You would think the European Union has its hands full trying to ease the Eurozone crisis and make sure Greece stays within the monetary union. You also would think the 28-nation bloc was happy with its role as the world’s smartest “soft power”, with no boots on the ground but many diplomats, aid workers and trade specialists ready and willing to work for constructive change in an increasingly volatile world.
You would be wrong. Forget gentle persuasion and change by incentive rather than coercion. Carrots over sticks. The EU now wants its own army. It’s a tough world and the EU wants to play as tough as the others.
Resuscitating a long-held but equally long-discarded concept, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called for the creation of a European army to make Europe count on the global stage.
No more soft words. It’s going to be about soldiers, guns and aircraft carriers. Europe wants to be a hard-nosed hard power, not a softie.
Certainly, Europe is right to be worried — and to want to play hard ball. The world in 2015 is messy, chaotic and often violent, with no clear centre of power. In Europe, as Russia flexes its muscles over Ukraine, many decry the end of the post-World War security order.
In Asia, re-emerging nations are clamouring for recognition, jostling each other to gain the upper hand as regional and global leaders. Everywhere, international norms and institutions built in the last century are under stress, and seemingly unable to cope with the increasing demands and insecurity of the 21st century.
Juncker has said a European army would restore the EU’s foreign policy standing and show it is serious about defending its values. And he insisted that it would not be in competition with Nato, the US-led Western military alliance.
“With its own army, Europe could react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighbouring state,” the Commission chief said in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt.
He added: “One wouldn’t have a European army to deploy it immediately. But a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values.”
Juncker’s proposal does not come out of the blue. The EU has long harboured the idea of an army and has been working hard to forge a credible common security and defence policy for several decades.
European military missions are active in the Balkans, Africa and parts of Asia. The soldiers are not there, however, to fight but to monitor elections, keep the peace and manage conflicts.
Also, the EU already has battle groups that are manned on a rotational basis and meant to be available as a rapid reaction force. But they have never been used in a crisis.
Finally, Europe’s defence is assured by Nato. Put bluntly, if push comes to shove, the US will come to Europe’s assistance with its military might.
The timing of the latest proposal is certainly linked to criticism of what many view as Europe’s lacklustre response to Russia’s annexing of Crimea last year and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The scene is clearly set for another long and painful — and distracting — intra-European debate. For starters, Germany likes the idea, Britain does not.
German Defence Minster Ursula von der Leyen, underlined in an interview that “our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army.”
The UK government spokesman has warned, however that “our position is crystal clear that defence is a national, not an EU responsibility and that there is no prospect of that position changing and no prospect of a European army.”
Geoffrey Van Orden, a conservative member of the European Parliament has accused Juncker of living in a “fantasy world”. “If our nations faced a serious security threat, who would we want to rely on — Nato or the EU? The question answers itself,” he said.
Nato isn’t too happy either. The civilian and military heads of Nato have said they would welcome increased EU defence spending but cautioned the bloc against duplicating efforts.
Analysts say the fundamental problem with the proposal is that, without full political union, it has no chance of becoming a credible force. So long as fierce national rivalries exist at the heart of policymaking, a common army would quickly find itself reduced to a state of impotence if required to deal with any threat to an EU state.
EU member states do not often see eye to eye on major global security issues. During the 2011 Libya campaign, for example, Britain and France played a leading role in the air campaign, while Germany’s staunch opposition meant that Berlin wouldn’t even provide air-to-air refuelling tankers.
More recently, deep divisions have arisen over how to tackle Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine, with Germany and Italy reluctant to support the economic sanctions advocated by Britain and its allies.
Many argue that instead of getting caught up in acrimonious debates on a European army, the EU should focus on intensifying member states’ defence cooperation.
“Whatever was Jean-Claude Juncker thinking when he called for the creation of an EU army? The notion may have appeal in Germany and perhaps in Luxembourg, too. Elsewhere, it serves only to supply Europhobes with more evidence of Brussels’s reflexive urge to expand its power,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Whitney may be right. But Juncker is in no mood to back down. And if Germany, the EU’s most influential member state likes the idea — and France opts in — one day there will be a European army — of sorts.