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A European army?
16 Mar, 2019

Not anytime soon

London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg, with contributions from Vice-Chair Nick Hopkinson, looks at the calls for a European Army and how to address Leave voters’ fears.

The 2016 Leave campaign used the threat of a European Army as a way of making the status quo seem the riskier option.

Recent statements by Macron and Merkel will have re-energised that – as they do every year for a few days until it’s forgotten for another year.


I’d like a European Army

The first duty of any state is to defend its borders against an enemy attack. Russia has annexed the Crimea, is trying to annex the Sea of Azov, created a separatist enclave in Georgia and fomented civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s active military personnel strength is bigger than the combined personnel of France, Germany, Italy, UK and Greece. The Middle East is an obvious zone of unrest. President Trump has made the USA an unreliable NATO partner.

Europe would have a far more effective military defence if there was a single set of armed forces. Think of the cost savings!

Just imagine if the USA did not have federal armed forces but instead each state had its own army, navy and air force, co-operating under some sort of North American Treaty Organisation. Would the States’ combined armed forces still be the world’s most effective fighting machine?


Pre-Conditions for a European Army

To bring about EU armed forces, three things are needed.

First, there has to be a legal basis. That requires treaty change. That requires unanimity. In the UK, such a treaty would require a prior referendum

Second, there needs to be an EU government or agreed international institutional framework. There would need to be a government or framework whose leader(s) had enough political legitimacy to be able to declare war and commit troops to battle.

Third, there needs to be a transfer of public support to and identification with the EU to justify those treaty changes. At the moment that level of support for a shared European identity and for so much “more Europe” does not exist in any EU country.

So there is not going to be an EU army any time soon.


What there is

The Common Foreign and Security Policy under Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty allows operational assets to be used “… on missions outside the Union for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter.”. So no war.

A common defence policy and the initiation of missions require unanimity.

There are EU battle groups. Originally mooted in 1999, they have never been deployed, though the EU has deployed 34 military and civilian missions. In spite of the fierce name, their rôle is peace-keeping/ peace-making.

The present organisational set up is the result of a British/ French/ German initiative. Battle groups are forces of one or more member states. Battle groups are essentially an infantry battalion with enough support functions to be self-sufficient, so about 1,500 personnel in all.


What there could be

This House of Commons Library briefing paper shows what there is and where the EU might be heading

There is enormous scope for closer co-operation between the armed forces of member states. Examples of the 34 projects under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence (PESCO) initiative include a spy school and research into new missiles. These are niche projects. The assets developed stay under national not EU control.

But there is huge scope for procurement efficiencies from common purchasing. The EU member states have six times as many weapons systems as the US.



There is no EU army and none is on the horizon. If the UK were to stay, to get there would require in the UK a referendum. And there would need to be dramatic changes in the policies of the many EU neutral member states. If the UK were to leave, there would be more impetus towards more common EU defence arrangements.

The EU is helping member states to co-operate and obtain better value for money from their armed forces. As German defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen put it: “The path we have taken leads step by step to … military forces that remain national responsibilities, but that are closely linked, uniformly equipped, and trained and ready for joint operations.”

To be clear, Merkel was talking about a vision for the distant future, about something that would happen one day. Remembering what the EU is about, she approvingly quoted President Junker saying that a European Army would show the world that there could never again be a war between European countries. The EU: peace between nations.





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