Commentary Magazine


Should the European Union Be Armed?

Strategists have long been exasperated by the tendency of European countries to simply rely on American forces to keep their region safe for them. Protected under America’s military umbrella, European countries have annually slashed defense spending, diverting the savings to their ballooning and flabby welfare systems. Yet, the prospect of a European Union army, directed by federalist bureaucrats in Brussels, may not quite be what U.S. analysts had in mind. Had the EU been equipped with a large and well-armed fighting force, it is hardly likely that Russia would have been anymore deterred from its recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, were the European Union ever to acquire real military might, there is no guarantee that these forces would be used in a way that aligns solely with American interests.

This issue returned to the agenda on account of a high-profile televised debate that took place in Britain on the matter of that country’s membership in the EU. Last week the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took part in the second of two debates with the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage, during which the prospect of an EU military force was one of several highly contested topics. The very fact that a senior member of the government would even be seen debating Farage is a reminder of how this formerly fringe party has recently exploded into the limelight. This has been driven by a growing anger that much of the British public feels about the fact that when they voted to join the European Economic Community back in 1975 they believed they were simply signing up for a trade agreement.   

The debate about the prospects of the EU acquiring a military revolves around the crucial issue of whether this is primarily a trading block oriented around a peace treaty or whether this is actually a nascent super-state, as federalists wish it to be. If the EU is going to be the latter then it is certainly moving in the right direction, with a flag, a currency, ambassadors, and perhaps next a full blown army. That is what has been agitating Farage and an ever more Euro-skeptic British public willing to support his agenda.

As things stand the EU is not entirely without the option of military recourse. It already has an External Action Service busy masterminding a Common Security and Defense Policy along with the European Union Military Committee that brings into coordination forces of individual member states undertaking joint operations under the EU insignia. Indeed, in recent days the EU has dispatched a task force for peace keeping to the Central African Republic. From the point of view of Brussels, however, the limitation of this arrangement is that it is reliant on how much of their own armed forces the individual member states are willing to contribute to any given mission.

During Britain’s recent televised debate, the deputy Prime Minister dismissed as fanciful Nigel Farage’s suggestion that the EU has been pushing for its own independent military capabilities. Yet, here he is in direct contradiction with what his own prime minister said, when in December of last year, David Cameron demanded full credit for vetoing moves to equip the EU with an air force. The proposals raised during an EU summit, backed by both Europe’s Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and the European Commission, sought to equip Brussels with a fleet of drones and an Air Force comprised of heavy transport and air-to-air refueling planes. Meanwhile, the head of the European parliament Martin Shulz called for the creation of a fully-fledged European army.

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed the British position, accepting the need for Europeans to invest in military capabilities but opposing the idea of the EU having its own separate military. Nevertheless, a report at the time revealed that Ashton’s External Action Service had already begun work in preparation for acquiring remotely piloted aircraft systems.

All of this raises the question of what exactly a militarized EU would do with a newly found army. Given the pacifistic sentiments of many European countries and the EU’s lack of resolve in what little it dose have in the way of a foreign policy–think Ashton’s role in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran–it is easy to imagine the European army being utterly impotent. Something similar to the United Nations’ ineffectual peacekeeping forces that go around the world observing and recording atrocities, pulling out the moment they fear they might come under fire themselves. After all, are Europe’s men going to lay down their lives in the name of Brussels’ federal project?

Yet, it may well be that the only thing worse than an inactive EU army would be active one. The thought of Catharine Ashton armed with drones, or Martin Shulz–the man who came to Israel’s parliament to lecture in German on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians–having access to ground forces isn’t exactly comforting. Given the anti-Israel mood on European streets could the day come, during another conflagration in Gaza, when the EU might send forces to “restrain” “both sides,” or to “secure the borders” of a self-declared Palestinian state? These scenarios are quite improbable, but given that only last year a French diplomat was caught on camera scuffling with an IDF soldier in the West Bank, one gets the sense that there is a fringe that wouldn’t be opposed to intervening on behalf of the Palestinians.

Certainly Western nations need to pull their weight in keeping the world safe for democracies, but European federalists have their own unique worldview. With a military at their disposal there’s no guarantee as to quite what they might use it for. 

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