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European Common Defence: The Past, Present and Future of a Dream That May (Not) Come True

If there’s a set of words that can convey a message lacking materiality so effectively, it must be “European Common Defence”. A concept so widespread, yet so nebulous it’s hardly surprising it made frontline news in much of the global press. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a new concept in the European policy-making world at all; it made its debut into EU institutions all the way back in 1952, and it had almost unanimous approval in what was at the time the European Coal and Steel Community. Why have we seen its surge in popularity, even in the public? What has sparked the need for this debate to be had once again, and will it have a different outcome? How will the relationship with NATO, the Union’s most troublesome yet necessary ally, be managed?
The European Defense Community: An Incredibly Successful Failure
While it may seem paradoxical, the same country that spearheaded efforts for a European Defence Community in 1950 single-handedly brought down the whole project. Jean Monnet, a colossus of European integration, designed the plan for a six-division continental army, made up by one division of each member of the European Coal and Steel Community, led by NATO yet managed by a European minister of defence with an institutional scheme borrowing from the ECSC. French Prime Minister René Pleven was the public face of this planned European Army, while Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi tried to cut his country a spot under the spotlight of the old continent’s rebirth.
The plan was, in its reception by individual countries, a success: German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer thought the danger of complete rearmament was averted, since it was decided that it would provide the division needed for the common army and it would not maintain a national army, unlike the other members. There was substantial agreement that a European army was impossible without German participation.
German demands were not the only ones that were met: ever-present concern to American and French high commands of an assertive USSR led them to the conclusion that an independent and capable Europe was the much-needed countermeasure. The project not only had an American blessing, it had its active involvement: the US once threatened France with the prospect of German rearmament if it didn’t solve its issues with the German government over details in the constitutive act of the Community. The effort spearheaded by the EDC was also instrumental in drafting the first statute for the embryonic “European Political Community.”
Then, just as quickly as the need emerged, it faded away: once the time for national parliaments to ratify the agreement came, the French National Assembly’s rejection and the bureaucratic inertia of the Italian government spelled the end of the project. Thus, on the 30th of August 1954, the EDC was no more. The actual reasons behind the failure are as various as they are complex: the American and Western strategic leadership interpreted Stalin’s death as the end, or at least softening, of what was an era of overassertive Soviet foreign policy, the French war in Indochina started to take its toll on French political capital and its exhausted armed forces and nationalist elements refused to accept even partial German rearmament.
Is There a Need for It?
Doubts over the necessity of a common European defence have been raised in the last two decades, mainly calling into question the need to potentially sacrifice tangible and consistent American involvement in favour of a European effort that, at the moment, lacks a necessary structural integrity. After all, there never was a solid, unified plan for a common defence after the failed experiment of the EDC because member states relied instead on a cornerstone of American foreign policy, one that has endured pressure for decades: the undisturbed and complete commitment of the US military and diplomatic corps. What individual states lacked in terms of firepower, the United States (through NATO) more than made up for with its own forces. What is now being observed and realised by EU officials is this involvement is much less consistent and stable than it previously appeared: it has become apparent that US strategic priorities have shifted (carrier groups now conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, thousands of miles away from the continent and its primary area of interests) and with them, its involvement and concern regarding European affairs, especially after the realisation of its economic and political cost of maintaining commitment to a region perceived to be not only less strategically relevant, but able to provide for its own security. Seeing the old continent through the lens of the US Department of Defence, what was an investment in strategically profitable assets is now starting to look like a liability.
The arguments for a common defence don’t stop here: even though there is growing concern regarding Chinese expansion, recent Russian shenanigans in Ukraine show that US strategic command is not ready to back down from its leading positions in negotiations and influence in Europe. After all, it’s US president Joe Biden that entertained bilateral talks with Vladimir Putin, not EU Council President Charles Michel or EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen. Even in the Ukrainian crisis context, where NATO is trying to present a united front, there is significant internal conflict on how to manage it: the US is showing resolve to not back down from the possible inclusion of Ukraine in the Alliance, while the EU is divided, with its Western members trying to prevent any form of escalation with Moscow and its Eastern ones not willing to concede any ground on present and future Russian incursion. Where NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic Republics have now been on an almost constant high-alert status, Germany has shown its reluctance to contribute in supplying the Ukrainian army, refusing to sell lethal weapons. This single instance goes to show how American and European strategic interests can and will collide, making it inconvenient and unreliable for the EU to rely solely on US intervention, or at least its bargaining power, to safeguard its interests, because said intervention is neither guaranteed nor certain to help.
Europe outsourced its own territorial integrity and security, and the consequences of this are still being felt.
Now What?
There are facts suggesting Emmanuel Macron’s intentions have the commitment to back up his claims. The stakes, however, are very high and the strategic necessities of member states and allies have become increasingly harder to satisfy.
During a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister celebrating the conclusion of a €3 billion frigate deal, Macron said that “We are forced to note that for a little more than 10 years now the US has put itself and its strategic interests first…We would be naïve, or rather we would be making a terrible mistake, not to grasp the consequences this has for ourselves.” He was also keen to remark that a strengthening of European defence was not to be seen as “substitute” for the historic transatlantic alliance. He is not alone in his remarks: Charles Michel, president of the European Council, clarified any misunderstanding: “This transatlantic alliance was never put into question: a more robust Europe makes our alliance more robust.”
The obstacles to a unified EU military corps can be divided into two categories: the political ones and the practical ones. What makes the situation even harder to solve is that these two fields rely on the other to move first in order to justify movement at all. The Union lacks both the necessary means and a say in where or how they are deployed.
It’s not surprising that the EU does not have a common foreign policy: this is because its 27 member states not only have different priorities and concerns but have different takes and points of view on shared issues. AUKUS and Nord Stream 2 come to mind, but the Libyan Civil Wars were a prominent example on how not to present yourself as a bloc. With all due differentiations and analysis, it can be stated that no single EU member state is able to project power as efficiently and readily as it could as a unified entity. The likes of France and the UK can and often do deploy their forces abroad to safeguard their interests, but their intervention is necessarily subordinate to American explicit or tacit approval (the killing of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara region, by French troops was made possible by intense logistical support from American forces) and the scope of their rare campaign is limited in time and manpower. Furthermore, public opinion on military expenditure is greatly divided: Western Europe, the region in which the most capable players are located, views an increase in military budgets as a waste of precious resources (with the exception of France, in which 57% of the population was in favour to raise military expense in 2019), while eastern and northern states have their national security called into question every other year. This leads to a divided front on the matter of public spending in European Institutions, which further fragments political will to progressively abandon the “here and now” approach to defence and plan for long-term prospects.
A senior Polish diplomat has stated “NATO, the US and the UK: this is our security policy: without them we have no national defence […]We cannot imagine any agreement that does not include the US, and the same goes for many states in the East.”
The EU itself has limited resources and lacks the institutional framework to deploy them in the needed numbers and theatres: the “Common Security and Defence Policy” provides two EU battlegroups of 1500 men for rapid response and deployment in EU missions, but they require unanimous decision in the European Council and the Council of the EU. The EU-NATO partnership called Eurocorps can provide additional support, but they are not under EU command and cannot be deployed for rapid response purposes.
Which brings us to the practical obstacles of a hypothetical EU armed force. As of today, the 27 member states have the theoretical numbers to project power just as strongly as its transatlantic ally. If united, EU27 can rely on a pool of more than 1.26m active personnel units, approximately 1500 fighter jets, and 150 warships. However, what makes the US so resilient, battle-ready and efficient is exactly what the EU lacks: interoperability and the strongest logistical network in the world. Transporting supplies, men, equipment and forces is a huge logistical effort, one which demands robust supply lines, a highly developed network of bases, high operational capabilities and a strong communication network. That’s where the Americans excel: heavy-duty transport planes and air tankers represent the backbone of any military operation, and they are the missing variable in the EU armed forces equation: as previously noted, the French special forces in the Sahel region relied on American transport planes and air tankers to complete their counter-terrorism mission. These factors have been referred to by intelligence and defence company Janes as “enablers”, since they enable successful deployments. Brooks Tigner, analyst for Janes, a security and risk-assessment company, reports that NATO’s transport, communication and logistical capability enables “Even the most basic piece of equipment”. And since “the US enables NATO”, this overreliance surely turns into lack of autonomy.
Communication and interoperability has always been a thorn in the EU’s side, and it’s often been NATO itself that lamented poor data transferring capabilities, especially between reconnaissance and striking forces, among European armed forces, even outside NATO operations. The need for a common communication network could not be clearer: “Everything in the field, from tactical radios up to high-altitude drones, until that is all digitised, using the same software, working with the same signals, you’re only ever going to get piecemeal co-ordination” Tigner adds. He also estimates that, if the EU went all hands on deck, the minimum time required to integrate devices and operative capabilities ranges from 10 to 20 years.
Final Remarks
A top EU defence official interviewed by the Financial Times recently summed up the question by stating “NATO is the cornerstone of EU defence and always will be, but we can be stronger at looking after ourselves […]. It is about being a more mature and grown-up defence power: that’s only going to make other countries partner with us even more.”
This is the heart and soul of the issue: a united EU army is a project born in response to a problem that has not manifested its most defining effects, yet cannot be allowed to, since then intervention would come far too late The wind is changing and the topic of further European integration is not a political swear word: on the contrary, it risks becoming a buzzword, devoid of any tangible follow up. The difficulties have been laid out, and they are more than well known for officials, enthusiasts, and pragmatists alike. The EU is looking at a crossroads: it can either capitalise on this or let go of an extraordinary chance to get closer to a truly complete Union.


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