(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.