(CN) — Europe, a continent defined by catastrophic wars and the clash of empires, is talking about a future where it is a military might again, and on a war footing. Its top leaders are advocating something long viewed as highly unrealistic: A pan-European army relying on European-made and -owned weapons and machinery instead of American ones. A Europe defended by its own nuclear weapons.
Since the end of World War II, Europe’s defense has depended on the military muscle of the United States and the NATO alliance. Now, citing growing threats, Europe’s leaders are talking seriously about a future where they go it alone militarily.
French President Emmanuel Macron is leading the charge, calling for a “true European army” in a number of speeches. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed that appeal this month in a speech to the European Parliament.
In reality, this is not a sudden shift.
Since 2016, several European nations have begun increasing their military spending. Together, the European Union’s member states, including Great Britain, spent about $227 billion in 2017 on their national military budgets, the third most after the United States ($639 billion) and China ($228 billion). That equates to about 1.3 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product.
But this money is spent on national armed forces (the EU has 27 armies, 23 air forces and 21 navies) and European leaders say this spending would need to be consolidated and streamlined to build a single EU army.
“You can’t go on spending your defense resources on everybody having an air force when three-quarters of them are only good for pumping out patriotic smoke on national day fly passes,” said Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency, in recent discussions on the future of the EU conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
Significantly, 25 EU nations have banded together in the past year to work more closely in a common defense project called the Permanent Structured Cooperation.
This new military-oriented posture puts into doubt the very idea of the EU as one of the world’s most ambitious peace projects, a cooperation between nations as the antidote to the horrors of World War II.
A primary reason for Europe’s move to create an EU army is concern that the NATO alliance has begun to unravel as the interests of the United States and Europe diverge.
“What is happening now looks like a painful divorce, or something that could lead to a painful divorce,” said François Godement, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. President Donald Trump has become the brusque bearer of this message. Since taking office, Trump has questioned the need for NATO and criticized European nations for not spending more on that military alliance. For their part, key European leaders appear eager for the EU to take the place of a U.S.-led NATO in Europe.
Some Europeans argue that an EU army is fundamental at a time of growing uncertainty and danger in a world of rivalry between superpowers.
The biggest threat for Europe is Russia and a hypothetical attack on an EU member state, such as an attempt to annex Russian-speaking parts of the Baltic states. These fears were deepened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing fight over Ukraine, which flared up dangerously on Sunday. Europeans also are repelling Russian efforts to bring Eastern European countries under Russian influence.
Besides Russia, Europeans feel threatened by chaos in the Middle East and North Africa and jihadist attacks. At the same time, Europe feels under siege from a persistent influx of refugees and immigrants from Africa, where the population is booming.
Also upending Europe’s sense of security is the departure of Great Britain, a nuclear-armed military heavyweight, from the EU. The EU and Britain have pledged to maintain military ties and alliances.
Britain’s departure also opens the door for a European army. Britain long objected to more military integration in Europe, fearing its own military would be incorporated into an EU army.
“These factors, taken together, constitute a sea change across the European chessboard,” said Jolyon Howorth, a British scholar and defense expert at the University of Bath, in a recent essay. He advocates a strong EU military taking over the lead of NATO in Europe.
In this disorder, global institutions are losing power, and that makes it paramount for the EU to think about safeguarding itself, said Jeremy Shapiro, another analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, during discussions about EU autonomy.
“We are entering into a world where the very large powers, the very strong powers, are increasingly unwilling to be bound by rules,” he said.
The EU, then, appears to want to establish itself as a world player wielding its own economic and military power so it can set its own agenda, and be able to control its destiny: to become a superpower in its own right, in other words.
This new role for the EU doesn’t sit well with many in Europe, though. The EU is often viewed as a force for good, the world’s peacemaker. The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
“The road from a ‘Peace Project’ to a ‘European Defence Union’ has begun,” wrote Luke Ming Flanagan, an Irish member of the European Parliament. He castigated plans to build an EU army as a scheme to “line the pockets of the European defence industry” at the expense of public spending.
Those favoring a stronger EU military, though, say peace and prosperity can be assured only by beefing up military strength.
In truth, European nations have become ever more involved in military campaigns since the end of the Cold War — a flexing of military and diplomatic muscles with mixed results in the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Ukraine.
Increasingly, it appears many in Europe think it necessary to build walls around the bloc, boost its military and take a “hard power” approach to the rest of the world. And for European leaders, there are many advantages to an emboldened approach.
It might help Europe on trade and boost its troubled, debt-ridden economies as more is spent on defense manufacturing. By building up a European army, a badly divided Europe could become more integrated and feel pride in itself, advocates of an EU army say.
But there are major hurdles.
The EU is unlike any other political body in the world. As a transnational union, bound together by common laws and trade and run by nonelected bureaucrats, it is riven by conflict between its nation states.
Its founding rules dictate that major actions require unanimity, and this can be viewed as a debilitating factor. In a military context, deciding how and when to use an EU army would present innumerable questions. For example, Europeans along the Mediterranean see their threats very differently from those closer to Russia’s borders.
The biggest question might be determining who controls such an army and who decides when it takes action. Would it be a collective decision? Or the decision of the EU’s stateless bureaucrats? Would a special council of elected leaders make that call?
“We will not be able to consult 27 heads of state and government when urgent action is needed,” said Arnaud Danjean, a French member of the European Parliament in an interview with Le Point, a French weekly magazine. “And there must also be a leader who assumes the return of the coffins. Who will assume the price of blood? Legitimacy can only be national.”
Analysts said the EU faces major shortfalls, too.
To create a “true army,” the EU would need to modernize its weapons systems, stock up on smart weapons and invest in big-ticket military upgrades, particularly in air transportation, air surveillance and reconnaissance, submarine warfare and missile defense, according to analysts. It would also need to build a central command structure and standardize its weapons systems. The EU is working on many of these deficiencies.
A massive EU army also would need many more transport ships, airplanes and railroad cars. And an EU army racing across Europe to fight Russia would need reinforced tunnels, bridges and rail lines.
“This is not something where you simply buy a lot of expensive equipment, put it in a parking lot or an airport, and you’re done,” said Bastian Giegerich, a military analyst at International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a discussion with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There isn’t a quick fix here,” he added. “The question is whether we will have the patience to see this through.”
And a bigger dilemma yet remains: the nuclear question.
Now, Europe relies on NATO and the United States’ nuclear arsenal. In Europe, only France and Britain are armed with nuclear weapons. But France has not agreed to use its nuclear system to defend Europe, although it has suggested it might be willing to. Britain has committed to using its nuclear weapons only as part of NATO.
So, would France be prepared to launch nuclear missiles against Russia — and therefore risk being attacked by Russian missiles — to protect Estonia? Would Germany feel comfortable depending on French nuclear weapons for its defense?
“For the past 20 years no one has talked seriously about these issues, and nobody wants to discuss seriously about these issues,” Witney said.
Ian Anthony, a security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in an email that the idea of an EU army “must be seen as an element of political rhetoric, rather than military reality.”
He said the EU has the ability to build a joint army, but doing so would require years of increased and sustained spending.
For now, though, a more militarized European future seems unavoidable, when defense spending globally is on the rise.
Since early 2017, for instance, German troops have been stationed in the Baltic region to act as a deterrent against Russia. France now has thousands of troops in North Africa. Europe plans to add 10,000 more border agents. EU military spending is projected to increase.
Just this month, NATO and its EU allies held a massive military exercise in Norway, amassing more than 40,000 troops in a show of strength to Russia.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)