independent of the EU would dangerously magnify this divide, exacerbating intra-European tensions – especially with traditionally neutral EU countries such as Ireland, Austria and Sweden – and therefore weaken the EU itself.

Furthermore, leadership of this military organization is made difficult by the relative military and economic parity of the European countries. According to Usherwood and Pinder, NATO’s success was built upon US “hegemonial leadership” – because American GDP and NATO spending far outpaced its European allies, NATO was, first and foremost, an American military organization. As a result, the European allies largely followed America’s lead. In contrast, European militaries and economies are much more comparable and intergovernmental relations in Europe are fundamentally cooperative, in accordance with the democratic nature of the European Union. Although France and Germany are clearly the first among equals in Europe, it is difficult to imagine either (or both) maintaining the steady helm necessary for an integrated military alliance such as NATO, much less a permanent military force. Without decisive leadership, this military alliance would lack the singular direction needed to operate decisively. And so while an independent European army is an attractive idea, serious concerns exist.

Faced with an increasingly assertive America and fearful of an expansionist Russia, European countries will face increasing pressure to augment their independent security capabilities in the next decade. In response, Europe will likely focus on supranational efforts to spearhead military integration, with special emphasis on increased funding, research and development. It is doubtful, however, that a fully-fledged, supranational European army will form anytime soon.

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