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The European Union Wants an Army of Its Own

Russia might have thought twice about invading Ukraine had there been an army of the European Union.

by Steven Tomaszewski
Mar 13 2015, 4:20pm

Photo via Reuters

A proposal by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to establish a European Union army to counter growing security threats, such as Russia, has been met with both approval and disapproval by European Union members. Those who approve cite collective deterrent security and consolidation of military resources; those who are more skeptical raise the issue of national sovereignty.

In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag on Sunday, Juncker said an EU army would improve Europe's collective security and reduce costs while improving interoperability. While he didn't get into specifics such as how big the army would be, he did say it would be a great deterrent and would have helped with the Ukraine crisis. Juncker has been openly critical of Russia and the threat it poses to the Union.

Not surprisingly, Russian politicians have condemned the idea and call the creation of such a force "provocative," adding that it would "not provide any additional security."

But Juncker seems to believe that an EU army could deter assertive powers like Russia, who may feel they have the power to flex their muscles against a single country but would hesitate to mess with the rest of the European continent. Smaller countries would also be able to find comfort in the size and power of a mighty EU army.

Take Finland, for example, which is a member of the EU but not of NATO. If Russia started sending troops across the border, Finland might not be able to count on a NATO response. Concerns about Russian aggression have already given rise to a debate in Finland about joining NATO because there is no large, capable EU army to defend them.

But the existence of an EU army would make this an entirely different matter. Moreover, it's not just military, but political; fighting the EU army could mean killing soldiers from all across Europe, creating many, more serious diplomatic confrontations than an isolated hostile action might otherwise merit.

Juncker also argued that an EU army would guarantee that the nations of Europe would not fight one another. It's an idea that's not too different from the theory that countries with McDonald's have never gone to war with one another. Since the theory was proposed in 1996, there have been a few exceptions, but if you replace "McDonald's" with "Starbucks," it has held true so far. If each country in the EU contributes troops to a collective army, it is highly unlikely leaders would send the EU to invade itself. Granted, nobody is expecting another big war among European powers like France, Germany, and the UK, but European experiences in the First and Second World War make preventing a repeat a big selling point.

Related: Russia's Ghost Army in Ukraine. Watch the VICE News documentary

There's also a point to be made about resource consolidation and efficiencies. Military research and development shops, for example, from the 28 EU member states could consolidate into a single powerhouse. Alternately, countries across the EU could take advantage of expertise across borders to give troops the latest technologies.

European countries are very familiar with working together; individual nations frequently join other nation's militaries in coalition exercises, training, and wartime deployments. Standardizing military protocols, communication systems, and weapons platforms could reduce costs by making systems compatible from the onset. The funding model, with countries' contributing proportional to their annual revenue, could replicate the way other joint military ventures operate.  

The German Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, echoed President Juncker's remarks, stating, "Our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army." While Germany is on board with the proposal, the idea's already spurred a flurry of angry responses from various countries, including the UK, Poland, and Latvia.

The crux of the argument revolves around respecting individual countries' sovereignty and decision-making. Top-level military decisions regularly require swift executive action with the rapid and appropriate support of the legislative branch. This doesn't sit well with some European nations, who don't want to give military use of force powers to Brussels.

In the UK, the idea is seen as a direct infringement on its sovereignty. For UK officials, security is a national, not international, issue. "There is no prospect of that position changing and no prospect of a European army," said a government spokesperson in a statement. Another concern for the UK is its remote territories abroad. Could London count on an EU army to defend the Falkland Islands from another Argentine invasion?

A permanent EU army could very well undermine existing coalitions like NATO, which includes 22 of the 28 EU states. Under the NATO construct countries assign their own armies to work under NATO's integrated military command structure, which is dedicated to the defense of the collective member states. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already warned of creating an EU army separate from NATO in order to "avoid duplication."

Latvia and Poland, both NATO members, have reservations about the EU army proposal. Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma raised concerns about duplicating NATO efforts, and thinks the idea needs to be vetted through the European heads of government before it is implemented.

Poland's response to the proposal has been to strengthen its NATO ties, according to foreign minister Grzegorz Schetyna. Poland has been calling for more NATO troops and equipment to be stationed in Poland for ages, in order to further bolster its national security and deter potentially hostile Russian forces to the East.

But, unlike Finland, Poland and Latvia view the EU army proposal through the lens of current NATO membership. However, the idea of an EU army has big implications for countries that don't belong to NATO or the EU, like Ukraine. Part of Juncker's original criticism of the current state of European military affairs is that NATO has not done enough to stop acts of aggression in Europe, especially in Ukraine. Ukraine has never been a part of the NATO alliance, and therefore didn't have NATO as a deterrent to fend off against outside forces. And the United Nations and its international army has not been able to take any military action because Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and will likely continue to veto any direct UN action or intervention in Ukraine.

While the EU may have had enough political will to do something more substantial to stop Russian expansionism, they have no collective military force, like an EU army, to speak of.

European decision-makers will likely continue to weigh in for or against the EU army proposal, and will try to find the best balance between collective deterrent security and individual sovereignty moving forward. The concept of an EU army is not new, but the timing of Juncker's comments will add an important new perspective on how Europe takes responsibility for its own security environment.

Follow Steven Tomaszewski on Twitter: @stevetomski