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EU integration: Towards European armed forces?

EU integration: Towards European armed forces?

Meeting between the NATO International Military Staff and the EU Military Staff in Brussels [EUMS]

COMMENTARYJairo Císcar          

Since the end of the Second World War, collective security on the European continent and with it, peace, has been a priority. The founding fathers of the European Union themselves, aware of the tensions that resulted from the First and Second World Wars, devised and created security structures to prevent future conflicts and strengthen relations between former enemies. The first structure, although not purely military, obeys this logic: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), essential for the creation and maintenance of industry and armies, was created by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, introducing a concept as widely used today as “energy security”. This was arguably the first major step towards effective integration of European countries.

However, for the issue at hand, the path has been much more complicated. In the same period in which the ECSC was born, French Prime Minister René Pleven, with the encouragement of Robert Schuman and Jean Monet, wanted to promote the European Defence Community. This ambitious plan aimed to merge the armed forces of the six founding countries (including the Federal Republic of Germany) into a European Armed Forces that would keep the continent together and prevent the possibility of a new conflict between states. Ambitious as it was, the project failed in 1954, when the deeply nationalist Gaullist deputies of the French National Assembly refused to ratify the agreement. European integration at the military level thus suffered a setback from which it would not begin to recover until the present century, although it continues to face many of the reluctances it once did.

Why did the European Defence Community fail, and what makes the European Armed Forces still a difficult debate today? This is a question that needs to be analysed and understood, for while political and economic integration has advanced with a large consensus, the military problem, which should go hand in hand with the two previous issues, has always been the Achilles' tendon of the common European project.

There are basically two factors to take into account. The first is the existence of a larger defence community, NATO. Since 1948, NATO has been the principal military alliance of Western countries. Born to counter Soviet expansionism, the Alliance has evolved in size and objectives to its current configuration of 30 member states and a multitude of other states in the form of strategic alliances. Although NATO's primary purpose was diluted after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has evolved with the times, remaining alert and operational all around the globe. The existence of this common, powerful and ambitious project under U.S. leadership largely obscured efforts and intentions to create a common European defence project. Why create one, overlapping, structure if the objectives were practically the same and NATO guaranteed greater logistical, military superiority and a nuclear arsenal? For decades, this has been the major argument against further European integration in the field of defence - as protection was secured but delegated.

Another issue was the nationalism still prevalent among European states, especially in the aforementioned Gaullist France. Even today, with an ongoing and deep political, economic and, at a certain level, judicial integration, military affairs are still often seen as the last bastion of national sovereignty. In Schengen Europe, they remain for many the guarantee of those borders that fell long ago. 

Other issues to take into account are the progressive detachment of the population from the armed forces (a Europe that has not seen war on its own territory in 70 years, except for the Balkans, has tended to settle into peace, nearly oblivious to wars) and its progressive ageing, with a future with fewer people of military age, and who, as we have mentioned, often have an ideological and motivational gap with previous generations with respect to the concept and utility of the military.

It was not until relatively recently, with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, that the embryonic mechanisms of the current Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), supervised by the European Defence Agency, began to be implemented. In the 2010s, with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, these mechanisms were established. The Military Staff of the European Union (EUMS) is one of them. It constitutes the EU's first permanent strategic headquarters. The final impetus came in 2015, with the European Union Global Strategy. This led to the creation of various far-reaching initiatives, most notably the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which since 2017 has been pursuing the structural integration of the Armed Forces of all EU countries except Denmark and Malta. It is not only limited to proper integration, but also leads capability development projects such as the EU Collaborative Warfare Capabilities (ECOWAR) or the Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA), as well as defence industry endeavors such as the MUSAS project, or the CYBER-C4ISR capabilities level.

Although it is too early to say for sure, Europe may be as close as it can get to René Pleven's distant dream. The EU's geopolitical situation is changing, and so is its own language and motivation. If we used to talk about Europe delegating its protection for years, now Emmanuel Macron advocates ‘strategic autonomy” for the EU. It should be recalled that just over a year ago he claimed that “NATO is brain-dead”. Some voices in the EU’s political arena claim and have realised that it can no longer delegate the European protection and defence of its interests, and they are starting to take steps towards doing so. Despite these advances, it is true that is not a shared interest, at least, as a whole. France and other Mediterranean member states are pushing towards it, but those in the East, as Poland or Latvia, are far more concerned about the rise of Russia, and are comfortable enough for U.S. troops to be established in their terrain. 

Having said that, I truly believe that the advantages of the European Armed Forces project outweigh its negative aspects. First of all, a Europe united in defence policies would not imply the disappearance of NATO, or the breaking of agreements with third countries. In fact, these alliances could even be strengthened and fully adapted to the 21st century and to the war of the future. As an example, in 2018 the EU and NATO signed collaboration agreements on issues such as cybersecurity, defence industry and military mobility.        

While NATO works, Europe is now facing a dissociation between U.S. interests and those of the other Allies, especially the European ones. In particular, countries such as France, Spain and Italy are shifting their defence policies from the Middle East, or the current peace process in Afghanistan (which, despite 20 years of war, sounds like a long way off), to sub-Saharan Africa (Operation “Barkhane” or EUTM Mali), a much closer region with a greater impact on the lives of the European citizens. This does not detract from the fact that NATO faces global terrorism in a new era that is set to surpass asymmetric warfare and other 4th generation wars: the era of hybrid warfare. Russia's military build-up on the EU's eastern flank and China's penetration into Africa do not invite a loosening of ties with the United States, but European countries need to prioritise their own threats over those of the U.S., although it is true that the needs of countries to the west of the EU are not the same as those to the east. This could be the main stumbling block for a joint European Army, as weighting the different strategic priorities could be really arduous.

It is true that this idea of differing policies is not shared in the EU as a whole. Countries such as Poland, those in the Balkans or the Baltic have different approaches and necessities when talking about a European Union common security strategy. The EU is a 27 country-wide body that often is extremely difficult to navigate within. Consensus is only reached after very long discussions (see the soap opera on the COVID relief package negotiations), and being defence as important as it is, and in need of fast, executive decision making, the intricate bureaucracy of the EU could not help with it. But if well managed, it could be an opportunity to develop new strategies for decision-making and reforming the European system as a whole, fostering a new, more effective Europe.

Another debate, probably outdated, is the one who claims that the EU is not capable of planning, organising and conducting operations outside the NATO umbrella. In this case, apart from the aforementioned guidelines and policies, one simply has to look at the facts: the EU today leads six active (and 18 completed) military missions with close to 5,000 troops deployed. The “Althea” (Bosnia & Herzegovina) and “Atalanta” (in the Indian Ocean) missions are particularly noteworthy. It is true that these examples are of low-intensity conflicts but, given the combat experience of EU nations under NATO or in other missions (French and Portuguese in Africa, etc.) combat-pace could be quickly achieved. The NATO certification system under which most European armed forces operate guarantees standardisation in tactics, logistics and procedures, so that standardisation at the European level would be extremely simple if existing models are taken into account.

Another issue is the question of whether the EU could politically and economically engage in a long, high-intensity operation without getting drowned by the public opinion, financial administration, and, obviously, with the planning and carrying out of a whole campaign. This is one of the other main problems with future European armed forces because, as mentioned earlier, Europeans are not prepared in any way to be confronted with the reality of a situation of war. What rules of engagement will be used? How to cope with casualties? And even more, how to create an effective chain of command and control among 27 countries? And what will happen if one does not agree with a particular intervention or action? How could it be argued that the EU, world’s leading beacon of human rights, democracy and peace, gets engaged in a war? Undoubtedly, these questions have rational and objective answers, but in an era of social media, populism, empty discourses, and fake news, it would be difficult to engage with the public (and voters) to support the idea.

Having said that, there is room for optimism. Another reason pointing towards Europe's armed forces is the collaboration that exists at the military industrial level. PESCO and the European Defence Fund encourage this, and projects such as the FCAS and EURODRONE lay the foundations for the future of European armed forces capabilities. It should not be forgotten that the European defence industry is the world leader behind that of the United States and is an increasingly tough competitor for the latter.

In addition, the use of military forces in European countries during the current coronavirus pandemic has served to reinforce the message of their utility and need for collaboration beyond the purely military. While the militarisation of emergencies must be avoided and the soldier must not be reduced to a mere “Swiss army knife” at disposition of the government trying to make up their own lack of planning or capacity to deal with the situation, it has brought the military closer to the streets, and to some extent may have helped to counteract the disaffection with the armed forces that exists in many European countries (due to the factors mentioned above). 

Finally, I believe that European-level integration of the armed forces will not be merely beneficial, but necessary for Europe. If the EU wants to maintain its diplomacy, its economic power, it needs its own strategic project, an “area of control” over its interests and, above all, military independence. This does not preclude maintaining and promoting the alliances already created, but this is a unique and necessary opportunity to fully establish the common European project. The political and economic framework cannot be completed without the military one; and the military one cannot function without the former. All that remains is to look at the direction the EU is taking and hope that it will be realised. It is more than possible and doable, and the reality is that work is being done towards it.

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