How to Interpret the Idea of a European Army

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag that the time has come for Europe to have an army of its own. “A joint European army,” he said, “would show the world that there would never again be a war between EU countries.

Such an army would help us to form common foreign and security policies.” According to Mr Juncker, with its own army Europe could react more credibly to a threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state. Predictably, his list of threats includes Russia. “One wouldn’t have a European army to deploy it immediately. But a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values,” he said.

Mr Juncker didn’t specify how Russia was threatening the EU, confining himself to the observation that “NATO is not enough” because “not all NATO members are in the EU” (obviously alluding to Turkey). “It would not be in competition with NATO,” he stressed, adding that the idea was to make Europe stronger. “Europe’s image has suffered dramatically,” he said ruefully.

His idea was immediately backed by German politicians – Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “Our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army,” Ms Leyen told Deutschlandfunk. Support also came from the chairman of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Norbert Röttgen, and the chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, Hans-Peter Bartels. “The time has come for us to put into practice the plans for creating a common EU army,” said Mr Röttgen. “Our defense capabilities will remain inadequate from the point of view of security policy as long as we have armies of separate states, which mostly do and purchase the same things, if in small amounts.”

The Juncker initiative has also received the support of President Sauli Niinistö of Finland and Finnish Defense Minister Carl Haglund, though the latter noted that, while approving of the basic idea of a common army, he didn’t think that it would be accepted by all EU states.

However, these statements were soon challenged by Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja, as well as by Jussi Niinistö, chairman of the parliamentary defense commission and MP from the Finns Party. According to Mr Niinistö, in the current financial situation it is hard to imagine that anyone will create a parallel organization on a par with NATO. “We already have the notorious EU rapid reaction force, which has never been used. We’ve created a paper tiger intended to let hired troops relax. Right now we’re witnessing an attempt to cut out another paper tiger,” he said, adding that it was all “empty talk.”

Let’s leave the Europeans to sort out their disagreements with Mr Juncker. For Russia, what matters is the timing of this proposal and the rationale behind it.

We won’t analyze the alleged Russian threat. Despite all the alarmist statements coming from European politicians, no such threat exists, as the Western capitals know only too well. The interesting thing to consider is whether the EU is, in fact, so disappointed with NATO that it no longer expects the alliance to come to its aid. Or is creating a common European army simply a pretext for getting rid of the irritant US tutelage?

Washington plays the leading role in NATO, contributing between 72 and 75 percent of its budget. All other member-states spend barely 1.5 percent of their GDP on defense, though they were urged to boost that figure to two percent at the recent NATO summit in Wales. Only Estonia and Greece currently meet the requirement, though the Estonian economy’s contribution is miniscule, while Athens pays Brussels with money loaned by Germany. Even Lithuania and Latvia, the loudest critics of the “Russian military threat,” spend 1.1 and 0.9 percent of GDP on defense, respectively. Plainly speaking, they are piggy-backing on the US policy of “defending East European nations” from Russia. The US aim is to use this pretext to deploy its forces and military hardware on the eastern Baltic coast in order to threaten Moscow from there.

Many European countries don’t like this provocative behavior. To them, Big Brother is going too far both in the Baltics and Ukraine, where US advisers are active at all levels of government. They are displeased with Washington’s attempts to drag the Europeans into a confrontation with Moscow which entails economic and financial losses and puts them on the brink of war with a major nuclear power. Few if any in Europe are bold enough to express this clearly to Obama and his satellites, even though the US has long been a major headache for the Europeans.

It’s widely known that the European capitals are dismayed by the US idea to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. The German chancellor had to rush to Washington to convince Obama to reconsider his decision, which threatened to disrupt the fragile truce in eastern Ukraine and provide Russia with a pretext to openly support the self-defense forces with Russian weapons. For the time being, these arguments are winning out, but no one can say for how long.

European and US interests diverge dramatically in Ukraine. The US has a stake in the continuation of the civil war there, because it helps keep the Europeans and other countries in line on sanctions, which are designed to weaken the Russian economy and increase social discontent. The European governments, on the other hand, don’t want this war, because they are losing billions of euros from the anti-Russian and the targeted anti-European countersanctions imposed by Russia, and are running the risk of a future exodus of millions of refugees from Ukraine to their countries, which could cause mass disaffection at home. The undeclared search for ideas on how to weaken the US diktat or get out from under it altogether is meeting with understanding in the savvy European establishment. I believe that the proposal to create a common European army is one such idea.

But this is not the only reason why Mr Juncker’s idea was supported by Germany. Berlin’s growing political, economic and financial leadership in Europe is aided by Angela Merkel’s persistent international efforts. It is clear that any future European army will be dominated by Germany and its Bundeswehr. German generals may complain about insufficient funding, but they know that the practical implementation of the Juncker proposal will dramatically change the attitude of the public, the parliament and the government to the Bundeswehr. Hence the optimistic statements by Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and the Bundestag committee heads.

It’s also no surprise that Finnish politicians are interested in a European army. There has been a public debate in Finland about the pros and cons of joining NATO. This idea has its supporters, including the president and the defense minister, and its opponents, such as the prime minister and many MPs who – rightly in my opinion – believe that Finland’s accession to an anti-Russian bloc will spoil its relations with Moscow, resulting not only in serious political, diplomatic, financial and economic harm but an increased Russian troop presence on its border, which the Finns wouldn’t welcome, to put it mildly.

But let’s not speculate about our neighbors’ plans. There are many other obstacles to the creation of a joint European army and the biggest one is lack of money. We’ve mentioned that NATO’s European members are unwilling to spend two percent of GDP on defense, as Brussels wants. It is anyone’s guess where they will find the funds for parallel European structures. There are also serious organizational problems involved in setting up command-and-control centers, coordinating the structures of armed forces, and assigning functions to national units that will make up the future army. And then there’s the need to provide the force with training facilities, weapons and military equipment, combat support systems, etc.

There is little to no chance that the units currently assigned to the NATO European command will be handed over to the European army, while forming a parallel force will cost a pretty penny. How to coordinate between the prospective European army and Brussels is another major headache. NATO HQ naturally will not welcome the emergence of an armed rival in its own backyard. Washington, despite the politically correct statements by Juncker, Merkel, and other European politicians, will also be displeased with attempts to dislodge the Americans from their strategic position in the European security system. Thus, the political (and not only political) battles over the Juncker proposal promise to be heated and are unlikely to lead to any practical result. They will only add new heaps of paper to the EU’s bottomless archives.

As noted by the Finnish MP, the European rapid reaction force was the first such paper tiger. Created in 1992 for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions on the basis of German and French units, it was later joined by troops from Belgium, Spain, and Luxembourg. The force was not used in any military conflict, be it Afghanistan, Iraq, or the fight against ISIS. Nor is it likely to be, for it is one thing to devise an elegant project symbolizing the unity of “former bitter enemies,” and quite another to risk involvement in hostilities that may lead to real casualties. It can’t be ruled out that the planned European army will suffer the same fate.

How has Russia responded to the idea of a European army? We already know the first reactions. Chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots Leonid Slutsky believes that the Juncker initiative smacks of hysteria. This is what he wrote on his Twitter page: “It’s a European version of paranoia: declaring the creation of a common army in opposition to Russia that has no intention to go to war against anyone.” Another MP, Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee and Afghan war veteran Franz Klintsevich told news agencies that “a European army, if created, will not guarantee security and could only play a provocational role.”

He added: “It’s absolutely unclear what this Western politician’s feverish mind will think up next. The saddest thing is that such proposals receive support.” Asked by TASS to comment, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said: “I’d like to understand what it is all about, because European politicians have broached this subject at different levels over the last 30 years. We’ll wait for explanations.”

A succinct reply came from Russian military quarters: “We knew at least two European armies – Napoleon Bonaparte’s and Adolf Hitler’s. Educated people may remember what this led to. May 9 is a good occasion to refresh the memory of those who have forgotten details.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.