European security and defense review: towards European Armed Forces?

European security and defense review: Towards European Armed Forces?


23 | 05 | 2022


Identity, legal and logistical overview of a potential proposal on a long-term project

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Director MPCC in the EUTM’s CAR Change of Command

The drumbeats of war that currently resonate in Europe’s Eastern flank have echoed in the Old Continent’s collective memory, reopening displaced debates on the feasibility of arranging a European Armed Forces corps. The degree of viability of the project, although seemingly a matter of pure political will and budget adjustments, in reality faces a variety of challenges – ranging from the very identity of the European Union and its foundational values, to logistic and capability development issues. As a long-term project, however, the European Armed Forces would be one of the ultimate manifestations of commitment to Communitarian security and defense. Not only that, but their arrangement would entail taking one step further in the accomplishment of the “ever closer union” that modern Europe’s founding fathers aspired to.

A first approach to the project of a potential European Armed Forces corps would require assessing its attainability within a wide array of perspectives. Inevitably, addressing the compatibility of this hypothetical plan with the Union’s original ends and values, as well as studying under which delegated competences would the Forces be developed, must come first. Otherwise - without support in identity and lack of a legal framework - the proposal would be incoherent. As for the question of values and (moral, maybe) legitimacy, Article 3 of the Treaty of Lisbon sets out the basis upon which to construct a conceptual draft for a European Armed Forces. Indeed, its mention to “freedom, security and justice” as the main commodities the Union commits to provide for its citizens, aids in the outline of potential Communitarian military corps. That is, given the fact that the military are still the state body par excellence in charge of delivering primary security and defense.

Additionally, considering the classification of the definition and implementation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy as a special competence of the Union, the said Lisbon Treaty further develops the legal foundation for the discussed project within the wide framework of its Title V. Such Title will also be addressed later for the examination of current institutions, bodies and agencies for the development defense capabilities. The Treaty-based structure for the delegation of competences in foreign action and security, however, is undoubtedly broad and ambiguous – and purposely so, since these capacities are still perceived as being inherent to Nation-states. Hence Member States have been consistently reluctant to cede them to the supranational European Union authorities. Still, the advancement towards a fully Communitarian security structure, and concretely a European Armed Forces project, may find its path through indirect means – that is, by strengthening already settled European instruments for economic and financial cooperation, for instance.

In other words, the feasibility of the project towards a European Armed Forces does not only need to be considered under political lens, but should be confronted with other logistical challenges such as tariffs and taxes regimes, trade barriers and product requirements – especially for dual-use items, among others. All of the mentioned elements refer to the material equipment development of a European Armed Forces, not to mention the legal difficulties for Member States to allocate personnel to such a supranational military body. Under what legal regime for military personnel would the troops be under, who would eventually take political responsibility for the conduct of operations (drafting and issuing mandates, for instance), and what type of legal permissions would be required to allow foreign forces to enter into other states’ sovereign territory are some of the legal issues that could arise should a juridical assessment of a European Armed Forces be conducted.

Certainly, challenges in these mentioned fields still require a proper analysis and proposal of solutions. Nevertheless, some progress has indeed taken place in other cooperative efforts – namely the allocation of resources for defense and military development of capabilities. Bodies such as the European Defense Fund and the European Peace Facility, in this sense, represent an improvement on the financial aspect to funding Communitarian military material. Such effort, on the other hand, is elsewhere personified in a variety of centres: PESCO and the European Defence Agency, for instance; both of which are regulated under the aforementioned framework of Title V of the Lisbon Treaty. These examples provide insight into how defense cooperation is already taking place in the European Union, following a common trend for the development of capabilities in any of its delegated competences: institutionalization of efforts. This tendency has already been identified by authors such as Drent, who highlights that “according to the European Council, the underlying assumption, or norm, that needs to be ingrained into the EU is that of coordinating action for crisis management among EU institutions”.[1]

Although a remarkable improvement in terms of cooperation and coordination in Communitarian security and defense, this phenomenon of institutionalization does not seem enough for the proper construction of a traditional corps of Armed Forces. Inherent to the growth of an organizational chart there is the increase of bureaucratic and administrative procedures; both of which seem contrary to the noticeable agility and clear chain of command necessary for the management of active European Armed Forces. Conversely, the same systematization trend appears to be the model that better fits within the structure of the EU, since bodies present themselves as different forums in which 27 different voices (a changing number, depending on the extent of participation of each Member State) can manifest individual interests.

Altogether, the evolution of the different elements that have been referenced could lead to two different scenarios. In this sense, either the European Armed Forces project will remain a long-term aspiration, dependent on ever-reluctant Member States for political commitment; or the goals will divert into less compromised joint military action plans. A European Joint Command, for instance, could be a more feasible alternative for Member States to look forward. By these means issues of interoperability, a unified chain of command, or joined training, for instance, could be worked upon. This initiative, in turn, seems closer to the goals set out in the upcoming Strategic Compass for 2030 – the establishment of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5000 troops, concretely.[2]

Having come close to different matters on the attainability of the discussed project, it is also necessary to address its positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, a unified Communitarian army could fulfill an otherwise classic deterrent role in the context of the security dilemma. However, for that end to be achieved, the EU military copers would need to heavily outweigh Europe’s enemies own armed forces – an assertion purely optimistic in nature. While it has become evident that Russian forces were not as powerful as speculated under the light of their recent (extremely deficient) military campaign, to expect an EU army to overshadow it seems rather Utopian. Instead, the European Union’s many strengths in deterrence still rely on the projection of soft power, with sanctions being the key element in their toolkit.

Also positively, another asset of a potential European Armed Forces could be to finally achieve strategic and defensive autonomy, which has been for some commentators long-deposited on the United States and its NATO-led security structures. Though being a legitimate claim to some extent (meaning local production of military equipment instead of importing it, for instance), defensive autonomy should not come at the expense of Europe’s closest intercontinental ally. On the other hand, the existence of such a military body could potentially be helpful in supporting the tasks of already existent European security structures, such as Frontex (for auxiliary purposes on border control), or Europol, for instance. However, the establishment of an army – with all the logistical challenges already described – for the daily assistance to current bodies and agencies appears as counterintuitive. Indeed, should the goal be to strengthen the work of such agencies, it would be more productive to re-allocate financial and human resources originally destined the construction of the EU Armed Forces instead.

Negative aspects for the establishment of a common European Armed Forces, on the contrary, overshadow its assets. “No common definition of threats”, for example, has often been signaled as the first obstacle for an EU army; an issue that responds to individual definitions of security interests by each Member State.[3] Without a common drafting of such interests and the threats, risks and challenges that put them at stake, there is nothing for an EU army to defend or abide to.

Certainly, progress has been made on this regard, through the elaboration and publication of different policy documents – namely, the EU Global Strategy (2016), and more recently, the aforementioned Strategic Compass, among others. Importantly, this last document highlights the need to provide a “shared assessment of our strategic environment”, a phrase that can be interpreted both as an acknowledgement of the importance of consensus, and the difficulties of reaching it as well.[4]

At any rate, the following question arises that relates the matter with the topic in discussion: if there is not an even assessment of strategic priorities at the political level among 27 parties, how could a military mandate be eventually drafted for the enforcement of those security priorities? The risk, then, would be that of political comprise, but translated into military strategic mandates (with the inherent dangers such agreements would entail): in ensuring the lowest common denominator so that every party is satisfied, strategic documents end up being void of content because of its broad scope. This kind of logic, however, is not the one more adequately adjusts to military strategic thinking, which needs of clear goals to pursuit through concrete means that can be translated into action. Otherwise, there would be a gap between the political and strategic – practical – realms in the decision-making process. Therefore, as long as EU security and defense policies become truly Communitarian in their assessments, to have a European Armed Forces corps in full would be rather counterproductive.

One last approach for the evaluation of a potential European Armed Forces needs to be undertaken, making reference to both resource allocation and the ever-controversial question of compatibility with NATO. Firstly, the establishment of an effective EU army would imply for Member States an actual reduction of their defense expenses: instead of having to designate separately resources for their national armed forces, NATO contributions and the referenced EU funding structures (the European Defence Fund and the European Peace Facility), having a single EU army would simplify the financial burden. Again, the issue remains that it is difficult to portray a European Armed Forces corps that is capable of satisfying the security needs of each participant Member State – meaning that it is likely that each nation will continue to keep and finance their own.

More importantly, the potential conflict of an EU army with the military nature of the NATO Alliance deserves further study. The key element in the discussion is the very nature of the two organizations at hand. On the one hand, the European Union is largely a political and partially sovereign entity, with security concerns of its own. Unlike the EU, on the other hand, NATO is primarily military, and thus its political bodies are not that relevant. The distant nature of each organization from one another also makes their corps have different characteristics and pursuit divergent ends – NATO crisis management and response teams are purely military, while the EU possesses a wide array of civilian means to counter emergencies. In the end, NATO-EU relations are of complementary nature. Even if the European Union eventually agrees to the establishment of Communitarian Armed Forces, their level and strategic interests would probably be different than of NATO forces, more likely focused in geographical areas which NATO does not prioritize (the Maghreb). Overall, competitiveness would not be of concern when it comes to NATO and the European Union Armed Forces. If any relation where to be established, it would be one of cooperation and complementarity.

Finally, it is inevitable for commentators and analysts to raise the question of a potential establishment of a European Armed Forces considering the shifting security scenario in the Old Continent. With war so close in over seventy years, it is only natural to make otherwise positive inquiries on the current status of European defense and security. However, reviews of this kind of initiatives still need to be undertaken under a wider scope than the present circumstances.

Hence the multiple approach here developed, considering identity, legal and logistical matters first. Within the first segment, several questions remain open as an illustration of the complex juridical technicalities embedded in the project of a European Armed Forces. Subsequently, existent structures for cooperation and development of the European defense industry were evaluated, along funding mechanisms: they both manifest progress in commitment efforts towards a Communitarian conception of security. The importance of common policy documents was also highlighted – still, such policies remain rather abstract and insufficient to justify on their own the need to establish the European Army. Lastly, the issue of compatibility with NATO forces was addressed, for a final comprehensive study of the proposed project.

Overall, the European Armed Forces proposal seems far from close – the very nature of current European structures and the slowness of politics of consensus being its two main opponents. The project, however, cannot be entirely discarded, and so far, remains one of the last tokens of that ‘ever closer union’ modern Europe founding fathers aspired to.

[1] Margriet Drent, “The EU’s Comprehensive Approach to Security: A ulture of Coordination?”, Studia Diplomatica, LXIV (2), (2011), 4.

[2] “A Strategic Compass for the EU”, European Union External Action, October 28th, 2021, (accessed May 19th, 2022).

[3] Kristina Zeleniuk, “An EU Army: competition with NATO or the right to protection?”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, December 13th, 2021, (accessed May 19th, 2022).

[4] “A Strategic Compass for the EU”.