With Brexit on the horizon and Trump scorning NATO, the EU is now taking the idea of its own defence seriously. If the European project is a story about responding to crises with new models, then the past year should surely shock decision makers into changing their ways again. The soul-crushing decision by British voters to leave the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as US president, Russia’s creeping aggression, and the ongoing Islamic terrorists attacks have all undermined Europe’s sense of security.
And yet, these jolts to the system might also play a part in reshaping thinking on European defence, and could even lead to a nascent EU army. In the months since the UK’s referendum to leave the bloc, the other 27 member states have pledged to upgrade investment in European security and defence, strengthen capabilities, enhance cooperation, and improve responsiveness to crises.
Yet, until recently, talk of Europe’s pooling armed resources has been so poisonous that policy makers have tiptoed around it. A 1950 French initiative for a western European army known as the Pleven Plan involving the six nations that would later sign the Treaty of Rome never got off the ground; though proposed by then French Prime Minister René Pleven, it was rejected by the French Assembly.
But times have changed. While NATO remains the bedrock of European security, new threats and challenges have thrown up new calls for a common European defence policy.
Brexit prompted the EU’s other 27 members to awaken the long dormant notion. As the EU’s biggest military spender, London’s consent was always seen as essential to further defence integration, yet successive British governments have always baulked at what they say is a fast track to a European army. Brexit means this block is now removed, and the rest of the EU is now asking whether they need ‘more Europe’ when it comes to defence.
The election of Mr Trump has even greater potential to transform the debate. While NATO has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy for more than 60 years, he says it is obsolete and that many of its 28 member states are not paying their fair share (although successive US administrations complained about unequal burden sharing for Europe’s security long before Mr Trump was elected). He has hinted that he might not defend NATO allies and that he might accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. If Mr Trump pulls back American military commitments in Europe, it will expose the gap between the EU’s rhetoric about common security, and the reality that it depends hugely on the American umbrella through NATO.
And with Russian President Vladimir Putin making predatory snarls at his western neighbours, there are real threats to consider. Islamic State’s actions in the Middle East and North Africa have drawn in western powers, while the spillover of terrorist atrocities onto European territory has changed the internal security debate. And the refugee crisis drove the EU to send military ships to the Mediterranean to tackle people smuggling.
Heather Grabbe, the director of the Open Society European Policy Institute says that Europeans neglected the development of independent strategic thinking and invested far too little in their own security. “As reliance on US leadership must come to an end, it is high time to fill these gaps,” she says. “The sense of urgency grows as turmoil in neighbouring regions spreads and future US commitment is in doubt.”
So, after so many false starts, Europe could finally get serious about providing for its own defence. In January, German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the EU must take better care of its own security. She said Europe was facing one of its “biggest challenges for decades” due to conflicts on its borders, such as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and that it would be "naive always to rely on others who would solve the problems in our neighbourhood”.
A key move in the new direction came last year when EU member states agreed to create a new military headquarters inside EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s service and to make joint “battlegroups” ready for action.
It was followed in November by European Commission plans to promote defence cooperation and smarter military spending, saying that its multibillion-euro scheme would fund research into areas like encrypted software or robotics and boost investment in joint projects across member states such as drones or helicopters. The goal of the so-called European Defence Action Plan is to encourage closer and more efficient cooperation across EU member states.
The business case is overwhelming. Collectively, Europe is the world's second largest military customer, behind the US, spending some €200 billion on defence in 2015. But it suffers from inefficiency in spending due to duplications, a lack of interoperability, technological gaps and insufficient economies of scale for industry and production. The lack of cooperation between member states is estimated to cost up to €100 billion a year.
Within member states, new ideas are sprouting. In October, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain issued a joint paper with plans to bulk up the EU’s military capability, including a swifter deployment of overseas missions. They said EU military missions, such as the Sophia anti-migrant smuggler operation or the Atalanta anti-pirate mission, should in future be commanded from a joint military HQ possibly in Brussels, with its own medical and logistical assets, such as air-lift equipment.
The efforts would build on existing capacities: while the EU has led over 30 civilian and military missions, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, the lack of a permanent structure has meant it has not been able to act effectively. And while the joint paper insisted that, “To be clear: an ‘EU army’ is not our objective”, Italy has talked of how EU military headquarters and battlegroups should be the nucleus of a future “European Integrated Force”.
A key question concerns what Britain will do: it has a real interest in staying involved in some way so that its companies retain access to lucrative contracts. London has long justified its resistance to EU defence by saying it would undermine and duplicate NATO. But both NATO and the US are relaxed about the latest initiatives. "This shouldn't be a competition. We'll do it together. A strong Europe is good for NATO," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said.
There are other questions, including how to reconcile the different ideas in Berlin and Paris about the end goal of the defence cooperation. There are wildly divergent strategic cultures, military capabilities and security priorities amongst the EU 27. And as Daniel Keohane, a researcher at the Centre for Security Studies in Zurich, notes, “It is not entirely clear who would command such an army — national governments or the Brussels-based EU institutions — nor what it would do in practice.” But if the EU is to emerge from its post-Brexit doldrums, a common defence scheme could well be part of the solution.
By Leo Cendrowicz