The Fantasy of European Defence: An American Perspective

December 11, 2016
  • Since Brexit, there has been extensive and in many ways unprecedented discussion within the European Union about a new concept of ‘European defence’ and the creation of the EU army or EU military forces. The EU has no legal authority to form such forces, nor would it likely manage them effectively. The debate so far has been an unhelpful diversion from the real business of European security.


  • If EU states continue to seek to form military forces, they risk undermining NATO by placing too many demands on their limited defense resources, and by encouraging the US and Britain to take a less active role in European security and defense as Europeans cut them out of decision-making processes. EU leaders today are treating the future of one of the longest-standing and most effective defensive alliances in history—NATO—as a questionable enterprise, and instead pursuing a fantasy of European defence.


As the European Union is rocked by crises and prepares for the Brexit of its mightiest member, a cry for ‘more Europe’ has swept European capitals. The response has taken many forms, but the most significant is that, since June, EU and European national leaders have called for a massive expansion of the EU’s defence ambitions. Previously, these were limited to peace-keeping and conflict resolution efforts enabled by the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Now, there is a serious public debate about whether the EU should form its own army, and the European Parliament has formally decided to establish an operational military headquarters and new multinational forces, setting the EU on the path to doing so. These efforts have only moved forward on the basis of a vague and ill-defined concept of ‘European defence.’ EU leaders have consistently ignored the fact that there are numerous significant practical and legal obstacles to the effective operation of any such force, and many are engaging in self-defeating fantasizing. In fact, the EU has no legal authority to engage in collective defence à la NATO, which will render any EU military force impotent and pointless.

Until recently, many commentators treated the prospect of an ‘EU army’ as so impractical and far-fetched as to be illusory. This has been changing fast, however. In September, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker publicly called for the establishment of an EU military headquarters to plan operations and common military forces in his state of the European Union address, marking the most significant advocacy for such forces by a major EU leader. At talks in Bratislava later that week, a group of EU defence ministers agreed to move forward with defence cooperation, including a ‘permanent,’ ‘autonomous’ capability to ‘plan and conduct’ overseas military operations ‘from low to high intensity levels,’ but unambiguously stated in a letter to their governments that forming an ‘EU army’ was not their goal. Nonetheless, the governments of Germany, Italy, Spain and others continued to push for the creation of EU military forces, and President Juncker again called for the formation of an EU army in November. Soon after that, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated after discussions with EU defence ministers that he believed ‘there is no intention to create a European Army; or establish a military headquarters similar to NATO’s SHAPE.’ In fact, on November 22nd, the European Parliament set the EU on the course Juncker had proposed and passed a non-binding resolution to move towards a European Defence Union by establishing ‘multinational forces’ and ‘EU headquarters to plan and command crisis management operations.’ Although the creation of an EU army remains in the distant future, it now appears to be an idea whose time has come.

While the political climate has changed, reality has not. The notion of an EU army remains a poorly thought out and impractical, as indeed do all of the current plans for EU-controlled armed forces. There is no such thing as ‘European defence:’ although European member states may defend themselves individually and even form military forces together, the EU does not have the authority to order any armed force into battle, even to protect an EU member state. This fact will hobble any EU military forces. Within the Treaty on European Union, there is no clause granting the EU the ability to fight wars or raise armies. Because of this, the EU does not even have the legal ability to defend itself, rendering the idea of ‘European’ defence outside of NATO farcical. The Treaty repeatedly states the EU ‘might’ one day have common defence, but since its passage no such agreement has been reached. As it stands, if the EU formed an army, it could not send it into battle.

The reason for this is that five EU member states are neutral, and three of them are bound by their constitutions to not participate in any collective defence arrangement. Ireland has long feared that the ambiguous language in the EU treaties would force them to abandon their constitutional neutrality, and according to the 2002 Seville Declarations by the EU, Ireland cannot participate in any military operation without a UN mandate and two levels of domestic political approval (the Declarations also begrudgingly admitted an EU army was ‘unnecessary’). Austria and Malta also pledge neutrality in their constitutions, while Sweden and Finland simply decline to join foreign alliances. Since major EU foreign policy decision-making requires unanimity, these neutral states would be required to give their support to any EU effort to defend itself, and three of them are obligated to deny it.

Despite this, some EU leaders have perpetuated the fantasy that the EU has some sort of collective defence agreement embedded in the EU Treaty, similar to Article V of the NATO treaty. France formally invoked this arrangement last November to request the aid of other EU states in striking back at the Islamic State after it attacked Paris, and recently EU leaders including foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini commemorated the anniversary of that event. In fact, the vague ‘mutual assistance and solidarity clause’ buried in Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union is radically different from NATO’s Article V, as it does not require EU states to assist each other ‘with the use of armed force.’ Given the anemic response to France’s call for assistance, the ‘aid and assistance’ it requires states provide is apparently largely symbolic. The clause was intentionally written to avoid obligating neutral member states to come to the aid of other states with armed force, even if they are attacked. This is why the EU treaty itself declares that NATO is the foundation of the defence of the 22 of 28 EU states which are also NATO members.

This lack of purpose will undercut the long-term strategic viability of any EU military forces. NATO’s purpose is to protect its member states from invasion by foreign powers, which has allowed it to keep the peace in Europe since the Second World War. Their mutual commitment is clearly stated and unambiguous. By contrast, moves towards an EU army risk undermining NATO for the sake of a phantom alternative. An EU force would be able to engage in peacekeeping operations, but it could not fight to defend EU member states under its own flag. The non-existence of an EU collective defence arrangements will make any European military forces second-rate armies, which despite calls for ‘complementarity’ with NATO forces, will be significantly less versatile than similar formations nested under NATO. They will be unable to deploy any significant force for more than a few weeks outside of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa without British or American help, and will be useless at deterring potential aggressors. It is also likely that they will suffer from the political problems which plague all multi-national military endeavours, and EU forces will struggle to iron out differences between national contingents and operate coherently. Given the EU’s demonstrated inability to develop any coherent foreign policy in the past, and the shaky legal foundation under any such initiative, they will probably struggle more than NATO ever has in doing so.

European leaders will probably not want to pay much for such severely restricted capabilities, and this will create even more problems for EU military forces. The EU considers peacekeeping and military crisis response important, but these will never be as important as conventional defense. So long as NATO remains the first port of call for conventional collective defence, it is hard to see how EU nations will be able to justify the alternative. Thus, there is no reason to believe that future EU military forces will escape the problems that have bedeviled previous efforts at defence integration. European leaders’ promises of expanded defense defence spending and capabilities will once again ring hollow. The historical record demonstrates that past EU efforts to build military organizations dedicated to military operations other than war have been consistently under-resourced. In 1999, for example, the EU member states agreed to establish a European Rapid Reaction Force of 60,000 troops deployable on 30 days’ notice to respond to major crises. They soon revised their goal to being able to deploy an optimistically named ‘Battlegroup’ of 2,000 troops in on five days’ notice. No Battlegroup has deployed and whether they are in principle deployable remains ambiguous, as the EU has repeatedly chosen to send other, more capable and better-resourced forces to address crises since their creation. It is unlikely that EU member states would expand their military forces, as many have promised, if their only role is armed humanitarianism. The UK’s exit from the EU will also eliminate the chief voice calling for individual European countries to acquire reasonable defence capabilities—and remove from the EU the only positive example of a country that has maintained global military reach in an era of austerity.

For all these reasons, it is hard to see how EU forces could ever be ‘complementary’ to NATO, as NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg and various EU national leaders have repeatedly suggested. All signs are that many European leaders are seeking an alternative to NATO rather than a complement, and that whatever this force’s limitations, it is the first step in cutting Great Britain and the United States out of the European security architecture. The controversial term ‘European Army’ was first publicly used to describe a near-term goal by President Juncker just after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and was shaped by fears that Trump would renege on America’s commitment to NATO. This risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any duplication of NATO capabilities by the EU, including establishing an operational military headquarters, is about creating an EU alternative to NATO. This is why the European Parliament’s recent defence resolution specifically stated the purpose of its efforts is ‘enabling the EU to act where NATO is unwilling to do so,’ despite NATO’s generally broader authority to act.

While the debate about ‘European defence’ remains blindly optimistic and based on flawed premises, it is still progressing towards having serious consequences. Fundamentally, Europe is now debating whether non-EU states should have a say in the EU’s so-called defence. When they call for ‘strategic autonomy,’ they are questioning the long-standing, sound and fundamental belief that America, which appoints NATO’s Supreme Commander, and Great Britain, which appoints his deputy, have broadly similar security interests to themselves, and insisting that in fact it is the states of the European Union that have such broadly aligned interests and should act together to achieve them. This is patently ridiculous, as several European states have explicitly rejected a common EU defence architecture, while the rest have already agreed to participate in NATO’s.

If Europe, broadly conceived, does intend to spend more on defence, it would be wildly counter-productive to split that between an EU army and NATO. If European powers do consistently spend 2% of their GDP on defence, as promised in the latest resolution, and as President Obama and President-Elect Trump have called for, this is likely to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance. As it stands, if the EU is serious about the creation of its own army, then it must confront the fact that this will do more to undermine NATO than any other act since its foundation. The fantasy of a new era of European defence under the EU has grown pernicious, and it must be debunked.


T.S. Allen is an officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the army, the Department of Defense, or any other part of the United States Government.

Join our mailing list