European federalists seeking to transform the 27-member European Union into a European superstate — a so-called United States of Europe — have revived a decades-old proposal to build a European army.
The call for a supranational army, part of a push for Europe to achieve "strategic autonomy" from the United States, is being spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron, who, as part of his reelection campaign, apparently hopes to replace outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of Europe.
Macron claims that Europe needs its own military because, according to him, the United States is no longer a reliable ally. He cites as examples: U.S. President Joe Biden's precipitous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan; the growing pressure on Europe to take sides with the United States on China; and France's exclusion from a new security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
Many EU member states disagree with Macron. Eastern European countries, some of which face existential threats from Russia, know that neither the EU nor France can match the military capabilities offered by NATO and the United States. Other countries are concerned about a panoply of issues ranging from financial costs to national sovereignty. Still others are opposed to creating a parallel structure to NATO that could undermine the transatlantic alliance. A common EU army appears to be a long way from becoming reality.
A logical course of action would be for EU member states (which comprise 21 of the 30 members of NATO) to honor past pledges to increase defense spending as part of their contribution to the transatlantic alliance. That, however, would fly in the face of the folie de grandeur — the delusions of grandeur — of European federalists who want to transform the EU into a major geopolitical power.
The term "strategic autonomy" in European discussions on defense has been in use since at least December 2013, when the European Council, the EU's governing body comprised of the leaders of the 27 EU member states, called for the EU to improve its defense industrial base.
In June 2016, the term appeared in the EU's security strategy. The document — "A Global Strategy for the European Union's Foreign and Security Policy" — was said to "nurture the ambition of strategic autonomy" for the European Union. "An appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy," it stated, "is important for Europe's ability to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders."
In recent years, the concept of "strategic autonomy" has taken on far broader significance: the idea now means that the EU should become a sovereign power that is militarily, economically, and technologically independent from the United States.
EU observer Dave Keating noted:
"The Brussels buzzword is now 'strategic autonomy,' an effort to wrestle the word 'sovereignty' away from nationalists and make the case that only a strong EU can make Europeans truly sovereign in relation to Russia, China, and the United States."
European federalists increasingly have called for building an autonomous EU military force:
- March 8, 2015. In an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Jean-Claude Juncker, then the president of the European Commission, the EU's administrative arm, declared that the European Union needed its own army because it was not "taken entirely seriously" on the international stage. The proposal was flatly rejected by the British government, which at the time was still an EU member: "Our position is crystal clear that defense is a national — not an EU — responsibility and that there is no prospect of that position changing and no prospect of a European army."
- September 26, 2017. President Macron, in a major speech at Sorbonne University, called for a joint EU defense force as part of his vision for the future of the bloc: "Europe needs to establish a common intervention force, a common defense budget and a common doctrine for action."
- November 6, 2018. Macron, marking the centenary of the armistice that ended World War 1, warned that Europe cannot be protected without a "true, European army." He added: "We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America."
- November 13, 2018. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Macron's calls for a European army: "The times when we could rely on others are over. This means nothing less than for us Europeans to take our destiny in our own hands if we want to survive as a Union.... We have to create a European intervention unit with which Europe can act on the ground where necessary. We have taken major steps in the field of military cooperation; this is good and largely supported in this house. But I also have to say, seeing the developments of the recent years, that we have to work on a vision to establish a real European army one day."
- September 10, 2019. During her first press conference as the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who has long called for a "United States of Europe," said that she will lead a "geopolitical Commission" aimed at boosting the EU's role on the world stage. She did not offer many details other than a vaguely worded pledge that the European Union would "be the guardian of multilateralism."
- November 7, 2019. President Macron, in an interview with the London-based magazine, The Economist, declared that NATO was "brain dead" and warned that European countries can no longer rely on the United States for defense. Europe, he said, stands on "the edge of a precipice" and needs to start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power and regain "military sovereignty" or otherwise "we will no longer be in control of our destiny." Macron criticized U.S. President Donald J. Trump because he "doesn't share our idea of the European project." Chancellor Merkel said Macron "used drastic words — that is not my view of co-operation in NATO."
- November 26, 2019. France and Germany announced the "Conference on the Future of Europe," a two-year post-Brexit soul-searching exercise aimed at reforming the EU to make it "more united and sovereign."
- June 17, 2020. The European Council tasked the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, with drafting a written "Strategic Compass." The document should have three main purposes: 1) to formulate the EU's first common threat analysis; 2) to strengthen the EU's security and defense role; and 3) to offer political guidance for future military planning processes. The Strategic Compass, aimed at harmonizing the perception of threats and risks within the EU, is to be presented in November 2021, debated by EU leaders in December 2021, and approved in March 2022.
- December 3, 2020. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in blog post, "Why European Strategic Autonomy Matters," wrote: "It is difficult to claim to be a 'political union' able to act as a 'global player' and as a 'geopolitical Commission' without being 'autonomous.'" He described "strategic autonomy" as a long-term process intended to ensure that Europeans "increasingly take charge of themselves."
- May 5, 2021. Fourteen EU countries — Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain — called for the creation of a so-called EU First Entry Force consisting of 5,000 troops with air, land and sea capabilities.
- August 29, 2021. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said that the moment had come to establish an EU expeditionary force — a "First Entry Force" — to compensate for U.S. "disengagement" from international affairs. A senior EU diplomat, speaking to the Guardian newspaper, asked: "We have been here before — which leader is going to allow their nationals to be killed in the name of the EU? What problem is this reaction force meant to solve? Does Borrell seriously entertain the idea the EU would be able to step into the void the US left?"
- September 15, 2021. In her annual State of the Union speech delivered to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, von der Leyen urged greater military independence from the United States. "Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own," she said. She called for a "European Defense Union" but admitted the "lack of political will" to "build the foundation for collective decision-making."
- October 2, 2021. European Council President Charles Michel, speaking at an award ceremony of the International Charlemagne Prize, declared that "2022 will be the year of European defense."
- October 5-6, 2021. At an EU Summit in Slovenia, EU member states were so divided on the issue of strategic autonomy that the topic was not even included in the summit's final declaration. To create the illusion of consensus, Michel issued an "oral conclusion" of the summit: "To become more effective and assertive on the international stage, the European Union needs to increase its capacity to act autonomously."
A History of Failure
The debate over building a European army has been going on since the end of World War 2. In 1950, France proposed creating a common army to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union without having to rearm Germany. A treaty creating the so-called European Defense Community was signed in 1952, but it was never ratified by the French Parliament due to concerns that France would lose its sovereignty to a multilateral decision-making body.
In the late 1990s, after the EU and its member states failed to prevent a decade of bloodletting in the Yugoslav Wars, and after the United States intervened, European leaders called for the creation of a European Rapid Reaction Force capable of acting in future crises.
In 2007, after years of debate, the EU established two so-called EU battlegroups consisting of 1,500 troops each to respond to crises, but due to intra-European disputes over financing and deployment, they have never been used.
The European Union is now calling for the battlegroups to be rebranded as a "First Entry Force" comprised of 5,000 troops. It remains unclear why EU leaders think the latter will achieve what the former could not. In any event, a force that small is nowhere near enough to give the EU "strategic autonomy" from the United States.
Over the decades, the European quest for "strategic autonomy" has resulted in dozens of summits, declarations, concept papers, reports, institutions, terms and acronyms, including: Petersberg Declaration; St. Malo Declaration; Berlin Plus Agreement; Franco-German Brigade; German-Netherlands Corps; Belgian-Dutch Naval Cooperation Accord; European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP); Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP); Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO); European Capabilities Action Plan (ECAP); Headline Goals; EU Battlegroups; European Gendarmerie Force; European Rapid Operational Force (EUROFOR); European Maritime Force; Eurocorps; Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF); Entente frugale; European Defense Agency; European Security Strategy; European Intervention Initiative (EI2); EUFOR; European Command and Control (C2); European Union Military Committee (EUMC); European Union Military Staff (EUMS); Joint Support Coordination Cell (JSCC); Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC); Political and Security Committee (PSC); Politico-Military Group (PMG); European Defense Fund; Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD); and the EU's ongoing "Strategic Compass" process, among many others.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in a recent opinion article published by Politico, concluded that "illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end." She added: "Europeans will not be able to replace America's crucial role as a security provider. We have to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, we will remain dependent."
Lack of Capabilities
An important obstacle to building a European army is the reluctance of EU governments to invest in defense. At the 2014 Wales Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, allies agreed to spend a minimum of 2% percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to defense spending. In 2020, only nine of NATO's 21 European members honored their pledges, according to data supplied by NATO.
Germany — the biggest economy in the EU and the fourth-biggest in the world — spent only 1.53% of GDP on defense in 2020. That represents an increase of less than 0.5% of GDP since 2015. France, the EU's second-biggest economy, spent 2.01% of GDP on defense in 2020, an increase of only 0.3% of GDP since 2015. Italy, the EU's third-biggest economy, spent 1.41% of GDP on defense in 2020, while Spain, the EU's fourth-biggest economy, spent a mere 1.02% of GDP on defense in 2020, according to NATO data. The numbers show that defense spending is not a priority in most European countries.
The German armed forces (the Bundeswehr) are in an especially sad state of disrepair. A damning report published by the German Parliament in January 2019 found that critical equipment was scarce and that readiness and recruitment were at all-time lows. "No matter where you look, there's dysfunction," said a high-ranking German officer stationed at Bundeswehr headquarters in Berlin.
A May 2018 report by the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that only four of Germany's 128 Eurofighter jets were combat ready. Germany's obligation to NATO requires it to have at least 80 combat-ready jets for crisis situations.
At the end of 2017, not one of the German Air Force's 14 large transport planes was available for deployment due to a lack of maintenance, according to the German Parliament. In October 2017, a spokesman for the German Navy said that all six of Germany's submarines were in the dock for repairs. In February 2015, Germany's defense ministry admitted that its forces were so under-equipped that they had to use broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise in Norway.
Much of the blame falls on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. During her 16 years in office, she has been content to free-ride on the U.S. defense umbrella. Also to blame is Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister between 2014 and 2019, before she was promoted to lead the European Commission, and who now wants to build a European army. As German defense minister, von der Leyen was plagued by scandals and accused of cronyism, mismanagement and nepotism.
EU affairs analyst Matthew Karnitschnig quipped:
"With Merkel on her way out, fixing the Bundeswehr will likely be up to her successor. Until then, plans for a 'European Army' that includes Germany have about as much chance of getting off the ground as the German Air Force."
France, which has just under 300,000 active-duty personnel, has the largest military in Europe. Still, it remains a regional power, not a global one. In September 2021, the RAND Corporation, in a major study — "A Strong Ally Stretched Thin: An Overview of France's Defense Capabilities from a Burdensharing Perspective" — concluded that the French military suffers many shortcomings that render as "limited" its capacity to sustain a high-end, conventional conflict.
The French Army "faces a challenge with respect to readiness, owing to past budget cuts and austerity measures, a small number of weapon systems, and the burden of sustaining ongoing overseas operations," according to RAND. The French Air Force "suffers from limited capacity" and "severely lacks strategic airlift." The French Navy, which has only one aircraft carrier, like France's other services, "has issues with readiness, and munitions stocks reportedly are low," according to RAND. The report's takeaway is that the French military would require decades of preparation and massive budget increases to realistically form the basis for a European army.
Poland, which is opposed to a European army because it would "weaken" the armies of NATO's member states, plans to double the size of its armed forces to 250,000 soldiers and 50,000 reserves. The expansion, announced on October 26, would make the Polish military the second-largest in Europe, ahead of that of the United Kingdom. In January 2020, Poland signed a contract worth $4.6 billion to purchase 32 F-35A fighter jets from the United States.
In October 2018, Belgium signed a $4.5 billion deal to purchase 34 F-35A fighter jets from the United States. "The offer from the Americans was the best in all our seven evaluation criteria," Belgian Defense Minister Steven Vandeput wrote on Twitter.
"The decision is a setback for Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, who are behind the Eurofighter program, and also means the rejection of an informal French offer to sell Belgium the Rafale fighter built by Dassault Aviation," according to Reuters.
This implies that in the future the Belgian and Polish militaries will be further integrated with the United States and NATO rather than with a hypothetical European army.
One of the most vocal champions of the idea of a European army is French President Emmanuel Macron. He must know that an independent EU military remains only a distant possibility, despite his describing the NATO alliance as "brain dead."
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to retire, it appears that much of Macron's posturing on European "strategic autonomy" is part of a French nationalist campaign strategy aimed at presenting France as a great power that dominates the European Union. Macron seems to be trying to appeal to French voters while carving out a role for himself to replace Merkel as the new leader of Europe.
Macron, who has yet to declare his candidacy, faces reelection in April 2022. Currently he is the clear first-round front-runner at 24%, according to recent polls cited by Politico. His main rivals are two nationalists: Marine Le Pen of the right-leaning National Rally party, and Éric Zemmour, a French essayist and media personality.
Macron has been calling for a European army for several years, but his professed aspiration for "strategic autonomy" shifted into high gear after U.S. President Donald J. Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO if European member states refused to pay their fair share. Trump's warning, which appears to have been more of a bluff than a real threat, prompted many European countries to increase their defense spending, even if most are still below the agreed-upon threshold of 2% of GDP.
Macron subsequently was dealt a humiliating blow by the Biden administration. In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced a new tripartite strategic alliance aimed at countering China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
Notably, the so-called AUKUS agreement does not include any member state of the European Union, which was completely left in the dark about the new alliance. AUKUS was announced on September 15, just hours before the EU unveiled its much-hyped "Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific." The EU had been hoping that its new plan would highlight its "strategic autonomy" from the United States in the Pacific region. Instead, the EU was eclipsed by AUKUS and exposed as a paper tiger.
Adding insult to injury, Australia announced that as part of the AUKUS deal, it had cancelled a multi-billion-dollar submarine contract — once dubbed the "contract of the century" — under which France was to supply Australia with 12 diesel-powered submarines. Instead, Australia said that it would be buying nuclear submarines from the United States.
France has reacted angrily to its change of fortunes. French Foreign Minister called AUKUS a "stab in the back." The French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, said that Australia's decision to cancel the submarine deal was akin to "treason." The French government claimed that the Australian decision caught Paris by surprise, but the subsequent leak of a text message between Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that Macron knew well in advance that Australia was planning to cancel the contract.
The AUKUS humiliation set Macron into a rage and appears to be fueling his increasingly frenzied calls for "strategic autonomy." An advisor to Macron said:
"We could turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened. We think that would be a mistake for all Europeans. There really is an opportunity here."
So far, however, only Italy and Greece have come out in support of Macron's calls for an autonomous EU military force.
In September 2021, France and Greece signed a new defense and security agreement in which France pledged to provide military assistance to Greece in the event of an attack by a third country, even if such a country, Turkey, is a member of NATO. Macron said the deal, worth $3 billion to France, was a "milestone" in European defense because it strengthened the EU's "strategic autonomy."
Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis described the Greek-French defense deal "a first step towards the strategic autonomy of Europe." But some in the EU were skeptical of the deal and are concerned it will only serve to inflame tensions between Greece and Turkey.
"It is a bit bizarre to say the pact contributes to European sovereignty," an unnamed EU diplomat told Politico. "By all accounts, this is a traditional 19th-century defense pact between two European powers."
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, in an interview with the Danish newspaper Politiken, said that Macron was escalating his dispute with the United States way out of proportion:
"I think it is important to say, in relation to the discussions that are taking place right now in Europe, that I experience U.S. President Joe Biden as being very loyal to the transatlantic alliance.
"I think in general that one should refrain from lifting some specific challenges, which will always exist between allies, up to a level where they are not supposed to be. I really, really want to warn against this."
Meanwhile, the British newspaper, The Telegraph, on September 22 reported that Macron had offered to put France's seat on the United Nations Security Council "at the disposal of the European Union" if its governments back Macron's plans for an EU army. The French Presidency later denied the report:
"Contrary to the assertions reported this morning, no, France has not offered to leave its seat on the United Nations Security Council. It belongs to France, and it will remain so."
France assumes the EU's six-month rotating presidency on January 1, 2022. During that time, Macron is sure to continue pushing for "strategic autonomy" from the United States, including at a "Summit on European Defense" scheduled for the first half of 2022.
Analysts James Jay Carafano and Stefano Graziosi, in an essay, "Europe's Strategic Autonomy Fallacy," wrote:
"Strategic autonomy might sound empowering, but it remains little more than a distraction and irritant to the transatlantic community and the real issues. European nations need more national defense capacity. Europe needs a strong, innovative, and productive defense industrial base, and Europeans need to take collective security and its role in a Europe whole, free, prosperous and at peace seriously. These problems can be better addressed by building the militaries the Europeans need than the fantasies Brussels wants."
A senior Tory MP, Bob Seely, warned:
"If the EU Army undermines NATO, or results in the separation of the U.S. and Europe or produces a paper army, Europe will be committing the most enfeebling and dangerous act of self-harm since the rise of fascism in the 1930s. An EU Army will amount to European de-arming."
EU affairs expert Dave Keating noted:
"The problem is that while leaders like Macron have tasked the Commission to make the EU more geopolitically strong, he and others still refuse to give the Commission the tools that would make it strong. For the last decade, the European Council has consistently opposed measures that would strengthen the Commission, because it would mean diluting the power of national governments....
"EU national leaders are all well aware of the need for Europe to speak with one voice if it ever wants to be taken seriously on the global stage. But their natural instinct to preserve their own power gets in the way of achieving this goal."
In an interview with France 24, the French state-owned television network, Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, said:
"It will be hard to convince some member states that collective EU defense would bring the same security as NATO's U.S.-backed defense arrangement. Nobody in the EU has ever been able to come up with a decision-making arrangement that takes national divides into account while facilitating expeditious decision-making; it's either the lowest common denominator or grand rhetorical comments tied to absurd propositions. Military action is politically defensible only when taken by national leaders and parliaments — and it's difficult to see that being worked around."
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead noted that the entire premise of European leaders that the United States was "disengaging" from international affairs was based on a "significant misunderstanding." He wrote:
"Many Europeans, including some seasoned observers of the trans-Atlantic scene, believe that if the U.S. sees the Indo-Pacific as the primary focus of its foreign policy, it must be writing off the rest of the world. These observers look at the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and imagine that this is the kind of headlong retreat they can expect from America in Europe and the Middle East.
"This is unlikely. American interests are global, and American presidents, like it or not, can't confine their attention to a single world theater."
Polish analyst Łukasz Maślanka tweeted that the French arguments for "strategic autonomy" from the United States are lacking in substance:
"French reports from the European Council summit in Slovenia assess Macron's chances of convincing Europeans to EU defense. A critical tone prevails against the reluctant Balts and Poles who still stubbornly believe in NATO despite the U.S.'s allegedly inevitable withdrawal from Europe.
"However, it is French observers who lack lucidity: the U.S. presence in Central Europe has been growing, not diminishing in recent years. It is many times greater not only than what France currently delivers, but what it could ever deliver.
"Finally, if the U.S. really did intend to turn its back on Europe, the dismay in Paris would be no less than in Warsaw. It's harmful to drive something that can finally become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
The London-based magazine, The Economist, wrote that Europeans feel "unnerved" by Macron's push for "strategic autonomy" from the United States:
"Most of them, especially those near the Russian border, are happy to rely on America's security guarantee. Few share France's willingness to splurge on defense, or its expeditionary military culture. (Germany, especially, does not.) Nobody agrees what 'strategic autonomy' actually means. Low odds, however, seldom deter Mr. Macron. After the latest snub, the unhugged French president will doubtless conclude that he has little choice but to keep trying."
John Krieger, writing for the UK-based The Spectator, noted:
"Given that Emmanuel Macron has nailed his colors to the mast on driving European integration deeper, a refusal by European member states to follow suit would be embarrassing and not a good omen for his forthcoming presidency of the EU in January."
Kristjan Mäe, head of the Estonian defense ministry's NATO and EU department said:
"The EU is not a credible substitute for what NATO represents. You will not see any appetite for the European army amongst member states."
Analyst Brooks Tigner, writing for the Atlantic Council, concluded:
"Even if national capitals wanted to lunge for a common army, there are so many technical, legal, and administrative differences between their militaries that it would take decades to produce a smoothly functioning force.
"Those differences boil down to some of the most mundane things such as soldiers' rights. Strong unions representing military personnel in rich Scandinavian countries, for instance, ensure that their soldiers enjoy levels of physical comfort, hardship pay, and access to medical care that their equivalents in poorer southern EU countries can only dream of for an exercise, much less an actual operation. Whose union rules would govern a common European army? And how would that be financed?
"The differences are even sharper at the strategic level when it comes to intelligence. As a whole, the EU countries (and those of NATO as well) do not trust one another with sensitive information: it is parceled out very parsimoniously from one capital to a few trusted others. It would never work for a truly common army. Changing that alone via twenty-five-way trust for intelligence-sharing within PESCO would take years and years. Some deem it impossible.
"Conclusion: any talk of creating a fully-fledged common army, even within the next generation, is just that: jaw-jaw and not real-real."