On the occasion of the latest events in Afghanistan last Summer, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has put on the table the debate about the urgent need for the organization whose diplomacy he directs to have its own military capacity. A force made up of military personnel and capabilities from the 27 member countries, to carry out the EU’s own missions. Moreover, independent of both the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in order to achieve the desired European “strategic autonomy”, although such an army could act in close coordination with U.S. and Atlantic Alliance forces.
This is nothing new. For months it has been one of the main bets of Macron, the President of France, to revive and strengthen the EU. But just as, so far, the insistent French initiative has failed, Mr. Borrell’s will fail. At least, as long as the characteristics, conditions, and context of the EU do not change, which does not seem likely to happen in the short term.
To begin with, an army serves a State. In this case, it should respond to missions, civil or military, that require the use of force by the EU. But the Union, while being a supranational organization – with a certain theoretical loss of sovereignty – is far from being a supra-state.
When it was intended to have a Constitution that would give rise to this supra-state, although it was approved in June 2003 and signed on October 29, 2004, in Rome by the heads of state and government of the member countries, it was never ratified and therefore did not enter into force. The reason was that, within the framework of the referendums required for this ratification process, a majority voted against it in France (May 2005) and in the Netherlands (June of the same year). Thus, the EU continues to be a group of states basically united by economic aspects, without making any progress in the political process, and often at odds with each other, since there are few transcendental issues on which all members reach an agreement.
Therefore, the first thing that should exist in order to have a real army is, at the very least, a truly common foreign, security and defense policy worthy of that same name. At present, and despite the existence of the External Action Service, the reality is that each country goes its own way in international matters, and not infrequently in the opposite or opposing direction to that of its colleagues or EU institutions.
An unavoidable stumbling block at the moment is the different preferences of the Member States, since, while some are inclined towards the creation of this European army, as is the case of the four main countries, others advocate remaining anchored and dependent on the Atlantic Alliance and, therefore, on the United States. This situation is evident in the purchase of armaments, since, despite the fact that the EU produces top-quality military equipment, some of its members continue to opt for acquiring American means, such as the F-35 fighter plane.
No less important is that, for an organization of this nature to survive over time, an essential condition must be met: that each and every one of its members perceives the same threats, that they have a common enemy. This is far from being the case. Some countries, especially those of Eastern Europe, look askance at Russia, while the countries of the South focus their concern on the Mediterranean. And while for some countries Salafist-Jihadist terrorism is of the utmost concern, the rest practically do not even know what it means, as they have never suffered its scourge and do not expect to suffer it.
On the other hand, according to the EU Treaty, defense decisions must be reached unanimously within the European Council. And here new and critical problems arise.
One of the main ones is the enormous differences in budgetary matters. Some countries, such as Estonia, France, Greece, Poland, and Romania, spend at least close to or even more than 2% of their GDP on defense spending. But there are others that barely reach a quarter, as in the case of Luxembourg. Others, such as Spain and Belgium, are only halfway there, spending less than 1% of their GDP on defense. Obviously, the countries that contribute the most, both in percentage and quantitative terms, would demand that their voice be heard more loudly, as is already the case in NATO. This would not fail to provoke strong frictions.
The same applies to the capabilities that each country could and should contribute. Obviously, the capacity of influence that Luxembourg – with less than 1,000 active troops – or Malta – with barely more than 2,000 soldiers – may have is not the same as that of a powerful army such as the French, with more than 260,000 active men and women, and which also possesses nuclear weapons.
In short, there would be a permanent struggle to see who would give the orders for the use of force, in which missions or operations, and for what purpose. In addition, there would always be the suspicion that military tasks could be carried out only for the benefit of some of the countries with greater weight and influence. For all these reasons, reaching a unanimous agreement seems almost a fantasy.
One aspect that should not be ignored is the perceptions and sensitivities of the different populations with respect to having an army, and above all for which missions to use it, in which scenarios, and against which enemies. Although it may seem that it should be at least similar in the Union as a whole, the truth is that it is far from being so. The concepts of pacifism and warmongering are not lived equally. Not to mention the significance for societies of suffering their own casualties, especially if the operation in which their soldiers fall is not well clarified or explained in detail, or does not have the full consent of the majority of the population. If the idea comes to be that the country has placed its dead to satisfy the obvious interests of another country or countries, it could cost the resignation of the entire government.
It would even be necessary to elucidate what would be the working languages of this European army. This is not as trivial as one might think at first glance. For example, France would never give up on French being at least one of the official languages. And the fight to incorporate German, Italian or Spanish remains to be seen. Nor would there be any shortage of voices clamoring for English as the only language, especially from the smaller countries.
And there is one thing we cannot leave out: it is very difficult, if not impossible, for both the United States and the United Kingdom to allow this European army to be formed and consolidated. The British, for centuries, have considered themselves as the guarantors of military and geopolitical balance on the European continent. Now would be no exception. Together with their American cousins, who have even greater geopolitical interests in preventing the emergence of a European force independent of them, especially at a time of sharp decline in their world influence, they would use their many Trojan horses within the European Union to torpedo the initiative.
In conclusion, as long as circumstances remain as they are at present, the feasibility of ever having a European Union army of its own is more of a utopia than a real possibility.
Nevertheless, hopefully at some point in the near future Europe will finally reach maturity and, among other things, have its own independent, autonomous, powerful, credible, and self-equipped force. It would mean that the European Union is on the right track to regain the weight in the world that it is visibly losing.