Advocating for a European Army

The war in Ukraine  is a stark reminder that an independent and robust European Army is vital for promoting peace and effective deterrence.

Feb 27, 2024

Built on the fundamental principles of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights, the EU project has yielded a profound result – a sustained era of peace within the EU since its establishment. This remarkable achievement was duly recognized when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. As we enter the third year of the conflict in Ukraine, however, these principles face an unprecedented threat. As the German Defense Minister warned back in December, we could face war on European soil by the end of the decade. His stark warning, calling for Europe to be prepared for war, makes one wonder: is European defence truly up for the challenge?

The Purpose of an Army

To answer this question, it is essential to delve into the fundamental purpose of national armies: safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity. Traditionally, these objectives were most threatened by neighbouring countries. As the EU successfully diminished "local" threats through integration, however, the landscape of potential risks evolved, shifting from regional tensions to broader, shared, challenges originating from beyond the EU's borders.

Nevertheless, the European Union's defence has not adjusted to this landscape, as the influence of individual EU Member States in the international system has decreased while Europe still relies heavily on the United States for its deterrence capabilities. Despite having a common security and defence policy in place, defence remains primarily the responsibility of individual Member States. This creates various challenges from hampering deployment capacity, to possessing limited purchasing power due to a lack of scale, and potentially having a suboptimal mix of personnel and weapon systems. 

The Need to Unite

Henry Kissinger's inquiry therefore remains pertinent: "Who do I call when I want to call Europe?". Out of 31 NATO members, 23 are part of the EU now that Sweden joined NATO. Integrating European armed forces could significantly reduce the total number of armies within NATO by two-thirds. While acknowledging that this is an oversimplification, considering that countries like Austria, Ireland, and Malta are part of the EU but not part of NATO, the promising potential is evident. With both the shocking aggression of Russia and the unified initial response of Europe in mind, it is evident that the necessity for a European Army is more pressing than ever. Consolidating the armed forces of EU members would position the Union as the world's third-largest defence spender, trailing only the US and China, and would strengthen Europe’s role as a global actor. 

Discussions on such a European Army are not new, and the same holds for the hurdles arising for such an ambition. Key among them is the inevitable reduction of the defence autonomy of individual Member States. In the long run, envisioning a scenario where defence spending and allocation are fully dictated at the European level, with centralised command in European Military Headquarters, might become a reality. This move would avoid the fragmentation resulting from local defence autonomy and bolster the EU’s response in the face of global tensions. 

In practice, the realisation of the long-term vision of a fully integrated European Army is a complex journey that won't happen overnight. Volt proposes to restructure the defence-industrial components of the EU into a European Ministry of Defense, establish a European Military Headquarters, ensure the deployment readiness of the European Rapid Deployment Capacity, and expand both their size and mission profiles. One other way to speed up integration could be merging the armies of willing countries already in the medium term, potentially acting as a catalyst for further integration, similar to how the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) played an important role for the creation of the European Union.

Preserving Peace

Freedom must be better armed than tyranny. However, at Volt we believe that the EU's long-term strategy should be about promoting peace, not about fighting wars. Having a strong deterrent is, unfortunately, part of preserving peace; but it is not the only one. Defence integration therefore has to coincide with a progressive and unified foreign policy culture in order to create a more equitable and positive global impact. In that way, the EU can realise its potential as a true positive global actor. 

(Article by Rob Verschoor)