It is tempting to dismiss the recent call for a European army by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, as the pipe dream of an unreconstructed European federalist. Juncker’s call has had very little resonance. The EU’s 28 member states have neglected collective defense for many years. Growing euroskepticism from the both the left and the right makes the creation of new European superstructures an electoral liability. The Commission, led by Juncker, has the tiniest of roles in European defense policy.
British officials were promptly dispatched to brief journalists that the UK would never consent to a European army. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, implored the Europeans not to duplicate alliance structures. But Juncker’s idea has potential and deserves debate.
The EU’s (and Europe’s) own defense capabilities are in a pitiful state. The closest thing resembling an EU rapid reaction force – the EU Battlegroups – have theoretically had full operational capacity since 2007 but have never been deployed. Any deployment would require a unanimous decision by all 28 member states and would still be subject to national caveats. Such restrictions hamstring operational effectiveness in any multinational operation, as seen with ISAF in Afghanistan and UNPROFOR earlier in Bosnia. Attempts to streamline defense procurements have proceeded at a snail’s pace as national governments seek to shield their defense firms from foreign competition. (The defense industry is exempt from the rules of the EU’s single market.)
Co-operation with NATO is hampered by the vexing issue of Cyprus. With one-third of its territory occupied by NATO member Turkey, Cyprus – which is outside of NATO – has blocked closer co-operation between the EU and the alliance.
At a time of rising geopolitical tension in the EU’s neighborhood – from Ukraine to Syria to Libya – Europeans are starting to realize that the current set-up is just not working. This recognition is becoming harder to ignore as times get tougher. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor the Islamic State differentiate between the EU and NATO in their views of, and attacks on, the West.
Juncker’s model for an EU army, which recalls a proposal torpedoed by the French Parliament in 1954, cannot come to pass without some form of political federation at the European level – a European state – which makes it a non-starter. What is far more realistic (and far more desirable), is an all-volunteer European division to allow for rapid reaction during a crisis. The division should be based in one of the (formerly Soviet-occupied) Central European member states, with a battalion based at the former Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the EU maintains an anemic placeholder military force, EUFOR, making its commitment to maintain a “safe and secure environment” there hostage to fortune. The base’s airfield can accommodate the heaviest transports and enable power projection to the south. The deployment of an EU volunteer rapid reaction division would in all likelihood still require an all-EU go-ahead – but without any crippling national caveats undermining its effectiveness and with fast-track decision-making. Such a mechanism would allow member state governments to deploy forces in defense of common European interests without fear of national flag-draped caskets returning in the event of casualties, allowing for a more credible common deterrent.
This type of rapid reaction force would reassure the EU’s eastern member states that they are not second-class members. It would absorb NATO-qualified military personnel who have fallen victim to swingeing defense budget cuts, putting their skills to good use. It could also be deployed without violating NATO’s deal with Russia not to permanently base NATO forces on new member states’ territory. And it would encompass within it countries such as Sweden and Finland that have an interest in a security shield against Russia but are not members of NATO. Given the unlikelihood of Sweden or Finland joining NATO anytime soon (a desirable aim), this would allow an avenue for long-overdue common Baltic/northern tier defense planning.
Furthermore, contrary to understandable fears of duplication or de facto undermining of NATO, such a new division would not duplicate existing assets or move them away from NATO’s orbit. It would generate new forces which could complement NATO’s existing assets and coordinate via Berlin-plus arrangements, as is the case with EUFOR. In order to reassure NATO that this new division will not undercut it, a perennial fear of the British (and the Americans), it could be placed under British command. The obvious choice would be the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR).
The West’s adversaries have long taken advantage of its inter- and intra-institutional fissures, as Russia and the Islamic State currently are to achieve their geopolitical aims and territorial ambitions. A common Western defense strategy and mechanism has long been hampered not merely by a paucity of deployable forces but the will to deploy those available effectively toward the mission objectives for fear of the political fallout from casualties to national forces or contingents. European Commission President Juncker’s idea, if taken under serious consideration, starting with a serious debate, could help close some of this gap and begin the necessary transformation of the EU into an actor which can protect its interests in the geopolitical world in which it resides.
Toby Vogel and Kurt Bassuener are co-founders and senior associates of the Democratization Policy Council, a global initiative for accountability in democracy promotion.