European army proposal faces multiple complex hurdles
French President Emmanuel Macron is once again pushing the idea of a European army after Australia last week withdrew from its multibillion-dollar contract for French diesel-powered submarines in favor of the US-UK nuclear variety. In theory, this seems logical. After all, the EU is a significant economic block with multiple advanced militaries that have considerable security interests to protect around the globe. However, the establishment of a European army is far more complex than it seems.
The main problem comes down to differing views of the European project. Some, like the British, have always seen it as an economic project first and foremost, and only “unfortunately” also having a political dimension. Others have always seen it as a political project whose main aim is peace on the continent, and where economic integration is just a means to that end. For some, the union is just a platform for cooperation between sovereign nation states. For others, some degree of meaningful sovereignty is only really achieved when the small nation states of Europe pool their legal prerogatives together to achieve real power and leverage on the global stage.
This is a problem. The formation of a European army is as consequential to the reality of national sovereignty for the nation states of Europe as the withdrawal of the American empire from the continent is. Those who view the nation state as the “natural” unit of sovereignty will be extremely wary of the scope and capacity of any proposed European army. In effect, the only way the formation of such an army will not impinge on national sovereignty is if individual member states retain their own separate forces with complete operational autonomy and each state has a veto on anything the European force might want to do.
With the exit of the UK from the EU, the formation of a European army would no longer be vetoed by London. So that does increase the likelihood that efforts in this area will be successful. But the UK is hardly the only country in Europe that jealously guards its nominal national sovereignty. Poland and Hungary are quite likely to seek to block this initiative unless they have cast-iron vetoes on operational matters. Italy may soon join the chorus of skeptics.
Collective decision-making, with 27 countries having to unanimously agree on a course of action, is just not a recipe for swift, effective action.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But if done this way, the European army will be a largely meaningless project. EU foreign policy is already institutionally entrenched as weak and dysfunctional — deliberately so. The first commissioner for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton of the UK, specifically defined the role to be weak, in accordance with the Anglo-American view of deferring to the US and NATO in all matters of European defense and foreign policy. And if a common EU defense policy was to be articulated to command the European army, that policy would have to be subordinate to EU foreign policy, and therefore also weak, dysfunctional and fragmented.
Collective decision-making, with 27 countries having to unanimously agree on a course of action in matters as sensitive as war and peace, is just not a recipe for swift, effective action. Even outside of the nationalist awkward squad, how likely are countries like Sweden or Finland to vote for war in any circumstances short of an outright Russian invasion? Then there would be the inevitable national conflicts on how operations are conducted: Every country would want to avoid their troops serving on the front line and every country would seek to be the ones providing highly technical support — from a distance.
The formation of a European army under the institutional arrangements of the EU would require EU treaty changes, which would have to be approved by the governments and legislatures in all 27 member countries and probably also in at least a handful of public referendums. Building the army through this path is already nigh impossible. And if it were ever to succeed, as we have seen, the compromises needed to persuade all stakeholders to come on board would render the entire project largely pointless.
No doubt, smaller Western European nations, like the Benelux countries, would volunteer to join any Franco-German initiatives as they develop in practice. And, before long, most of the members of the EU would be signed up as the project gained steam and established its credibility. That might eventually be integrated into the EU — but that’s a secondary consideration toward making it a reality.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim