Is a single European army currently realistic?
EU Army

Could the European Union be defended by one common army instead of 28 national armies? The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, believes this to be the best solution to “convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union” and to make spending more efficient. In an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Juncker claimed that the EU “would not create a European army to use it immediately”, but it “would help us design a common foreign and security policy”. 

The creation of a common European army is not, however, a consensual idea. Following Juncker’s interview, the German Defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, stated her agreement: “our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army”. The Portuguese prime-minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, agrees that the European defense mechanisms must be “reinforced” and that “the EU has the obligation to defend itself from the external threats”. Nevertheless, he considers that the EU “is too far from having any kind of European army”. On the other hand, a UK government spokesman rejected the idea, since “defense is a national, not an EU responsibility and that there is no prospect of that position changing”.                 

The main advantage of forming a common European army would be the possibility of having a larger and better equipped military force with less investment from each member state. The most expensive equipment could be shared by all and the member states could specialise in certain branches of the military. The joint forces of the 28 member states would also generate a larger army with more external prominence.  

The creation of a European army would, however, require the loss of national sovereignty. Each state would no longer be able to individually decide how to use the army. All member states would have to reach an agreement by unanimity or a decision would have to be made by a qualified majority voting. A long decision process could end up weakening the use of a common EU force and limit its effectiveness.      

European foreign and defense policies

According to the Treaty on European Union, member states need to try to find common ground on foreign and defense policies. “The Union shall conduct, define and implement a common foreign and security policy, based on the development of mutual political solidarity among Member States, the identification of questions of general interest and the achievement of an ever-increasing degree of convergence of Member States’ actions” (article 24 – 2).

Since the European Union’s inception the Member States have tried to cooperate on foreign and security policies. The Maastricht Treaty established the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as the EU’s second pillar. The decisions were to be made by unanimity and based on intergovernmental negotiations. More developments were agreed on the following treaties. After the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty, it became possible to take decisions by qualified majority voting for the implementation of a few policies. The “Petersberg tasks”, which focus on crisis management, peace-keeping and humanitarian missions, were incorporated into the Treaty on European Union. It was also established the role of High Representative for the CFSP in order to support and strengthen the European voice in the world stage. 

The Lisbon Treaty then replaced the post of High Representative for the CFSP and the Commissioner for External Relations with a single post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The High Representative has now a seat in both the Commission and in the Council, and is assisted by the new European External Action Service. 

Although it is an integral part of the CFSP, the defense policy has its own section on the Treaty on European Union since the signing of the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty also introduced a mutual defense clause, under which the member states must assist other member state in case of an armed attack. The security purposes of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) are limited to the “Petersberg Tasks” and the decisions are intergovernmental.

The EU security and defense policies have been developed since the Franco-British summit in Saint Malo in December 1998. During the summit the two member states agreed on the importance of having a stronger EU security capability within the NATO framework. During the following Cologne European Council meeting, in 1999, the EU’s necessity to be able to autonomously act supported by military forces without prejudice to NATO actions was reinforced. Namely, the EU would have to decide if it would resort to NATO capabilities or if it would head its own operation using the member states’ national armies when faced with a conflict or crisis.      

Problems with the foreign and defense policies 

The member states find it difficult to agree on the actions to take when faced with foreign and security challenges. The Ukraine crisis is a good example of that struggle. In response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, the EU decided to impose further traveling bans and economic sanctions to Russia. However, reaching a decision was a challenge as some member states found the sanctions to be counterproductive and damaging for the European economy.   

There are a number of reasons for the EU to have difficulty acting in a united manner regarding foreign and defense policies. The larger member states, which are used to be internationally influential, fear to lose control of their foreign and security policies. Some member states have special relationships with third countries for historical reasons and are fearful to lose them. And not all member states have the same attitude towards the need for military operations.              

Another problem with the European foreign and security policies lies with who represents the EU in the international scene. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy coordinates the common foreign and security policy and represents the EU at international forums, such as the United Nations. However, also the European Council president can represent the EU externally on foreign and security matters. Also some member states’ governments or heads of state continue to have prominence when dealing with international crises. For example, it was Angela Merkel and François Hollande who went to Russia to discuss a halt to the Ukraine conflict with Vladimir Putin.     

For a common European army to be realistic, a common foreign policy has to become entirely effective. If the member states could not agree on how to respond to an international crisis, the European army would not be credible and would be rendered inoperable. The creation of a European army has advantages, but the common foreign policy must be fixed first.