Photo credits: Louis James
A general union of Europe, in its original conception, was meant to be a vehicle for economic cooperation between the countries on the continent. It began a general process of integration - first came to the European Coal and Steel Community, which transformed into the European Economic Community, and later took on its present form, that is the European Union. The concept of a general European army symbolizes an amalgam of the efforts undertaken by the Union, to further the integration of the continent. So far, a multinational force has only been created on paper and remains a hotly contested issue among the member states.
A primary concern, usually issued by the USA, but also smaller member states such as Denmark, is that the creation of a common European Army would undermine NATO capabilities. And it must be said that the concern to an extent is a valid one.
Concept vs. reality
The entirety of the defence framework found within NATO is based around the concept of independent nation-states coming together, equipped with a common foundational doctrine to realise very specific goals, such as the general defence of the alliance at large, as well as power projection conducted in order to maintain security.
A European army, because it would be subject to the orders of a trans-national union, would not directly fall under NATO jurisdiction. That means that it would have no obligation, to firstly subordinate itself to the common foundational doctrine accepted by the alliance (a set of documents regulating the functioning of the organisation). And secondly to participate in general NATO operations in case of war.
Thirdly, coordination, if war was to come to both the EU and NATO, might quickly create a substantial gap with regard to command. As both institutions would be independent of each other, as such communication between them would not flow from the top-down but would have to be conducted via negotiations.
Though the argument is certainly a valid one it does present some problems. Out of the twenty-seven EU member states, only six remain unaffiliated with NATO (Austria, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus). And none of them could be considered a major military contributor. Therefore, the adoption of a general foundational NATO doctrine with regards to forming up a European Army would most likely be automatically adopted. Its general utility would reside within introducing a greater trans-European military cooperation, which would decrease the continent's reliance on the US.
Forming up a common European army could result in substantial doctrinal conflict, for the six member states that are not part of NATO. However, none of the non-NATO members is a major military power on the continent. Most are reliant on states such as Germany, France or Poland with regard to protection.
The supposed problem with the command hierarchy could be resolved as well. As long as the fundamental military doctrines are compatible, and the two entities are engaged in a common war (which would almost always be the case) there would be nothing standing in the way of the EU assigning some of its units under NATO command, and vice versa. The problem is easily resolvable to be addressed by communication, and a willingness to cooperate. Issues could only arise if one side decided to be negatively predisposed toward the other.
If then, as shown above, an EU army is a practicable concept, then why has it not yet been created in a genuine manner?
Shifting historical and political realities
Historically speaking, in 2005 a series of multi-national EU Battlegroups were established as part of the larger goal of greater integration, following the admission of new eastern members to the block.
They reached full operational capacity in 2007 and were assembled ad-hoc from various deployable forces of the member states. The unit has been subject to the Council of the European Union and has come to resemble a framework for the use of pre-trained national military forces.
The forces have not been used so far, and rather exist on paper than in practice. Attempts have therefore been made, but a genuine political will or need necessary to put it into practice has not been present.
The primary version might be that a real need for it has not arisen up until the Russian invasion of Ukraine. NATO has so far been perfectly capable of handling the problems it faced, the wars between the states forming up the former state of Yugoslavia might be a good example. In this campaign, NATO carried out an effective air bombing campaign there against the Serbian forces during its intervention in the war between Serbia and Kosovo, which turned the odds in favor of the inferior forces of the breakaway state and established it as an independent entity.
The consensus after the fall of the Soviet Union was that large-scale wars are a thing of the past. A war would, in theory, be extremely undesirable for all parties, as the fundamental goal of the acquisition of resources would no longer be relevant, as they can simply be traded for at a cheaper price. However, recent events surrounding Ukraine have shown that large-scale operations are possible and even likely.
That singular event has united the Europeans to a tremendous degree while accelerating some of the previous trends aiming at greater integration. While the 7-year EU, renewed in 2020 has not allocated substantial resources towards military spending, the situation due to the event mentioned above has started to shift in favour of the creation of a European Army.
The recent approval of a wide-ranging “Strategic Compass” aims to establish foundations for a stronger common defence policy across the union. Work on it has begun about 2 years ago, but its contents have been significantly modified in the wake of the Russian invasion. It has now come to include a definite set of limited aims, given budgetary constraints, which include the establishment of a 5000-strong quick reaction force, which is to be fully operational by 2025.
The issue has, therefore, recently acquired a definite political form. No longer is it purely a theoretical concept possessing little utility and occasionally mentioned by Emanuel Macron or Guy Verhofstadt with the meek approval of Ursula von der Layen. It has now been approved as a goal of a policy package focused on boosting the security of the continent given recent unprecedented events.
In light of this, and given Macron’s full support and open advocacy of the concept, with the
passing support of Scholtz and a likely future push from Finland and Sweden (both countries
are non-NATO members of the EU), the idea of a European army is more likely to come to fruition than ever before. Once the events of our current day calm down sufficiently, it is reasonable to expect that a European army might be created.
Camille Gijs AND Jacopo Barigazzi (2022) EU leaders approve updated military plan, Politico.
Elisabeth Braw (2022) Is an EU Army Coming?, Foreign Policy.
Maria Daniela Lenzu (2022) A Strategic Compass for a stronger EU security and defence in the next decade, European Council.
Paul Raynolds (2007) New force behind EU Foreign policy, BBC.
Wedgwood, R. (1999). NATO’s Campaign in Yugoslavia. The American Journal of International Law, 93(4), 828–834.