EU State of the Union: The Case for a European Army

Written by the Publications team at European Horizons

On 15th September 2021, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen made the EU State of the Union address, with the bloc’s COVID-19 response, vaccination drives, climate action, and issues of security and migration in the wake of the Afghanistan crisis. The NATO alliance’s withdrawal from Afghanistan spearheaded by Joe Biden and the United States was, unsurprisingly, a focal point of President von der Leyen’s address. She opened by affirming that the EU would stand with the Afghan people and announced the new Afghan Support Package, an emergency relief initiative that will increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by €100 million.

The President stressed that cooperation is the key to addressing future security and defense issues, and informed of a coming EU-NATO Joint Declaration before the end of the year. It seems increasingly clear that Von der Leyen’s vision for the EU is one where the Union plays a central security role internationally and has greater “hard power.” The sincerity of President von der Leyen — and the EU’s — intentions were made clear following the announcement from officials the Union is once again considering building its own army, through the EU defense force.

The chaos of the withdrawal from Afghanistan raised serious concerns about the EU’s overreliance on the US military and brought attention to the question of whether the shifting US priorities finally demand increased European strategic autonomy and capabilities. The establishment of an independent European defense strategy promptly rose to the top of the agenda, leading European politicians to express their unanimous support for the initiative in the aftermath of the withdrawal.

Two weeks after the last NATO soldier has left Afghanistan, Ursula von der Leyen’s State of The Union speech not only echoed the same sentiment but introduced a framework that could lay the foundations for the first successful attempt at increasing European strategic autonomy and establishing a battle-ready European Army: “There will be missions where NATO or the UN will not be present, but where the EU should be. […] what we need is the European Defence Union.” Signaling the urgency of the initiative, Von der Leyen called the first summit on European defense to be organized in 2022.

The current initiative for an independent defense force is hardly unprecedented in EU politics. The first common defense policy was agreed upon in 1999, which stipulated building the capability for member states to undertake joint deployment of 50,000–60,000 troops, and in 2007, a rotational system of 1,500 strong battlegroups was created. Concerns about the reliability of the US as a military ally are also not new. French President Emmanuel Macron actively campaigned for a European Army during Donald Trump’s years in office, in response to the latter’s wavering support for European partners. The endeavor to enhance ‘strategic autonomy’ has been a recurring theme in EU political discourse, making increasingly frequent appearances in EU defense documents and communique since 2013.

America’s shifting attention to the Indo-Pacific has created a gap between European and NATO strategic priorities. Security concerns exclusive to the EU, like Russian military adventurism in Eastern Europe, Belarus’s efforts at destabilization, or Jihadist insurgency in the Sahel have been relegated to the sidelines of NATO policy, as China emerged as the U.S.’s new focus. The U.S. disregard for European interests in NATO became increasingly apparent in the past few years, exemplified by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the recent AUKUS deal. The UK’s departure from the Union further decreased the EU’s weight in the Alliance, as now more than 80% of NATO military spending comes from outside the EU.

The establishment of a European Defence Union would enable the EU to mitigate the possible ramifications of the changing geopolitical constellation and address the bloc’s endemic security concerns. A capacity to act outside of NATO’s military framework would also empower the Union to avoid conflict of interest with NATO member Turkey when tackling potential threats in the Middle East.

This initiative has, however, met with resistance, even from inside the EU’s ranks. Martin Schirdewan, co-chair of The Left group in the EP criticized the commission for “calling for more armament and military solutions” rather than directing funding to social issues. Eastern member states have historically been wary of efforts at building a European Army at the expense of Transatlantic cooperation, as they consider Washington the guarantor of their security in the face of the Russian threat. As Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute argued- “Seen from Tallinn, there is no doubt that NATO should remain the main framework for strengthening collective defense in Europe. This is not changed by the failure of the US — and NATO collectively — in Afghanistan.” Denmark has also protested the French-led initiative, with PM Mette Frederiksen pledging to “go up against those who try to undermine transatlantic cooperation”.

Naturally, NATO’s top brass has expressed its criticism of enhanced European ‘strategic autonomy’. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and former commanding general of the US Army in Europe Ben Hodges warned that an EU defense force would constitute a duplicate of NATO, putting a strain on the Alliance’s resources and preventing European troops from effectively committing to other responsibilities. American resistance to increasing European ‘strategic autonomy’, however, might not be exclusively informed by strategic considerations. U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison raised a concern that the EU initiative might become a cover for protectionism and the exclusion of US defense contractors. In light of Von der Leyen’s bid to grant VAT exemptions to the European arms industry, American fears might not be unfounded.

So far, all efforts at the creation of an independent European armed force have failed due to the lack of political will behind the initiative. Von der Leyen too pointed out the shortcomings of past initiatives: “But the more fundamental issue is why this has not worked in the past. You can have the most advanced forces in the world — but if you are never prepared to use them — of what use are they? What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity — it is the lack of political will.”

Will the institutional challenges, and resistance from NATO and Eastern member states undermine this new push for increased ‘strategic autonomy, as they did in the past? The uncertainty borne from the German elections and the upcoming French elections could cause a delay to any EU-wide discussions, and the idea of an EU Defense Union may lose steam. The turmoil of Afghanistan, the AUKUS pact, and the unanimous support for the proposal from top EU officials could, however, be the catalyst for implementing the defense strategy that the EU has long debated. As the European Union faces a post-pandemic world and changes to age-old geopolitical alliances, it remains to be seen- will a common EU military be the cornerstone of Europe’s future?

Nidhi Menon is the Director of Publications at European Horizons and a researcher at India Migration Now.

Domonkos D Kovacs is the Deputy Director of Publications and a student at the University of Cambridge reading History and Russian. He is studying to be a foreign policy expert and is passionate about strengthening European democracies and the EU’s foreign relations.

Pierre Nouailhetas-Baneth is a French undergraduate at King’s College London and Deputy Director of Publications. Pierre is committed to European Horizons’ vision of developing transatlantic cooperation and publishing insightful policy ideas that contribute to building a stronger Europe.

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