The disastrous end of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan demonstrated, once again, the weakness and dependence on the United States of the European allies, who can only follow the decisions of the leader, although later they regret the humanitarian, economic or migratory consequences. It has also increased the uncertainty about the strength of the US commitment in the defense of its allies, which already suffered a severe blow during the presidency of Donald Trump. It cannot be ruled out that Trump, or someone similar, will return to the US Presidency, but in any case what is not going to return is the priority that Europe once had for Washington, which has been looking towards the Pacific for many years, while our problems are in the Mediterranean, the Sahel and the east of our continent, and no one is going to solve them if it is not us. The best demonstration is the AUKUS agreement with the UK and Australia, for which the US did not even consult with the rest of its European allies.
This reality has moved prominent European leaders, such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Commission Úrsula Von der Leyen, or High Representative Josep Borrell, to demand the inescapable need for a force the EU’s own military, allowing it a certain freedom of action, sometimes expressing it in colloquial terms such as the creation of a “European army”. An initiative that will undoubtedly be easier after the Brexit.
The expression “European army” can mean very different things. In any case, it is not about creating a classic army, with the same uniform and badges, a single hierarchical scale, and only disciplinary or administrative rules. That is not possible with the current degree of integration. Rather, it would be about creating a kind of combined, flexible and modular military organization that would report to the European Council, in the same way that NATO responds to the Atlantic Council. It seems that for now the ambition would be much more modest: an expeditionary force of about 5,000 troops to have its own ability to enter and exit a conflict scenario. Something that has been tried before – let us remember the combat groups never deployed – and has always failed due to a lack of political will, the fundamental ingredient. In any case, such a force would not solve the main problem: the EU cannot be a global player, nor make its own decisions, without having the capacity to defend itself. This is the fundamental question that no one seems to dare to address.
The EU is already formally a defensive alliance. Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union is a mutual defense clause similar to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The difference is that it developed rapidly in a highly capable military-political structure, given the importance of the threat it had to face, while the European version – which introduced the Treaty of Lisbon – has not developed. nor have the necessary means been articulated to make it effective.
What has been done so far – European Defense Agency, Permanent Structured Cooperation, European Defense Fund – are important steps to improve capabilities, a basic ingredient of strategic autonomy. But from an operational and political point of view they mean very little. It is necessary to take a definitive step towards the construction of a European Defense Union, which includes among its missions the collective defense of the Member States.
Those who oppose use economic, political and technical reasons, which are not well founded. Regarding a hypothetical increase in defense spending, we could argue that, according to data from the International Institute for Peace Research in Stockholm, in 2020 the defense budget of the Russian Federation was 61,713 million dollars, little more than a quarter of the aggregate of the 27 members of the EU (232,807). And it doesn’t seem like Russia has a problem defending itself on that budget.
It would not really be necessary to spend another euro to have an autonomous common European defense capable of sufficiently protecting European citizens, but rather a lot of money could be saved, taking advantage of the synergies of the union. It is true that there are vulnerabilities in some capacities, but it is not true that they cannot be overcome with purely European resources, taking into account our industrial and technological level. And, in any case, if you have to buy some equipment abroad, there will always be someone willing to sell it. Even the US Army buys some components from China for certain military equipment.
As for political support, there is little doubt. According to the latest Eurobarometer (April 2021), 78% of European citizens are in favor of a common security and defense policy, the highest percentage in 15 years, even higher than those in favor of a common foreign policy (73). Support is majority in all Member States, even very high in countries that have historically been considered “neutral” such as Finland (74), or in those that would theoretically be more Atlanticist, such as Poland (78).
Technically it is not difficult to do, you just have to create your own command structure, which could use existing European resources, assign operational forces from the participating countries to this structure and begin to coordinate capabilities, teams, services and doctrines, which is not It must be too complicated considering that the vast majority already follow NATO procedures. The deployment of Eurocorps Headquarters in various operations has shown that it can be operated operationally without US leadership. The obstacles are, therefore, of a political and ideological nature, and can be summed up in a lack of mutual trust between the EU member states, and a widespread fear that this initiative will weaken NATO and the relationship with the US.
Nothing is further from reality. For the US, with very important challenges in other parts of the world, it would be a relief that Europe did not need them except in case of existential danger. The membership of the 21 EU Member States that are part of NATO to a European Defense Union with its own military capacity should not be a problem for them, since both organizations would be complementary and collaborative. The EU could act with NATO or outside of it, depending on the case, in the same way that the US does, for example, in the AUKUS, or in other alliances in the Pacific. At the end of the process, the EU would be able to guarantee its own defense and then it would be appropriate for the Atlantic Alliance to reformulate itself so that on this side there would only be one interlocutor, the EU, apart from the non-member European countries that also wanted to sign it. .
The events, past and recent, show that without its own, sufficient and credible military capacity, the European Union will be subject to the decisions taken by others, which will logically take priority over its own interests. Europe’s security cannot depend sine die of powers that Europeans do not control. It is true that the path to autonomy in defense matters will be arduous and will encounter many resistance. It will require careful planning and a gradual and prudent start-up. A process similar to the one that followed the creation and implementation of the euro. As in that case, not all Member States will join in at first, but they will do so as the initiative takes hold. The Conference on the Future of Europe may be the appropriate framework to discuss a realistic but ambitious roadmap. There is a need and we have the capacity to meet it. Citizens require it. It is time to make political decisions.