Julian Lindley-French – Is the EU Building an Army?

This post was originally published on May 31, 2016, on Lindley French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power:

Alphen, Netherlands. 28 May.

Last Thursday The Times ran a headline that implied that the EU was about to embark on the construction of a European Defence Union (EDU). As France and Germany together commemorate the centennial of 800,000 lost souls at the Battle of Verdun is the EU about to build an army?

On 28 June, a week or so before the big NATO Warsaw Summit (and conveniently a week after the Brexit vote) an EU Summit will take place at which EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini will unveil the Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. The document states that, “… [EU] security and defence is where a step change is most urgent”, and suggests that, “…in turbulent times, we need a compass to navigate the waters of a faster-changing world”. The Strategy goes on, “The EU can step up its contribution to Europe’s security and defence”, and that, “Our external action must become more joined-up across policy areas, institutions and member-states. Greater unity of purpose is needed across the policy areas making up our external action”.

At the heart of the proposals are a new EU military headquarters, a new civil-military headquarters, equipment, intelligence and force pooling, as well as the creation of a formal European Council of Defence Ministers (ECDM). A European army? Critically, the creation of the ECDM would be a body comprised of national ministers and not the kind of supranational command that was envisaged for the failed European Defence Community, Europe’s first attempt at creating a European army which failed back in the 1950s.

Furthermore, the language of the Strategy is decidedly inter-governmental rather than federalist. It refers to the need to become more “joined-up” rather than more ‘integrated’. Moreover, Mogherini herself is believed to be far more lukewarm about the idea of a European army than, say, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The proposal is also perfectly in line with the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and the agreed on development of a Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP.

But there is a grand ‘but’. At the heart of the security and defence components in the Global Strategy is a form of federalism, albeit a distinctly hybrid form of federalism driven first and foremost by Berlin’s concerns that the EU might fail. The ‘success’ of the EU is central to contemporary Germany’s legitimate concept of security. Therefore, post-Brexit Berlin will move quickly to extend its influence via Brussels over its continental neighbours by using the EU to integrate Europe’s smaller powers around Germany.

The three core elements in the German strategy are the Eurozone, Schengen, and the forthcoming European Defence Union. That is why nine EU member-states are about to be led by Germany towards a form of EDU by using so-called permanent structured co-operation, which was also agreed in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. That is also why Germany will likely call for a European Defence Union in Berlin’s forthcoming July Defence “Weissbuch” (White Book).

This is important. If an EU hybrid-federation does indeed emerge built around Germany it is likely over time NATO would also be re-ordered into an Anglosphere comprised of America, Britain and Canada, and a Eurosphere organised by and around Berlin, possibly with a few floaters in the middle.

Britain? If there is one area of EU ‘competence’ where real and actual power matters it is matters military. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies the top five global military spenders in 2015 were the US at $597 billion (bn); China at $146 bn; Saudi Arabia at $82 bn; Britain at 56 bn, and Russia at $52 bn. This compares with France at $47 bn, and Germany at $37 bn, and the rest nowhere. Therefore, given the facts of power and Germany’s coming demarche, even if Britain votes to stay in the EU London’s relationship with the Real EU (the Eurozone) will remain at best semi-detached as the UK will not join either the Euro or Schengen, and will certainly not be part of Germany’s hybrid-federation.

This summer is thus a really big strategic moment for Europe. Come July and the need for a new EU political settlement will become ever more apparent as the ‘one-size fits all’ Lisbon Treaty is fast overtaken by events. Critically, there will be a clear need to ensure that the relationship between those within the hybrid-federation and those without is workable and just. Should the British vote to remain, and if those in London with a strategically-illiterate balance-sheet view of power can for once be side-lined, Britain would almost certainly emerge as the leader of those inside the EU but outside the hybrid-federation. My essential reason for rejecting Brexit is in the hope that London would for once apply power via influence over an EU that is at a critical juncture.

Therefore, it might also be a good moment for Berlin to wake up from its ‘we know best about everything’ culture and realise its own ambitions are to a significant extent dependent on a new grand strategic European bargain between Britain and Germany. Indeed, as Britain increasingly eclipses France as the EU’s second economic power and leading military power then such a bargain would clearly be in the interest of both states.

As for Euro-idealism forget it! It is finance rather than dream of a European army that is driving EDU. The 28 May decision of Eurozone finance ministers to offer Greece a further €8bn in loans but then two years hence offer Athens debt relief (crucially and cynically after the 2017 French presidential and German federal elections) is a big step down the road to debt mutualisation. Indeed, an important precedent was set at the May meeting. Given that 18 EU member-states are carrying public debt far beyond the 3% debt to GDP ratio enshrined in EU law the result of that meeting will not only likely mean more austerity for the debtor members, but more large transfers of taxpayer’s money from the ten EU member-states that actually pay for the EU.

The EU is now on (another) collision course with NATO. The US is demanding that NATO Europeans spend at least 2% GDP on defence, albeit “within a decade”. In 2017 come a President Clinton or quite possibly a President Trump those demands are likely to grow with Washington demanding 2% immediately. The problem is that debt mutualisation, allied to EU ‘law’ over public debt, will almost certainly mean many Alliance members will simply be unable to meet the NATO target.

Trapped between EU and US demands for more defence expenditure many EU member-states will doubtless look for a solution. Euro-federalists, such as Juncker, will use this tension to insist that a ‘common’ defence is the only way to balance defence effectiveness with defence efficiency, and thus the only way to meet the ‘obligations’ of membership of both NATO and the Real EU.  In reality the debt-ceiling would ensure a common defence realises less not more European defence.

There can be no question that by calling for an EDU at such a time suggests that one-day a European army might be created. However, for the EU to have an army the Union would need to be state in its own right and such a ‘state’ remains a long way off.  Current proposals are more likely to lead to a grouping of relatively weak military powers around a Germany that is still reluctant to play a full defence role. Therefore, for the moment a ‘European army’ would exist in name only, with EDU yet another paper exercise built on more empty defence acronyms, leading to yet another European force that is at best able to undertake some crisis management operations, but little more.

Is the EU building an army? No, not yet. In future? Who knows? After all, the historic eloquence of Verdun remains a powerful symbol for France and Germany.

Julian Lindley-French is an internationally-recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author, Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, CGAI Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC

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