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“Defence is a member state competence. The point is not about having an EU army but rather to work better together among the 27 armies,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign policy diplomat told Politico on 6 March 2024. This begs the question – is this the end of the discussion on the establishment of an EU Army? Maybe not, as history shows that nothing is ever certain. This article describes the current security situation in Europe in light of Borrell’s statement and seeks to answer the question regarding the future of an EU army.

Contributions to NATO

Taking the current European security situation into consideration, and the debate surrounding member countries’ NATO contributions, it might be useful to be more specific regarding the issue of NATO funding.

At the outset, it is important to recall that NATO is resourced through the direct and indirect contributions of its members. At the same time, NATO’s common funds are composed of direct contributions to collective budgets and programmes, which equate to only 0.3% of total allied defence spending (around EUR 3.3 billion for 2023). These funds allow NATO to deliver capabilities, run the organisation, and its military commands.

The entire debate is related to the issue of national or indirect contributions, which make up the largest component of NATO funding and are borne by the individual member countries. These include the forces and capabilities held by each member country, which can be provided to NATO for deterrence, defence activities and military operations. When nations such as Denmark claim to have reached the 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) level of spending on defence because funding for Ukraine is added, Copenhagen is actually ‘playing with the numbers’ and as such is providing false security to the NATO community. While Denmark may not be adhering to the purpose of the Defence Planning Review Questionnaire (DPQ), it could be argued that such an approach is a violation of Article 3 (“the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”) in the NATO Treaty since this article is a prerequisite for Article 5 on collective defence.

In the Wales Summit Declaration from September 2014, it was stated that NATO members will aim to move towards the existing NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade, with a view to fulfilling NATO’s capability priorities. We should recall that this came just half a year after Russia annexed Crimea.

The signing of the Washington Treaty, on 4 April 1949, marking the birth of NATO. Twelve countries signed the treaty that day: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Credit: NATO

An EU Defence Union

Turning to the EU, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is an integral part of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The CSDP provides the main policy framework through which EU Member States can develop a European strategic culture of security and defence, address conflicts and crises together, protect the Union and its citizens, and strengthen international peace and security. As a result of the tense geopolitical context, the CSDP has been one of the fastest-developing EU policy instruments over the last 10 years. Since 24 February 2022, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has acted as a geopolitical reset for Europe and created further impetus for what should become an EU Defence Union. However, German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Hannah Neumann has stated: “It doesn’t make sense to call for a European army at a time where you can’t even produce enough ammunition to defend yourself or support your closest partners.” This point of view explains that ‘bold speeches’ alone are not doing the work.

A brief history of the European Army idea

The idea of a European Army was first discussed in 1950 having been proposed by France. The intention was to include the ‘Inner Six’ countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and West Germany) in order to strengthen defence against the Soviet threat without directly rearming West Germany in the wake of World War II. In 1952, the Treaty establishing the European Defence Community, also known as the Treaty of Paris, was signed, but not ratified by the signatories. France was one of two nations (along with Italy) that signed but failed to ratify the treaty.

Later, in 1966, with the souring of relations between Washington and Paris due to the French refusal to integrate France’s nuclear deterrent with other NATO countries, or accept any collective form of control over its armed forces, President de Gaulle downgraded France’s membership in NATO. France decided to withdraw from the NATO Military Command Structure to pursue more independent defence options. However, it was also stated that France would remain in the Alliance even after the end of the 20-year commitment period in 1969, unless the “fundamental elements of the relations between East and West” changed.

In 2009, France rejoined the NATO Military Command Structure because of the shift in common strategic interests towards sensitive crisis areas as mentioned in a French White Paper from 2008.

Western European Union

For a broader understanding, it is worth recalling another post-World War 2 military alliance, namely the Western European Union (WEU). The Treaty of Brussels in 1948, also referred to as the Brussels Pact, was the founding treaty of the Western Union (WU) between 1948 and 1954, when it was amended as the Modified Brussels Treaty (MTB) and served as the founding treaty of the WEU until its termination in 2010. The treaty provided for the organisation of military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation among its member states, as well as a mutual defence clause. The WEU was structured around nine subsidiary bodies, one of which was the Western European Armaments Group (WEAG), established to promote cooperation in research and development. The work in WEAG was taken over by the European Defence Agency (EDA) in 2005.

This shows that there have been many initiatives, and some viable others, which were neglected for various reasons. Examples of those deemed more viable include the following.

Eurocorps

Eurocorps was founded by France and Germany in 1992 with its headquarters in Strasbourg. It is composed of personnel from six framework and five associated nations; the framework nations place Eurocorps at the service of the EU and NATO.

Eurocorps dates back to 1989, when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand, initiated military cooperation by establishing the Franco-German Defence and Security Council and the founding of a joint brigade. Eurocorps was formally established with the Treaty of Strasbourg, an agreement signed in Brussels on 22 November 2004 by the defence ministers of the five member countries at that time (Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, and Luxembourg) and ratified by their respective national parliaments.

Article 3 of the Treaty of Strasbourg outlines the various missions entrusted to Eurocorps; it may be involved in UN missions, WEU missions, and also in NATO missions, participating in evacuation missions, humanitarian efforts, peacekeeping, and crisis management operations.

The EU Battle Group

Currently, Eurocorps is preparing for the future role as Force Headquarters for the EU Battle Group. This was decided during the German EU presidency in the second half of 2020, under the EU CSDP, to develop a Strategic Compass for Security and Defence that will be placed on standby in 2025. The Corps can comprise as many as 60,000 personnel.

This EU force was never foreseen as competing with NATO, but was deemed important enough to reduce operational dependency on the US to allow EU military formations to function more autonomously. Problems remain however, when it comes to assembling enough troops, and for the time being only one EU Battlegroup is available and on standby. This is the German-led EU Battlegroup in 2024/2025.

The Weimar Triangle

Another alliance is surfacing – or resurfacing – in light of the current volatile security situation on the European continent. This is the so-called Weimar Triangle, a regional alliance comprising France, Germany, and Poland, originally created in 1991 in the German city of Weimar. The grouping was founded in order to promote co-operation between the three countries in cross-border and European issues.

Left to right: President Emmanuel Macron, President Donald Tusk, Chancellor Olaf Scholz during the 15 March 2024 Weimar Triangle meeting.
Credit: German Government/Kugler

The Weimar Triangle exists primarily in the form of summit meetings between the leaders of the three countries, and also of their foreign ministers. The collaboration between its member states includes inter-parliamentary contacts, military, scientific, and cultural co-operation. A summit of the three ministers of foreign affairs took place in La Celle-Saint-Cloud on 12 February 2024 when the ministers reaffirmed their determination to provide new energy to their trilateral cooperation. In short, they stated that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Against this background, it is their goal to make the EU more united, stronger, and able to respond to today’s security challenges, on a path towards a security and defence union, living up to European citizens’ expectations. The triangle is also committed to a strong and united NATO.

On 15 March 2024, a new summit of the Weimar Triangle was held in Berlin with President Macron, Chancellor Scholz and Prime Minister Tusk in attendance. The leaders again stressed that they remained united over their position on Europe’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is worth remarking that their statements expressed the intention for a stronger and united EU, and a strong and united NATO at the same time. The question is whether Europe can have both, or do the Europeans have to choose between either the EU or NATO for their common security?

EU or NATO for European common security?

Just by looking at the aforementioned initiatives, it is clear that the question regarding European security and defence is a challenge due to different considerations and hidden agendas. Therefore, defence issues remain exclusively a matter for Member States as Borell stated in March. If EU Member States favour a European Army, they might wish to consider the following:

  • Should the EU possess its own nuclear weapons? If so, which states are willing to participate? And who should control and release the nuclear weapons?
  • What will happen after the 2024 presidential election in the US?
  • Who will continue to support the war in Ukraine if some of the big nations withdraw?
  • What will the Grand Strategy for Europe look like?
  • If some European nations are unwilling to pay 2% of their GDP to meet NATO guidelines, will they then be willing to pay for a complete ‘EU Defence Organisation’?
  • Will there be common procurement of defence equipment from the major defence industries in Europe?

Even in the event of positive answers to most of these questions, it might still take a decade before an EU Defence Organisation achieves any sort of viable deterrent level. In addition, EU leaders realise that no single EU country can tackle the current security threats alone. For example, President Macron called for a joint European military project in 2017, while former Chancellor Merkel said “we ought to work on the vision of one day establishing a proper European Army” in her address to the European Parliament in November 2018. Moving towards a security and defence union has until recently been one of the priorities of President of the European Commission von der Leyen.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks as then-President Trump looks on, during a ceremony welcoming him to the White House, in Washington DC, on 24 April 2018.
Credit: US Army/Zane Ecklund

A common EU defence policy is provided for by the Treaty of Lisbon (Article 42(2) TEU). However, the treaty also clearly states the importance of national defence policy, including NATO membership or neutrality. The European Parliament has consistently supported more cooperation, increased investment, and the pooling of resources to create synergies at the EU level to better protect Europeans.

EU initiatives concerning defence

In recent years, the EU has begun to implement ambitious initiatives to provide more resources, stimulate efficiency, facilitate cooperation, and support the development of capabilities.

The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was launched in December 2017 and currently operates on 47 collaborative projects with binding commitments including a European Medical Command, Maritime Surveillance System, mutual assistance for cybersecurity and rapid response teams, and a joint EU intelligence school.

The European Defence Fund (EDF) was launched in June 2017 and was the first to use the EU budget to co-fund defence cooperation. On 29 April 2021, Members of the European Parliament agreed to fund the EDF with a budget of EUR 7.9 billion as part of the EU’s long-term budget (2021–2027).

The EU has also strengthened cooperation with NATO on projects across seven areas including cybersecurity, joint exercises, and counterterrorism.

The EU strengthens its defence procurement strategy

Russia’s war against Ukraine has underlined the need for the EU to strengthen its defence strategy and speed up weapons production. On 13 July 2023, MEPs voted in favour of EUR 500 million in financing to help EU industry ramp up production of ammunition and missiles to increase deliveries to Ukraine and help EU countries refill their own stocks, the so-called Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP).

On 12 September 2023, MEPs backed the European Defence Industry Reinforcement through the common Procurement Act (EDIRPA) to support EU countries in jointly purchasing defence products such as weapons, ammunition, and medical equipment, to help fill the most urgent and critical gaps. The aim of the act is to boost the European defence industrial and technological base and foster cooperation on defence procurement. Joint purchases will have to involve at least three EU countries. It will also be open to Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland.

The remaining question is whether all those programmes will influence other areas of normal EU business. The elections for the European Parliament taking place on 6–9 June 2024 might show just how far it is possible to go in transforming the EU to a more wartime posture.

The transatlantic relationship

Although the transatlantic relationship with the US is still considered fundamentally decisive for European security policy, the Trump years (2016–2020) have left their mark on any policy analysis in this regard. In government circles, as in many other parts of Europe, there is often the concern that transatlantic ties might not be maintainable in their current form. The strategic point on the need for Europe to stand on its own regarding it security and defence policy is becoming more visible when discussing NATO’s Article 5 commitments and the 2% GDP issue. Article 5 states that the Allies are obliged to mutually assist each other when a NATO member is attacked. The same is mentioned in Article 42.7 of the EU Treaty and in Article 4 of the Aachen Treaty; while the former also obliges all EU countries to provide mutual assistance and assistance, if a Member State is attacked, this mutual commitment was further underlined in the Franco-German bilateral Treaty of Aachen, which entered into force in January 2020.

Though NATO is unequivocally highlighted as the foundation of European and transatlantic security, the risk of a future North Atlantic Alliance with significantly less American, and therefore considerably more European commitment, might impact future security planning. In this context, it might be important to examine the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA).

President Emmanuel Macron, speaks at a ceremony honouring the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on 6 June 2019.
Credit: US Army/Sgt Henry Villarama

Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA)

The DCA is a binding international agreement, providing an up-to-date framework for cooperation between European NATO nations and the US. The DCA clarifies the rules for cooperation and allows parties to deepen it in all security situations. In this way, the DCA will reinforce the individual NATO nation’s security and contribute to the fulfilment of obligations as a NATO member.

The DCA also deals with practical issues such as the entry of troops, pre-positioning of equipment, and taxation. It specifies the locations where cooperation and collaboration between the individual European NATO nation and the US would primarily focus. Going forward, the DCA will enable the US to make use of Congressional funding for possible infrastructure investments in a specific NATO nation.

To date, DCAs have been signed between the US and Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. It is obvious that the Nordic countries are better-protected than ever, but it also sends an important signal regarding the US’ willingness to defend Europe via the NATO treaty. This fact is nearly invisible in the discussion.

Closing thoughts

With all the various treaties, agreements, and initiatives in place, it is hard to see in which direction the European security environment is heading.

The overall assessment might be that President Macron, as with President de Gaulle, nurtures the long-held and traditional French desire of creating a strong and independent European defence force, which, with France in a leadership role, and is able to defend itself without support from the US. If this is the case, then a strong EU is needed both in relation to an army structure, but also in relation to common defence procurement. It is impossible to state clearly in which direction Europe is moving as all eyes are anxiously following the 2024 US elections. With many ships sailing the seas in all directions, what is needed more than ever are clever captains who understand that hope is not a solution.

Or, as stated by Hartman Bühl in The European 1/2024: “In view of the current geopolitical and geostrategic situation, Europe must conduct a realpolitik and stop dreaming of a European army. Instead, it must devote its energy to a policy of building up necessary military capabilities to defend its territory and that of its allies as well as producing state-of-the-art armaments by pooling its Member States´ capabilities. In the field of nuclear protection, although Macron has proposed a strategic dialogue on the subject, there has never been any question of ‘pooling’ the French nuclear deterrent.

Bo Leimand