This article will give you a definite answer to one of the most important questions of European security governance and International Relations: Will there be a European army?
And the answer to this question is ‘No’. There won’t be a European army in the foreseeable future unless some specific conditions are met, which we will talk about in this article.
What is a European army?
The ‘European army’ is a bit of a shortcut. What is really meant by this question is: Will there ever be an army of the European Union?
The European Union is an organisation bringing together most countries on the European continent.
It started off in 1950 with the so-called Schuman Declaration, which was a call for European integration issued by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman.
At that time, European countries were still devastated from the Second World War and there was still uncertainty about the future of Germany.
In those circumstances, there was a widely shared understanding in Europe that the only way to escape the horrors of the past is to tie European states into a common organisation.
Long story short, European countries initiated the process of integration, which started with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.
In 1957, the cooperation was expanded to other areas through the creation of the European Economic Community and Euratom.
Fast forward to the 1990s, the European Union was created by the Treaty of Maastricht.
This is when things got interesting.
Common Foreign and Security Policy
When the EU was created in 1993, it was based on 3 pillars. The first pillar was called European Communities, and it pretty much included everything that the EU was about since the beginning of European integration.
Two new pillars were added at that point.
The second pillar was called Common Foreign and Security Policy and the third one Justice and Home Affairs.
These new pillars aimed to take European integration to the next level and expand it to completely new areas.
Common Foreign and Security Policy is interesting for us, because it was the first real effort to give European states a common voice on matters relating to foreign and security policy.
Bear in mind: these are the areas, which states do not want to share with international institutions.
So this was a revolutionary step, but also quite a modest one.
In reality, the EU did not suddenly emerged as some kind of an international power with a single voice and policy instruments. Far from it.
Common Security and Defence Policy
Notably, one of the major problems was that Europe had very outdated, fragmented and overall weak military capabilities.
This was the result of the fact that during the Cold War, the United States protected European security through its conventional military forces and a nuclear umbrella.
As such, European countries didn’t have a real incentive to take their own security more seriously and invest in it.
Things changed after the Cold War, when the United States began withdrawing from Europe and getting more involved in the Middle East and – subsequently – in the Pacific.
In these conditions, European countries realised they must do more to advance their own military capacities.
The breakup of former Yugoslavia and the eruption of the Balkan wars further exposed European weakness through its inability to effectively help resolve the conflict.
In this context, French President Jacques Chirac met UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in St Malo in 1998, where they agreed that Europe should develop its own autonomous military capacity.
This agreement provided impetus to the European Security and Defence Policy, which later became Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
Did CSDP establish a European army?
No, absolutely not. It was not the purpose of the CSDP to create an army of the European Union.
The objective was much, much more modest.
The idea was for the EU to establish some central institutions and mechanisms of cooperation between the member states.
It was also to boost investment in European military capabilities to allow the EU deploy limited-scale policing or training operations.
And that’s what the CSDP has become, although the progress has been truly slow and underwhelming.
One example of a CSDP mission was an EU NAVFOR Operation ‘Atalanta‘, deployed in 2008 to protect maritime traffic against Somali piracy in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.
At that time, the problem of Somali maritime piracy was significantly disrupting maritime traffic and the EU deployed a number of vessels and other resources to help out with the problem.
The mission had some success, but also drew criticism of duplicate resources, and NATO was operating a similar mission at that time.
And we have to remember that when we say NATO or the EU, what we mean is the resources of the member states of the two organisations.
Neither the EU nor NATO have their own armies.
They only have the capabilities, which the member states delegate to these institutions.
Where did the idea of European army come from?
The idea of a truly European army came mostly from the French President Emanuel Macron, who is a big advocate of the strong EU security and defence policy.
Macron is an ambitious statesman and he directed most of his political ambition towards boosting the European integration project.
This ambition stems, in an important way, from the traditional French scepticism towards the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom.
He would like Europe not to have to rely on the American protection and instead have its own effective and autonomous capacities.
Those aspirations were further exacerbated by the presidency of Donald Trump, who did not hide his disdain towards European integration.
Trump was a wake up call to Europe, in that he made the European countries realise they may not be able to rely on Washington forever.
As such, Trump was explicit in his calls to European countries to step up their financial commitments to NATO.
He also undermined American previously unshaken commitment to protect Europe in case of a threat.
This prompted some European states, but most notably Macron, to call on Europe to develop its own, truly autonomous military capability.
Will there be a European army?
Let’s return to our original question. Will there be a European army?
I said ‘No’ and the reason for this is simple: The EU is too diverse for all the member states to agree on the EU suddenly turning into a super-state with its own military capacity.
There are states, which are deeply sceptical of this idea, for various reasons.
Germany, for example, see Europe as primarily a ‘civilian power’ with significant economic presence.
Countries of Central Europe, such as Poland, don’t want to undermine NATO because they see the United States as the ultimate insurance against external security threats (that is Russia).
In short, there will never be unanimity on this issue and this is one policy area where unanimity among the member states would be required.
Any arrangement, which would not include all EU member states would be short of a ‘European army’ and would be more of an intergovernmental agreement.
Will there be a European army under certain conditions?
OK, so let’s reframe the question a little bit. Will there be a European army if certain conditions are met? And what would these conditions have to be?
There really is one scenario under which the EU could, quite credibly, consider creating a European army.
And this scenario involves the collapse of NATO and the breakup of the transatlantic alliance.
In the present situation, even though President Trump put the alliance to the test, the relationship between Europe and America remains strong.
President Biden specifically made it his foreign policy goal to restore transatlantic relationship and recommit the United States to NATO.
Still, we don’t know what the future holds. It is feasible to imagine that future American administrations will be increasingly disinterested in protecting Europe and maintaining the NATO alliance.
This may especially be the case with the growing hegemony of China and the rising tensions in the South China Sea. The US may simply run out of resources to be present in both Europe and Asia.
If that happens, European countries may come to the conclusion that individually they are too weak and the European army may be a viable proposition.
But even then, there will still be significant obstacles undermining the whole idea.
Who will pay for it and from what budget?
Will Europeans be ready to die under an EU flag?
How would Russia react to such development?
And most importantly:
Will all EU countries be ready to fundamentally alter the very nature of the European integration project?
These questions will not go away.
That’s why the prospect of a European army is still bleak even in the most favourable circumstances.