The Goal: A Continental Defense Force

Since World War II, European leaders have been attempting to establish a common military organization, but these initiatives never materialized. A series of events that took place over the last few years led to a renewed emergence of the notion of a European Army. Are we closer than ever to the establishment of a continental security organization?


Photo: AP

The Rotterdam-class amphibious transport dock HNLMS Johan de Witt, the largest amphibious warfare ship of the Royal Netherlands Navy, left its home port late last August to participate in the humanitarian assistance exercise Caribbean Coast in the Caribbean Sea, carrying more than 500 Dutch crewmembers along with 50 French and 50 German servicemen. The exercise was consolidated on the basis of the lessons of hurricane Irma, which left a trail of destruction estimated at dozens of billions of dollars and claimed dozens of casualties in the Caribbean Sea and southeastern USA in September 2017. The exercise, initiated pursuant to the natural disaster, was intended to enable the forces to train together in the provision of humanitarian aid following natural disasters.

However, before the actual exercise could start, it evolved into a real-life operational situation. On September 1 this year, six days after the ship had departed, hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco islands in the northwestern Bahamas, with winds estimated at 300 km/h. This was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded on these islands. The storm subsequently hit the nearby island of Grand Bahama, lingering there for two days, before moving on in the direction of southeastern USA. As soon as the scope and severity of the natural disaster became known, HNLMS Johan de Witt, along with HNLMS Snellius, a hydrographic survey vessel of the Royal Netherlands Navy, were ordered to sail to Bahama. The vessels first docked at Sint Maarten, where they loaded water, food, medical supplies, and other vital equipment, along with dozens of Dutch marines, before heading for the Abaco islands, where the devastation was at its worst.

For about a week, the forces transported tens of thousands of liters and dozens of tons of relief supplies by air and sea, built a bridge between the northern and southern parts of the island, cleared the harbor area and the main roads from debris, and helped restore electricity and water supply to the local hospital. There, military medical personnel assisted the local teams in providing care to local patients, while military police helped restore law and order. "The people are starting to rebuild," said Maj. Dennis Borst of the Dutch Marines. "Our emergency assistance is really no longer needed, so we can go."


A Common Strategy

The emergency deployment of the Dutch-French-German relief force provided one of the first operational applications of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) – a program initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron. In a speech he delivered at the Sorbonne University in Paris in September 2017, Macron presented his initiative, which according to him, could help establish "a common strategic culture" that would make it possible to defend the European continent more effectively and through closer coordination and cooperation.

"I thus propose to our partners that we host in our national armed forces – and I am opening this initiative in the French forces – service members from all European countries desiring to participate, as far upstream as possible, in our operational anticipation, intelligence, planning, and support," said Macron. "At the beginning of the next decade, Europe needs to establish a common intervention force, a common defense budget, and a common doctrine for action."

The initiative won the support of the French military establishment, which witnessed how slowly the European countries had responded to the French request for assistance pursuant to the military intervention in Mali in early 2013, after the takeover by Muslim extremists of the northern part of the African country. A report of the French ministry of defense stated that there were significant differences in the strategic culture and perception of threats between the European countries and that any joint response necessitated prolonged and time-consuming consultations. Accordingly, a profound change was required – which Macron's initiative aspires to accomplish.

The initiative was officially launched on June 25, 2018, with the signature of a Letter of Intent by the ten founding countries: France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. The latter takes advantage of the fact that the new body operates outside of the umbrella of the European Union, which the UK is about to leave. The objective was to consolidate a cooperative alliance at the military and political levels in such areas as strategic forecasting, development of scenarios, planning and support of operations, and drawing of lessons. The Letter of Intent also stressed that the new initiative did not involve the establishment of a new rapid response/deployment force or the mobilization of the national military forces to the service of the member states, but intended to strengthen the connections opposite challenges that affect European security.


Macron's Victory

The defense ministers of the ten founding countries held their first meeting in Paris in November 2018, and at the second meeting, held last September, Norway and Sweden joined the initiative, and Italy's membership was approved. Additionally, joint workgroups were established to handle various issues, such as terrorism and the threats in the Baltic region, security in the Indian Ocean, and humanitarian aid operations in the Caribbean Sea – which provided the basis for the prompt response following hurricane Dorian.

"This new common strategic culture should allow us to go further in the coordination, to be able to carry out operations of evacuation of nationals or even operations of high intensity," said French Defense Minister Florence Parly after the meeting in September.

Angela merkel and trump. Photo: AP

Macron's victory picture was taken on Bastille Day on July 14 of this year, when troops and aircraft from the members of the European Intervention Initiative joined the traditional parade of the French military along the Avenue of Champs-Elysées, while the leaders of those countries sat beside the French President on the presidential podium. "Acting together and strengthening our ability to act collectively is one of the challenges that the European Intervention Initiative […] wants to address," said President Macron.


The United States of Europe

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called, as far back as 1945, even before the smoke of WWII had cleared, for the establishment of "The United States of Europe." In 1950, he proposed the establishment of a "European Army under a unified command." He suggested that this organization should operate alongside the USA and Canada in order to provide deterrence opposite the expansionist aspirations of the USSR and provide defense if necessary. Churchill's proposal won the support of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. Conversely, the proposal was rejected by the European foreign ministers, who expressed their hope that the problem of defending free Europe could be dealt with satisfactorily in the near future by the decisions of the government and the appropriate international organizations.

This was one of the first examples of the manner in which the attempts by the proponents of European integration to promote comprehensive security-military cooperation between the countries of the continent, including the establishment of a European military organization, did not always materialize fully. The Western Union (WU), established in 1948, was a military-political alliance between Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, but the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a year later, undermined the status of the WU to the point that it lost its powers to NATO during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Immediately following the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the first incarnation of the European Union, in 1951, the forum of founding countries – France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, raised a motion to establish a similar defense community. In this case, too, a controversy within the French Parliament – between De Gaulle's supporters, who feared a possible violation of France's sovereignty and the Communists, who were concerned about an organization that would rival the Red Army – failed this idea.

However, over the years, continuous attempts were made to promote security-military cooperation between the European countries. In 1954, The Western European Union (WEU) was established on the basis of the members of the Western Union (WU), joined by West Germany. The member states agreed, among other things, upon collective self-defense. Article 5 of the Brussels Treaty, upon which the Union was based, prescribed that "If any of the High Contracting Parties should be the object of an armed attack in Europe, the other High Contracting Parties will, in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, afford the Party so attacked all the military and other aid and assistance in their power." The Western European Union merged into the European Union in 2009, and Article 5 was incorporated in the constitution of the EU. The WEU was dissolved in 2011.

Since 1999, the European Commission has included the function of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Since 2004, this officer heads the European Defense Agency (EDA), intended to promote the common foreign affairs and security policy. Since 2007, operational combat task forces of the EU – 18 battalions totaling between 1,500 and 4,000 troops from various EU countries – have been in operation worldwide. These battalions are ready for immediate deployment for the purpose of executing military or humanitarian missions, according to the decisions of the European Council, made up of the leaders of the member states. Additionally, several joint military missions have been executed under the flag of the EU, like Operation Atalanta, the counter-piracy naval operation off the coast of Somalia, and Operation Althea, the peacekeeping deployment to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite the efforts, the expansion of European security cooperation faced various hindrances. Firstly, NATO was regarded as the cornerstone of European security, especially owing to the US defense umbrella. Consequently, the European countries regarded NATO as the organization that fulfilled their needs. Secondly, the promotion of the political aspect and the economic aspect of European integration was given priority, as they were the foundations of the vision of the community founders since the early 1950s. Consequently, the security aspect was neglected. Thirdly, some of the European countries expressed their reservation, and even objection, to the idea of closer military cooperation, or even the establishment of a European military organization, fearing that it would adversely affect their respective national armed forces.


Old and New Threats

A series of events that took place over the last few years have changed the prevailing trend regarding the enhancement of military-security integration between the countries of Europe. The first event was the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and their support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. This move once again raised European concerns that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had not relinquished his expansionist aspirations even with regard to the Baltic countries, which were now members of the EU and NATO. Consequently, the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, suggested the establishment of a European Army "That would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union." He added that "Such an army would help us design a common foreign and security policy."

The second event was the terrorist attack by ISIS in Paris in November 2015, which made the European countries realize the extent to which radical Islamist terrorism constituted a clear and present threat. Consequently, France became the first country to invoke Article 42.7 of the Treaty of the EU, which is based on Article 5 of the Brussels Treaty. This article calls upon the member states to provide "[…] aid and assistance by all the means in their power," unless this contradicted their security and defense policy. By invoking this article, the Government in Paris intended to rally additional European countries to the fight against ISIS and Islamic terrorism in Syria and Africa.

The most significant shock in the history of the European Union occurred in June 2016, when the citizens of Britain voted for Brexit, namely – for the United Kingdom to leave the common European block. Although with Britain's departure the EU loses the member possessing the strongest military, it is also the departure of the country that has been most skeptical with regard to the tightening of security relations within the European framework. Col. Richard Kemp, formerly the commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, voiced the British view in an article he published in February 2016, even before the UK referendum. "Any EU army, an inevitable development of ever-closer union, would weaken our defenses, drawing commitment away from NATO, and costing vast sums of taxpayers' cash," Kemp wrote.


Trump Gets the Flowers

The event that had the most substantial impact, however, was the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States in November 2016. As described in the previous issue, commemorating NATO's 70th anniversary, Trump doubted the future of the military alliance while severely criticizing many of the member states for their limited investments in the defense budget. Trump hinted that he was not obligated to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty regarding collective defense. Consequently, numerous European leaders made it clear that it was time for the continent to "Take its fate into its own hands," independently of the US. It is no wonder, therefore, that last July French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that "President Trump has been an excellent ambassador for Europe's defense."

Under the leadership of French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, two initiatives were passed that were intended to reinforce the security angle of the EU. The first initiative was PESCO – Permanent Structured Cooperation, launched about two years ago by the 25 members of the EU, except Britain, Denmark, and Malta. PESCO was intended to enable the member states to "develop jointly defense capabilities, invest in joint projects, and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of their armed forces." One of the primary objectives was to enable the members to reduce the excessive diversity of the weapon systems they operated – at present, the EU countries have 178 different systems as opposed to only 30 the Americans operate.

This list of projects PESCO has approved thus far consists of 34 projects, including the development of a new generation of UAVs under Germany's leadership; improving the development of the Tiger Mark-III attack helicopter under France's leadership; the development of an armored combat vehicle for infantry warfare under Italy's leadership; a Cyber Response Team under Lithuania's leadership; and the establishment of a European school of intelligence under the leadership of Cyprus and Greece.

The other initiative is the European Defense Fund (EDF), launched at the same time as PESCO. The EDF was intended to "contribute to the strategic autonomy of Europe" by funding security research among the member states and developing new cutting-edge systems to be purchased by the member states. For example, the next generation of the European fighter aircraft, to be developed by Germany, France, and Spain and enter service in 2040. The European Commission authorized an investment of €25 billion in research in the year 2019 and an investment of €500 billion in development in the years 2019-2020. The overall funding, as of 2021, should be €13 billion – €4.1 billion for funding research and dealing with future threats, and €8.9 billion for the development of capabilities.


The Financial Loss

The leaders and defense ministries have stressed, from the very beginning, that the reinforcement of the security dimension among the member states, within the framework of the EU as well as independently, as in the case of the European Intervention Initiative, was not intended to provide an alternative to the cooperation of NATO, of which many EU countries are members, but rather to complement it and enable more flexibility, especially without US involvement. The Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, accepted this view and stated, "So I just see this new initiative as something that can complement, and actually reinforce the work which is ongoing in NATO to strengthen and increase the readiness of our forces."

The Americans, on the other hand, made no attempt to conceal their displeasure. Last November, during a visit to France, President Trump attacked President Macron's proposal to establish a European military force to defend the continent. "Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the US, China, and Russia," President Trump twitted, "But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along…" In response, Macron clarified that his intention was to establish a force that would guarantee the sovereignty of France, and added sarcastically that "Being an ally does not mean being a vassal state." Angela Merkel promptly sided with Macron and stated that "Seeing the developments of the recent years, we have to work on a vision to establish a real European army one day."

The US Department of Defense expressed their concern that the programs of PESCO and EDF might have an adverse effect on NATO, as the European countries would rely on weapon systems other than those used by the Americans. At the same time, concerns were raised that American companies might not be able to participate in European development contracts. According to the regulations of EDF, foreign-owned defense industries established within the EU can take part in projects as long as the owners are not elements that "constitute a threat to the security of the EU." External companies interested in obtaining resources from EDF must participate in a consortium and the funds will be transferred to their European partners. It is still unclear whether US industries, and even Israeli industries, will be able to take an active part in European projects eventually.

Meanwhile, US criticism notwithstanding, the EU remains unmoved and aspires to go on enhancing the security integration. Josep Borrell, who has taken the position of European Commission High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in early November, presented his vision in a hearing at the European Parliament. According to Borrell's vision, the members of the EU should be capable of deploying as many as 60,000 military personnel in international military missions, as opposed to 3,000 troops today. "NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of our collective alliance and collective defense," he said. "Developing EU defenses will reinforce NATO."

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