🇪🇺Why does Europe not have an army?

Letter from Europe #16

Two years ago, in the light of Donald Trump's scepticism of Atlanticism, both President of France Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed their support for a joint European army. A few weeks ago, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said to the European Parliament that "we need the European Defense Union". And since the military pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has been known (called AUKUS; more about that deal here) President Emmanuel Macron is more determined than ever to strengthen the EU's strategic clout. 

The desire for military autonomy has existed in Europe for a long time. But still, Europe is a lightweight. 

However, the EU is powerful. The prospect of a trade deal with Europe or the threat of EU sanctions can shape the behaviour of countries all over the world. But when it comes to hard security, the 27 nations of the EU are still heavily reliant on the US. 

Why is this so? Let's look back. 

As early as 1950, to strengthen defence against the Soviet threat without directly rearming Germany in the wake of World War II, France proposed a European army. That army would have consisted of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. In 1952 a treaty was signed but not ratified (here is the whole story). 

During the Cold War, Western Europe relied on NATO for defence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an intergovernmental military alliance between (in the meantime) 28 European countries and 2 North American countries. And after the fall of the iron curtain, NATO expanded into the former Soviet bloc (these countries have joined the military alliance since 1990: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia).

So there are several reasons why there is still no European army to this day. 

  • On the part of NATO and the USA, there was the express wish not to have an army of their own. 

  • On the part of Europe, there was no need for an army of its own for a long time.

  • Furthermore, the EU often has split opinions during a big international crisis. Think of the Iraq war in 2003 or Libya in 2011.

  • The decision not to establish an army avoided many problems - and the European countries saved a lot of money. The EU nations spend a little under €200bn ($288bn) a year on defence, compared with more than $700bn spent each year by the US.

Things are changing. 

After the end of the Cold War, Europe became less important to the USA. Europe no longer had to be a firewall against communism. In addition, China is the new military superpower (alongside the USA). 

What does this mean for Europe? Probably, that it must do more to assert and defend its values and interests by itself. If necessary, also with military means. But this would be a long way to go. 

What already exists: The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). It is the European Union's course of action in the fields of defence and crisis management. The CSDP was established due to the treaty of Lisbon in 2009 and is headed by the Union's High Representative Josep Borrell.

There has been some progress since its implementation. Since 2020 there has been a permanent operational headquarter for military operations in Brussels, Belgium, (Size: 154 personnel) of up to 2500 troops. 

That is not an army, of course. It is the size of one battle group

"The current surge in rhetoric about EU sovereignty, strategic autonomy and European armies has a fantasy quality," British journalist Gideon Rachman wrote these days in the Financial Times. A larger military presence is unlikely to be established in the future. Because, in a joint European army, the national parliaments had to give up their sovereignty in military matters. Forces could be sent into battle, even if a national government was opposed. Gideon Rachman has the last word: "The EU seems to be a generation or more away from allowing majority-voting on such existential questions."