Observatory on European Studies - Does the Ukraine conflict emphasize the importance of a European army?



Filipe Prado Macedo da Silva*

When World War II ended, Europe was in ruins and was “squeezed” between US military power on the other side of the Atlantic and Soviet military power on the eastern side of the continent. Until the dismantling of the Soviet Union in mid-1991, the world was militarily polarized between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Europeans were simply supporting actors in the Cold War.

Today, we live in a more multipolar world in terms of military might. The US remains the biggest military power in the world, especially in terms of spending. China already ranks second in military spending. In addition, India and the UK continue to advance their defence and security budgets. Russia, once diminished by the fall of the Soviet Union, has rebuilt its military power under Putin.

Meanwhile, Europe is experiencing enormous ambiguity in terms of defence and security. Until mid-2013, it seemed convenient for Europe –EU members and non-members alike – to remain under the defensive “umbrella” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, in 2014, a complex set of internal and external threats to the European continent rekindled Brussels’s interest in the European Union of Defence. This interest grew even stronger in 2018, when NATO was adrift in diplomatic attacks by then-US President Donald Trump. Now, in 2022, in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO continues to prioritize US decisions from the other side of the Atlantic, to the detriment of European interests, which include, less than 2,000 km from Brussels, the first war between European nations in the 21st century.

In this context, the EU started to establish several priorities and some common policies in the area of defence and security, making more financial resources available, stimulating military efficiency among EU member countries, facilitating operational and technological cooperation and supporting the development of industrial capabilities and innovations in the military area. But a “true European army”, as Angela Merkel imagined in a speech to the European Parliament in 2018, has not yet been formed. Does the Ukraine conflict reinforce the importance of a European army?

Two failed attempts

The origin of a common defence policy in Europe dates back to the late 1940s. The first initiative for cooperation in the area of defence and security emerged from the Treaty of Brussels of 1948, which formally established the Western European Union (WEU). At that time, the WEU included seven member countries (West Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) and functioned as a forum for coordinating European security and defence issues. However, as early as 1949, Europeans realized that the Soviet Union was no longer a major ally but a major geopolitical adversary and an enormous military threat.

Quickly, WEU member countries laid the institutional foundations for and contributed heavily to the creation of NATO – still in 1949 – because without US military aid, Europe would not have been able to face the Soviet military might. Therefore, the WEU’s collective defence competencies were transferred to NATO, or rather to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in which “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or America North will be considered an attack on all”.

Under US military protection, the WEU was completely emptied, a situation that lingered into the 1980s, when the organization was “reactivated” to face the new European challenges in terms of defence and security. In the 1990s, the WEU incorporated three new member countries – Spain, Portugal and Greece – for a total of ten member countries. On that occasion, the WEU became the main defence organization of the then ratified Maastricht Treaty (1993), which created the EU and its pillar structure, of which the Common Foreign and Security Policy was a part. In practice, the WEU has become the European pillar of NATO. Subsequently, in 1998, the Amsterdam Treaty incorporated the WEU’s political-military heritage into the EU’s structure, including all agreements signed with NATO. However, the WEU was only formally cancelled in 2011.

In parallel with the WEU, the Europeans tried to create a European Defence Community (EDC) based on the Plan of René Pleven (then French prime minister) in 1952. This EDC had an ambitious objective, as it proposed the creation of a body called the European Defence Forces (EDF), that is, a European army. Therefore, the EDF would assume sole responsibility for the defence of member countries on European soil, with the eventual involvement of West German units. The EDC would be the only European military authority, assuming a connotation of complementarity with NATO, in the mission to face the Soviet threat.

However, although most Western European countries accepted the EDC, the proposal failed in 1954, when the French National Assembly rejected it. Without French military power, implementing a common European defence project would be impossible. Although the French executive authorities defended the implementation of the EDC, the French legislative authorities believed that the EDC subtracted an important part of national sovereignty and duplicated the activities NATO already carried out. In addition, the geopolitical developments at the end of the Korean War (the threat from the Soviets was a reality) and the strategic issues related to the colonies (France was still a colonial empire) kept France’s nationalist ambitions alive, to the detriment of the European federative ambitions.

A complex set of internal and external threats

Although the idea of ​​a European army has ancient roots, the proposal for a European defence and security has more recently gained strength in the EU due to the new and complex internal and external threats to the European continent. The warning signal came in 2013, when tensions between Ukraine and Russia began, culminating in Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea region. At that time, and now, with the full invasion of Ukraine, the EU authorities realized that a major military power – Russia – was generating political-military tensions on its borders. It is important to note that Ukraine has borders with four EU member countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania) and that Russia has borders with five (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland). In practice, the EU realized that its borders were unprotected or very dependent on US protection via NATO.

In 2015, the EU’s border problems worsened even further with the height of the migration crisis in Europe. That year, Europe received hundreds of thousands of refugees from Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Therefore, the perception of European citizens was that the EU’s (and its countries’) borders were open, substantially increasing member countries’ insecurity.

In this same period, terrorism haunted the EU. Between 2015 and 2017, 16 terrorist attacks resulting in fatalities occurred: one in Belgium (in Brussels, the EU capital), one in Finland, one in Sweden, two in Spain, two in Germany, four in the UK (which was still part of the EU) and five in France.

This set of external threats – conflict/war, migration and terrorism – stimulated within the EU, in parallel, the rise of nationalist and far-right groups in most member countries. In other words, Euroscepticism began to threaten the EU’s political leadership from within. For example, this problem partly explains Brexit given the UK’s dissatisfaction with EU border policies. In addition, nationalist politicians came to govern some member countries, such as Poland and Hungary. Other member countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, began to spawn numerous ultranationalist and extremist political movements.

Finally, in 2017, with the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, NATO began to be severely attacked by its main military ally, the US. Quickly, diplomatic tensions, supported by Donald Trump, jeopardized the continuity of transatlantic relations. In July 2018, at the 28th NATO Summit, Trump raised the “temperature” of criticism, attacking the EU head-on, calling European allies “delinquents” for spending too little on defence. The US (which spends around 3.5% of GDP on defence) accused most of its European allies of not complying with the 2014 Gales Agreement, which explicitly recommended in topic #14 “a minimum military force of 2% of GDP” by 2024. At that time, only five EU member countries – Greece, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Latvia – had complied with this NATO directive.

Strengthening EU military cooperation

With so many internal and external threats, European politicians and citizens began to demand greater defence and security actions. For example, the European Parliament has repeatedly called for the full potential of the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, especially Article 42 on the “Security and Defence Common Policy”. European citizens, on the other hand, started to claim that the EU guarantees the continent’s security and defence. Two Eurobarometers, from 2017 and 2018, showed that 75% of Europeans are in favour of a defence and security common policy, 68% want the EU to do more in defence and 55% are in favour of creating an EU army.

In view of this scenario, in 2016, the EU started to debate and implement ambitious cooperation initiatives in the field of defence and security. We can highlight four important European strategies: it created the European Defence Fund (EDF) to offer more resources, constituted the Military Planning and Conduct Capacity (MPCC) to manage military structures in times of crisis, founded the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to facilitate cooperation and military efficiency among EU member countries and developed the European Defence Industrial Development Program (EDIDP) to support the development of military capabilities and innovations on European soil.

In the same period, the EU strengthened its cooperative ties with NATO, based, above all, on 42 defence and security measures included in the Joint Declaration of the 27th NATO Summit of 2016, which took place in Warsaw (Poland). This effort included deepening EU-NATO relations in military deterrence, cyber defence, maritime security and counterterrorism. It is important to remember that this strengthening of ties with NATO occurred before Donald Trump came to power in the US.

Also during this period, the European Parliament – through the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Security and Defence – produced numerous documents recommending that European governance (or rather the European Commission) draw up an EU “White Paper” for Defence. In this context, the “White Paper” would be the first concrete step towards European defence integration. The problem is that the divergent voices of some member countries defended (and still defend) only military cooperation and not European military integration. For example, Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, stated that he considers European military integration a duplicity, as “NATO is and remains the cornerstone of his country’s defence policy”.

Even without the elaboration of the EU “White Paper” for Defence, the European Commission dared to implement, in November 2016, the European Defence Action Plan, which would strengthen military cooperation in the EU and lay the foundations for the creation of the EDF, MPCC, PESCO and EDIDP. Already, in 2017, the first EU defence and security budget was foreseen, worth €25 million in military research and innovation. This Action Plan explicitly stated that the objective “was not to create an EU army, but rather to create conditions for greater cooperation in the field of defence, with the aim of improving the efficiency of defence expenditure and providing the necessary conditions for the formation of a strong, competitive and innovative industrial base in the defence sector”.

Furthermore, it is important to highlight that some military cooperation actions had been taken before 2016. For example, in 2004, the European Council formed the European Defence Agency, based on three fundamental pillars: 1) research and technology strategy; 2) arms cooperation strategy; and 3) a European defence technological and industrial-based strategy, headed by a Capacity Building Plan. Today, the European Defence Agency collaborates, for example, with PESCO, developing projects such as the European Patrol Corvette. Another example of cooperation occurred in 2011, when the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, began operation. In the EEAS, a general staff of the European Union was created to organize civil and military operations at European level. However, in practice, military operations remained (and are still) member countries’ responsibility.

And what about military integration in the EU?

So far, military integration in the EU has not progressed. Even so, the creation of a “true European army” – as Angela Merkel imagined in 2018 in a speech to the European Parliament – is not a utopia. The military integration project is complex and controversial, as it affects an exclusive national prerogative, but it is not impossible. The very history of the EU proves that issues that were once considered national have been converted into European matters, such as food security and the role of agriculture via the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the monetary integration of 19 of the 27 EU member countries via the euro (€) and the European Central Bank.

Before 2022, that is, before the war between Russia and Ukraine, only the European Parliament repeatedly called, through documents and studies, for the European Council and the European Commission to use the full potential of the Security and Defence Common Policy, provided for in the Lisbon Treaty. But advances occurred only in the field of military cooperation. There was (and perhaps still is) strong diplomatic resistance to the process of military integration by EU member states, NATO and the US. In fact, the US is already uncomfortable with the strengthening of military cooperation in the EU. For example, PESCO and EDIDP predict reduced orders from the US defence industry.

Even in this adverse diplomatic context, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel signed the Aachen Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation and Integration on January 22, 2019. In Chapter 2 of this new Treaty, France and Germany bilaterally launched the “embryo” of a future European army. According to Macron, “Germany and France must assume their responsibilities and lead the way forward”. If Franco-German military integration works, it will be easier to convince other EU member states to join the European military-integration project, as France and Germany have the largest military forces in the EU (in terms of expenditure and number of troops). This initiative drew much attention from the US: on the same occasion, Trump attacked Macron and his proposal to create a European army.

Today, with geopolitical turmoil in Eastern Europe due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU authorities have rekindled concerns about the continent’s defence and security. It is important to note that the war is taking place on the EU’s borders and involves the biggest nuclear power in the world: Russia. In this scenario, how could the EU defend itself against Russian threats?

The first and only current option is to use NATO’s mutual defence clause, which entails resorting to US geopolitical interests and its defensive arsenal’s strategic objectives. This historic dependence on NATO (and the US) deprives the EU of its ability to exercise its own power and put its geopolitical interests in the European continent first on the table.

In this sense, for the EU to attain global military competitiveness, it needs to create a “European unit”, that is, form an EU army, bringing together the 27 EU member countries’ budgets, capabilities, equipment and troops. This true European Union of Defence would result in the third largest military force in the world – behind only the US and China – with an expenditure of more than US$ 250 billion a year and more than 1.3 million effective military personnel. This “European unity” would enable Europe to face Russian threats.

In short, the conflict in Ukraine emphasizes the importance of a real EU army. The Russian offensive has resurrected memories of an old post-war enemy, which means that the geopolitical tensions the European authorities and citizens had forgotten now highlight the issue of defence and security in public opinion and expose the lack of opportunities for “European unity” to replace national interests in the field of defence and security. By the way, the Germans have already tripled their military budget for 2022.


* Filipe Prado Macedo da Silva

Professor and Researcher at the Institute of Economics and International Relations of the Federal University of Uberlandia (Brazil). Europe and European Union Expert.