Foreign Affairs

The Phantom Army: Why Europe Needs a Common Defence Force, and Why It Won’t Get One

By October 12, 2017 No Comments

By Isabelle Ava-Pointon


In a recent speech at the Sorbonne, President Macron laid out his vision for a reformed and revitalized Europe. Alongside promises of fiscal reform and migration management, one proposal stands out as one of the most overlooked shift in French policy in recent times. Macron used the occasion to declare that “at the beginning of the next decade, Europe should have a common Intervention Force”. This is no doubt a controversial idea, and thus unlikely to be actualized anytime soon, despite the fact that Europe clearly needs a unified army.

Macron’s request for a united defence include a common defence budget and doctrine. While Europe already has a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), strengthening its vague guidelines into a “common doctrine for action” will be difficult, as Europe, according to the French president himself, “does not have the same cultures, parliaments, histories, politics or sensibilities”, and the experiences and training of it highest military authorities differ.  It is unlikely that the 28 states will reach a consensus on a single united defence doctrine. However, strategically speaking, this unity would be wise, as cohesion of strategy, procedure, and command is key in any successful military organization. An increasingly connected EU will want a unified defence force so that every nation is aware of and involved in solving any security issue within or outside of the union. This unity of command is essential when dealing with both regional issues and threats to the whole of Europe. In addition, a common defence budget is essential to the functioning of any common force or development of strategy.

Macron’s other proposals included a united European intelligence service to “assure the cohesion of our intelligence capabilities”, and a common European military training academy. The former would increase cooperation in both strategy development and operational success on the ground, as high-quality intelligence is essential in any successful military operation. Many military operations have run into serious trouble due to lack of coordinated intelligence. This is most clearly seen in the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan where lack of intelligence led (pp. 61-62) to attacks and prolongment of the operation. The latter would at least complement the idea of a common defence policy, and provide the cooperative training needed for future leaders of the defence force.

Much of the nuances of this debate depend upon whether the proposed force is meant to replace or — as Macron suggests — complement NATO. Leaving NATO and having its own force would bring control of European defence policy and issues back into the hands of European states, as opposed to being controlled by the US. However, the core question is whether Europe still trusts the US to protect it within the framework of NATO, and if it is justified in this belief. Trump’s comments criticizing NATO and calling into question its core values should not be taken lightly, despite his recent change of tone and policy affirming his commitment to an effective and efficient NATO. Even if spoken by a volatile politician, his anti-NATO comments have stirred up the belief that there is “a progressive and inevitable disengagement of the US”. Even if NATO stays a coherent and reliable alliance for the next few years, the European policy of basing its safety on an alliance held together by a determinedly self-interested and arguably waning state across the ocean is not a viable strategy. Eventually, European states on their own, or European states together, must begin taking matters of their own defence and security into their own hands.


Macron describes his vision of the EU at the Paris-Sorbonne University

Having determined that a common European defence capability is a good idea, it is important to ask what kind of force Europe requires. Many of Macron’s initial suggestions are a good starting point. He proposed a “force d’intervention” to be ready for service in a relatively short period of time, with a united defence policy, funded by a common defence budget and led by officers trained at the same European Military Academy.

Currently, Europe has a degree of defence cooperation. In 2000 it created a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), which is made up of permanent military and civilian structures, and many committees and agencies. The main organs include the European Defence Agency (EDA), which helps EU member states develop their military capacities and encourages collaboration and joint defence forces. It also oversees Research & Development, helps facilitate training, and encourages the development of the European defence industry.

The two powerhouses of the EU, France and Germany, have parallel views on the idea of a defence force. While the French President calls for an official common intervention force by 2020, he also proposes an interim plan of “welcoming into our national armies ….military personnel from all European countries willing to participate as much as possible, in our work in anticipation, intelligence, planning and support operations”. Along these lines, Germany has recently begun quietly building its own version of a European army by slowly integrating Dutch, Romanian and Czech units into their Bundeswehr, under the “Framework Nations Concept”. This transitional policy shows that the German and French states believe that a unified EU army is an important undertaking and are willing to take the initiative to start building it.

It is important to note that this is not the first time that a European defence force has been suggested. Recently, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has made several calls for a unified European defence force. These calls have been met with continuous criticism from the UK, including from former Prime Minister David Cameron, who was worried that an EU defence force could undermine NATO’s role in Europe. However, because the UK is about to leave the EU, their opinion no longer has much weight in this matter.

Historically, there was an attempt to create a “European Defence Community” during the Cold War. This scheme began with the Pleven Plan, ratified by France, Italy, West Germany and Benelux in May 1952, creating a supranational European Defense Community consisting of a Council of Ministers, a Common Assembly, a Commissariat of the European Defense Community, a court of Justice, and of course and an “Army Corps… composed of basic units of different national origins”(Article 68). This plan, however, promised to be operationally ineffective, and was dubbed by Churchill as a “miasmic cloud”, and by Marshall as a “sludgy amalgam”. Eventually, domestic political issues arose and first the French National Assembly, then the Italian Parliament refused to ratify the Pleven Plan. In the end, only the US and West Germany supported the plan. Thus it was signed but never ratified, a failed alternative to the integration of West Germany into NATO. This historical precedent is thus not a shining example of European unity and cooperation, and does not bode well for this contemporary attempt.

Thus, despite the evidence that the EU should develop its own military force, it certainly does not seem like it will in the near future. Despite Macron’s call for a defence force, it is unlikely to be a priority for either him, his newly re-elected German counterpart, or the EU Parliament. With mass migration, high unemployment and of course Brexit, the EU will have its hands full for the next few years at least. Passing legislation to create a new army in a world where Europeans have more pressing concerns, as evinced by decreasing defence budgets, would be extremely challenging.

In addition, the question of budgeting is especially pertinent, as many EU countries currently fail to reach NATO’s required defence budget of 2% of GDP, and would thus be unwilling to spend potentially even more money to create their own defence force from scratch without US support. Another political obstacle Macron’s plan will have to overcome is the rise of Euroscepticism and Eurosceptic political parties, especially the FN in France and the AfD in Germany. Both these movements, and their fellows in other countries, oppose any kind of deepening of the Union, of which military union is one of the most serious kinds. Moreover, general public opinion is against it with only 43% of Europeans respondents surveyed declaring that they “consider that the decisions concerning European defence policy should be taken by the European Union”.

One fundamental question that remains unanswered is what threats Macron, and other EU leaders, expect Europe to be facing in the coming years, and thus what threats the defence force would be built to deal with. Terrorism continues to be a problem, with attacks increasing in frequency and intensity in recent years, and Macron specifically addresses this in his speech. But what does Macron imagine the main role of the “Common intervention force” to be? While Russia’s expansionist policies certainly pose a threat to Eastern Europe, as evinced by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, does Macron imagine that Putin would go so far as to militarily threaten EU countries? Or does he imagine the force’s role as more of  a deterrent to any potential aggressor planning on threatening Europe’s territory or interests? Indeed if this were its main role, it would replace NATO in its main purpose. Nevertheless, Macron, and other pro-united defence force EU leaders will need to clearly state the purpose of the force, and what threats they expect it to oppose.

Thus, while Macron’s recent Sorbonne speech brought up issues of Europe’s self-defence capabilities, and specific proposals to address this lack of a unified european defence force, it is unlikely that these plans will ever come to fruition. Despite the fact that Europe should begin the process of acquiring and training an army as soon as possible, it is unlikely to do so in the near future.

Image sources:

  1. ‘US and UK Vigorously Reject the Concept of European Army’
  2. ‘French President Emmanuel Macron sets out vision for EU’

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