Waging war on the myth of an EU army

Opinion piece (Politico)
Sophia Besch
07 June 2016

As the referendum nears and Britain's EU debate becomes less evidence-based every day, Brexiteers are tapping into deep-rooted tropes of Euroskepticism guaranteed to alarm the British public. Recent "revelations" in the British media focused on plans to create an EU military headquarters, and stoked fears of further overreach into one of the most sensitive areas of national sovereignty — defense.

And yet Brexit campaigners’ outrage is little more than a storm in a Euroskeptic’s tea cup. There are no imminent plans to create an EU army. The creation of EU headquarters would integrate national operational headquarters and command-and-control centers, facilitate planning and enhance coordination of civilian and military EU missions.

Many member countries support the plan to make existing — and often counter-intuitive — arrangements more efficient. But Britain has always vetoed the project, and plans to use the “permanent structured defense co-operation” (PESCO) mechanism to forego the UK veto have gone nowhere. Member countries know that operational headquarters without British participation would lack credibility.

A Brussels-controlled army itself is a pipe dream. And yet, it is easy for British Euroskeptics to raise the specter of the threat. In March 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker advocated a common European army as a way to increase the EU’s standing on the world stage, not least in the eyes of Russia. Recent reports on a forthcoming defense white paper from Germany and EU High representative Federica Mogherini’s EU Global Strategy stoked scaremongering too.

The reality is there is not enough political will in Europe’s key member countries. David Cameron is not alone in his staunch rejection of the idea. Ireland guards its neutrality zealously and secured a protocol stating explicitly that the Lisbon Treaty did not provide for the creation of such a force. France would rather get the rest of Europe to support French operations in Mali and the Sahel.

In Germany, it’s considered “good form” to reaffirm the commitment to a European army, but it remains a long-term aspiration — nobody in Berlin is preparing for its implementation. Finally, Central and East European states see U.S. capabilities as a vital hedge against an aggressive Russia, and fear that a European army would remove the raison d’être for U.S. forces in Europe. They have expressed their strong preference for NATO, and discarded the idea of a European army.

In practice the lack of a shared vision on how to use EU forces would be an enormous problem in a crisis.

Europeans have learned this the hard way, through the EU Battle Groups. Created in 2007, these consist of rotating troop contingents from member countries, in theory ready to deploy at 10 days’ notice. The Battle Groups are not controlled from Brussels, however, and rely on member countries to provide boots on the ground. There is no common budget; instead, an unattractive system of cost distribution places the brunt of an operation’s financial burden on the deploying country. Differing national military strategies and threat assessments have deterred EU members from volunteering soldiers for these operations — the Battle Groups have, in fact, never been used.

These problems would not go away with a centralized EU force — and even its staunchest supporters cannot conceive of a supranational defense authority that could overrule decisions by national parliaments.

If expeditionary operations are not an option, an EU army would presumably be designed to take on territorial defense tasks. But this would signal a qualitative shift in EU policy, far beyond its current mandate for humanitarian and rescue tasks, crisis management, and peacekeeping.

Collective defense of European territory is still NATO’s mandate. These days the Alliance’s problem is not that Europeans might take too much in their own hands, but rather that Americans may tire of European “free riders.” Washington has repeatedly signaled that it wants Europeans to take their own defense more seriously.

The EU can add real value by integrating European defense markets or coordinating multinational procurement projects. European leaders should not allow debates over the creation of an unrealistic European pipe dream distract them from decisions on how best to meet Europe’s defense needs.

The upcoming EU Global Strategy could lay the groundwork for another attempt to revive the EU’s defense role, and it may well feature the creation of permanent military headquarters. But it will remain a “strategic reflection,” not a call for an EU army. EU leaders will no doubt endorse it — but only after a unanimous vote. Ironically, if the UK is serious about preventing a stronger EU defense role, it will have to stay in the Union to veto its creation.

Sophia Besch is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.