Here comes the Euro-army


Or maybe not. Like weather, a European army is something that everyone keeps talking about but no one does anything about. One could argue that the whole European project since the end of the Second World War has been to a large extent about reducing, if not eliminating, the need for European armies. True, the realities of the Cold War had forced war-weary Europeans to at least pretend to be prepared, but in reality most of them most of the time largely freeloaded off the United States, which provided the nuclear umbrella and the bulk of the conventional deterrent should the Soviet Union ever feel like starting off from where their tanks have stopped in 1945. Fortunately for everyone that never happened.

This weekend, France and Germany will once again bring up the concept of the EU’s own armed forces for the consideration of the Union members at a meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia. As I reported a few weeks ago, France and Germany have recently presented proposals for reshaping the EU into an even closer union post-Brexit to governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Amongst their proposals, yet another revival of the idea of a European rapid reaction force as a first step towards building a genuine united European armed forces.

In the past, NATO has been a European army of sorts, but many Eurocrats don’t like it because it involves the United States (and Canada, though Canada is Europe of North America; it even has the annoying French) and, as of recently, Great Britain. People in Brussels want to show the world that they, too, can – sans the Anglo-Saxons, and therefore as an instrument of purely “European” interests.

But what are these interests? What does Europe need an army for?

The answer is complicated by the fact that there is really no such thing as Europe. There is a number of still more or less (though increasingly less) sovereign states with their own interests, which regularly conflict with each other. There is the EU, which represent one vision of the European idea; many would say the vision of Germany and France, and even more narrowly the vision of the French and the German elites.

EU council president, Poland’s Donald Tusk, thinks that the main challenges facing Europe are terrorism, migration and the fear of globalisation, and from that point of view he says “For me it is clear that our first priority must be to secure our external borders.” European armed forces would presumably play a role in that task.

But for every Tusk there is Jean Asselborn, Luxemburg’s foreign minister (or, as I like to think of it, the external relations manager of a small city council) who says that Hungary should be suspended or even expelled from the European Union because it “builds fences against refugees from war” and such suspension or expulsion might be “the only way of preserving the cohesion and values of the European Union”.

So one person’s “securing our external borders” is another person’s violating “the cohesion and values of the European Union”. Such differences of opinion are the norm within a democracy like the United States or Australia. But the EU is neither a democracy or even a state.

The same confusion exists in relation to another security challenge faced by Europe – that of an aggressive Russia. Another Luxemburger, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, thinks that “a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values.” But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that “What we should avoid today is inflaming the situation by warmongering and stomping boots” in relation to Russia.

Pick any other security challenge. Had the European armed forces been in existence then, should they have participated in the military actions against Libya and/or Syria? Some (like France) would say yes, most others would perhaps say no. Or what about Iraq? Some (like the “New Europe”) would agree, others (the “Old Europe”) would not.

I don’t discount the possibility that some nascent European military units will be created, most likely on the French-German core. One could suggest a name like “Charlemagne Brigade” but Waffen-SS got there first. A proper European army, however, will be difficult to create since most EU member states will find it difficult to commit to armed forces which more or less often might be used for purposes they disagree with or even ones that go against their national interest.

Whatever emerges in the short term, the scope and the usability of such units will be limited. It will be less of a deterrent (least of all to Russia) and more of a symbol. And it will be most symbolic of the fact that post-modern Europe has never been serious about military matters. This is why of all the European NATO members, only Great Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia have been meeting the alliance’s defence spending guidelines.

Whether you are a Russian imperialist, an ISIS jihadi or an illegal migrant, I’m afraid there isn’t much you have to fear.

When walking through Paris recently I saw a sight I have not seen since the martial law in Poland in 1981: patrols of 4 or 5 French soldiers in full gear and armed with automatic weapons, not just in public places like train stations or the Louvre (which is closed on Tuesdays. You’re welcome) but even backstreets of the 1st arrondissement. It will be ages, if ever, before it’s Polish, Italian and Danish troops doing the same.

(picture: French army patrol walking around the Louvre)