Does the European Union need an army?

Photo: European Defence Agency

The debate over a European army is as old as the EU itself. While controversial, an army could be the answer to Europe’s crises, from migration to the rise of populism.

The first attempt to create a common defence force dates back as far as 1950, when the terrible consequences of war were fresh in Europe’s collective memory. But it was aborted in 1952. Then in 1954, the Western European Union (WEU) – the embryo of a possible army – came to light. NATO had already emerged in 1949, but as time went by, it became clear that the two organisations had too many overlapping objectives. Even the idea that the WEU should become the European pillar of NATO was ended by the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Cooperation between the NATO-UN-WEU triangle was unsuccessful and in 2011 the WEU was formally abolished.

By then, different plans had already come forward. The scale and implications of international events – the first Gulf War (1990), the break-up of Yugoslavia (early 1990s) and the Rwandan genocide (1994) – left no doubt that a comprehensive answer was needed. Thus, by the end of 1997, the Amsterdam Treaty put forward the idea of a High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and, by December 1998, the St. Malo Declaration acknowledged the need for a European Security and Defence Policy “ready to respond to international crises”.

From Solana to Mogherini´s Global Strategies

Javier Solana was the first High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, starting in 1999. In 2001, the World Trade Centre was attacked, two years later (May 2003) the invasion to Iraq took place and, in December 2003, the first European Security Strategy was proposed. Titled “A Secure Europe for a Better World”, the document envisaged a new global role for the EU and a more effective and capable foreign policy.

Targeting a multitude of issues, the Solana strategy covered everything from the internal dynamics of state-building to the outer political arena. Failed states, organised crime, terrorism and criminals were all targeted. Fostering democracy, arms export control, solving economic problems, attacking terrorism through a mixture of intelligence, judicial means and effective policing in the post-conflict phases were some of the solutions Solana proposed.

For the neighbourhood approach, Solana proposed a deeper engagement with the well-governed countries on the EU’s eastern and Mediterranean borders, as well as with the Arab world. Assistance programmes should continue in order to ease the democratisation process in these countries.

However, by the end of Solana´s mandate, in 2008, it was clear that the outcomes were a far cry from what had been anticipated. So, before leaving office, he reported that, while some progress had been made, the EU was not capable, coherent or active enough. Conflicts remained unresolved, often spreading to other regions, weak states continued to affect security, organised crime, terrorism and radicalisation were on the increase.

Catherine Ashton started her mandate in February 2010. The new High Representative developed a plan that targeted Turkey, the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Middle East. The strategy for the neighbouring countries, particularly the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean states, was based on prevention and democracy-building. Cyber and Maritime defence policies were priorities.

But as early as 2013, Ashton acknowledged that the EU was not doing enough and argued that the Union should become a security provider, intervening directly in the neighbour states whenever necessary. She left the post in November 2014.

Federica Mogherini took up the role of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in December 2014 and in June 2016, a new strategy came to light. Titled “Shared Vision, Common Action: a stronger Europe”, the document acknowledged that “peace is no longer a given” and that “terrorism, hybrid threats and organised crime know no borders”.

Mogherini’s proposed solution to the threat of terrorism involves stabilisation, premature disengagement, comprehensive agreements with all partners, cooperation at regional and global level and full defence capabilities with a more reactive Common Security and Defence Policy. Greater use of information, with intelligence sharing on violent extremism, terrorist networks and foreign terrorist fighters, is also highlighted. Above all, Mogherini’s strategy focusses on preventing disruptive weak states from becoming sources of violent conflict that can spread to the EU and its neighbourhood. To achieve this, she proposes that the EU continue its role as a donor, acting hand in hand with the implementation of democracy, human rights and international law. Deter, respond and protect — this is the spirit of the document.

It is clear to see that, over time, the EU’s strategies have been built on the same foundations: defending human rights, fostering democracy and upholding international law. And the EU’s solutions have always been based on three main pillars: prevention, post-crisis solutions and assistance programmes.

But has this recipe been successful? Has the world become a safer place? The simple answer is no. On the contrary. Arguably, the global security situation has deteriorated. In 2015, Europe was hit by 14 terrorist attacks. The Middle East, particularly Syria, Iraq and Yemen, is in disarray. North Africa is going through a nightmare. In Asia, North Korea, poses a significant threat. The European Union’s eastern border is a continuous menace and the EU borders are fragile. Overall, in 2014 there were some 42 active armed conflicts in the world, killing around 180,000 people (source).

These dangers have brought deep psychological, social and political consequences for Europeans. And the situation might become worse.

Why the EU needs an army

Is the creation of an army or a European defence force the right solution to the persistent anger and social unrest across the continent? Apart from meeting our obvious defence needs, would it not also promote cooperation at an international level?

Making the EU an important player in terms of global security has been the focus of many arguments and has long been an ultimate aim for many European leaders. The emergence of a European army could make the difference in many ways. It could lessen America’s interference and influence in European affairs, both internally and externally, with the obvious consequences this has for the EU’s prestige. It would also help make the Union a more consistent, reliable and powerful partner.

Mogherini herself would become more influential in the international forums if she could really speak for 500 million people. Of course, the composition of the UN Security Council would probably have to be revised, with the possibility of the EU member states securing a rotating or permanent seat, perhaps replacing France.

Additionally, a European army would strengthen the EU as far as military resources are concerned. A pooled European defence budget would make a difference for the EU and most of its member states. In fact, many of them cannot afford to spend much more on defence than they already do. And they certainly do not have enough resources both to defend themselves and to deploy troops if the EU asks them to. It is estimated that an integrated European budget would bring savings of €130 billion to €260bn per year (source).

A European army could also help the economy, boosting the home defence industry by around 10%. Innovation would be accompanied by rewards and consequences that would be felt by the whole world. During his recent State of the Union speech, Jean-Claude Juncker demanded a European Defence Fund “to turbo boost research and innovation”.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels brought about a profound sense of insecurity. Europeans feel betrayed and unprotected by the EU. A dubious economic recovery, controversial austerity policies, an uncontrollable immigration influx and the constant threat of terrorism have all transformed the way citizens view Europe. The idea of ever closer union has become less attractive. To some, it even seems an aberration. The rise of the extreme right and the UK’s vote to leave the EU are just the most visible consequences of this attitude shift. A European army could ease the existing uncertainty, psychological unrest and social instability. It would be a reassuring sign from the European leaders and a vehicle of hope for citizens.

It would also address the problems the EU faces on its borders, which have become a political minefield that could threaten the very existence of the Union. Uncontrolled immigration may be used by terrorists to enter from Syria or similarly chaotic countries. This idea has caused a seemingly insurmountable political divide between some member states and Brussels. A European army could help strengthen and legitimise the recently-created European Border and Coast Guard Agency. It would make the European frontiers less prone to abuse by smugglers and drug and human traffickers, providing better protection for the EU.

What kind of army?

Of course, the most controversial question in this whole debate is what form the future army should take. Should the future European battalions be made up of national divisions, deployable whenever they are needed? Should they use NATO’s assets? Should they be a NATO complementary force? The answer to this question is crucial, because it will determine the army’s capabilities. Deployment is lengthy and complex, and complementing NATO might come at a cost to proficiency.

To stand any chance of success, a future army must have European headquarters and a European budget. It should have battalions made up of European citizens directly allocated from anywhere in the EU, which should serve the European army exclusively. States should keep their own police forces, but the European army would take charge of defence, ready for deployment at home or abroad whenever necessary. But for that, the EU legal apparatus would have to be rearranged. A new treaty, a constitution perhaps, and certainly a new political system would have to be thought out and voted on. Such a reorganisation of the EU’s political system would demand pervasive and momentous decisions – a challenge that may be too daunting even for leaders with the most sincere European convictions.

We must not forget that the present threats and difficulties have raised too many unresolved questions for European citizens. New realities, new facts, new threats demand brave new solutions. A European army could be one of them. Answering the basic human need of security, it could create space for hope and a European identity – an impetus with far-reaching consequences. It would not be a silver bullet solution to all of the EU’s problems, but it could certainly restore some much-needed enthusiasm for the European project.

Fernanda Neutel

Fernanda Neutel is currently the head director of the first-degree course on European Studies and International Relations in the Lusófona University, Lisbon, researching on the new post-austerity political and movements in Europe; holds a PhD in Political Science and a Master degree in International Relations from Leeds University; lecturer on Politics and Policies of the European Union at Master and PhD Level, since 1999; board member for the European Federalist Party from 2014-16, as chairwoman for the Federal Council; since 2016, board member of Stand Up for Europe; recently published “Pushing the Union Forward? The Role of The European Parliament in the Union’s crisis” in Demetriou, Kyriakos, eds., The European Union in Crisis, Explorations in Representation and Democratic Legitimacy (Springer).


  1. 27 January, 2017 @ 23:59 Ramón

    Hay que replantear Europa sobre los antiguios principios que marcaron a nuestro continente años atrás. Tolerancia, libertad, la consideración del hombre como base de nuestra sociedad, la lucha por la dignidad del hombre en cualquier lugar del planeta y la expansión de nuestra civilización como garante de la libertad del mundo, deberían marcar nuestras nuevas políticas y nuestro nuevo ejército. Un ejército que no solo protegerá a los europeos de amenazas externas e internas, sino como garante de la libertad y la seguridad del mundo. Desde el momento en que EEUU está negando su responsabilidad para con el mundo, Europa debe recoger el testigo y volver a ser el referente del mundo que nunca debió dejar de ser. Si separados y divididos, Europa ofreció al mundo paz y libertad hace siglos, nuestra responsabilidad es volver a ser el faro de seguridad y libertad del mundo entero.


  2. 27 January, 2017 @ 21:30 R Davies

    Creating a European Army with common equipment would improve logistics and potentially enable an increase in military effectiveness or save money. Both are highly desirable. The challenge would be developing a common foreign policy if the army is to be deployed overseas on peace-keeping and other intervention missions. In respect of defence, the stance would simply be a reinforcement of the NATO objectives of mutual self-defence.
    It is clear that while the USA wants to retain dominance, it is becoming isolationist and there is resentment of having to shore European defence. It is time therefore that the EU states took the step to emerge from the post-WW2 period and mature into a bloc that is capable of defending itself without US support.
    While creating a European Army would be challenging, it would reinforce the unity of the EU and do much to compel the EU states to work in unison.
    The primary challenge to the EU is from Russia and anything other than the firmest stand is interpreted by the current Russian regime as weakness, and simply invites Russia to encroach upon the EU and attempt to intimidate it.
    Russia has re-armed under Putin and his government actively seeks to undermine central & eastern European states by fostering and exploiting discontent among ethnic Russians. The exact same tactic that the German Nazi government did in regards to the Sudetenland in the ’30’s. In respect of this the USA is now a liability as President Trump appears to favour President Putin and his policies, and thus cannot be relied upon to deploy US forces should Russia seek to destabilise an EU state and possibly invade it on the pretext of defending ethnic Russians.
    Now the UK is leaving the EU, the most vocal opposition to the creation of an EU Army will be gone. The UK opposition appeared primarily based on absurd xenophobic factoids about British soldiers being commanded by foreigners and concern that it might offend the USA.


  3. 24 October, 2016 @ 22:38 GK

    About time to come together in the face of all the common threats that European countries are facing. It is unbelievable that politicians insist on their narrow nationalist views instead of offering a unifying vision, preferring to divide people for short-term electoral benefits…


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