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Frankreich gemeinsame Militärübung
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Pavani

Interview: National interests make EU army unlikely

Kate Brady
September 27, 2016

One army, 28 states, not an easy feat - and all that while the UK keeps its foot in the door of the EU, still keen to give its two-penneth. Dr. Jocelyn Mawdsley spoke to DW about the likelihood of an EU army.


At a summit of the EU's 28 defense ministers in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, on Tuesday UK Defense Minster Michael Fallon vowed to oppose any plans to create an EU army which would "undermine" the NATO alliance. Three months on since 52 percent of the UK voted to leave the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa May is yet to trigger Article 50, which will begin the Brexit process. So what weight do Fallon's comments have when the UK's already boarding the ferry at Calais? Little - if any, says editor of "European Security" and senior lecturer in European Politics at the University of Newcastle Dr. Jocelyn Mawdsley.

DW: An increase in terrorist attacks and concerns in Eastern Europe over Russia have prompted countless rumors of an EU army in recent years. But why is the concept been thrown back into the limelight now?

The EU 27 needs some quick diplomatic winds. They need to be able to show that the EU has not been fatally damaged by Brexit and defense is an obvious area where they can say, "look Britain's always blocked this, now we can go ahead. We haven't crumbled."

On the surface at least, it looks easier to do something on this than to solve the refugee crisis, sort out the residual mess in the Eurozone, deal with youth unemployment, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine - all of the other things on the shopping list.

The UK has long opposed the idea of an EU army and any duplication of what already exists in NATO has been considered a waste of rather scant resources. How much influence could Fallon's comments have on the bloc's decision to develop a united military?

After the Brexit, Fallon's voice won't be heard. His comments at this stage don't make much diplomatic sense. Why would the UK want to create that much damage to diplomatic relations over projects supported by the other EU members, when they're about to enter into very complex and very difficult negotiations themselves? But I can understand the UK's position financially. I'm not convinced that defense is the best thing the EU can spend its budget on, especially if such a venture was detrimental to getting the European economy back on its feet.

Different reasons for an EU military resonate better in some parts of the EU than others, so creating a multi-national military that plays to the domestic interests of 27 different states would be a hard feat to achieve. Are we likely to see any of these proposals realized?

What you have is a conflation of crises that draw attention to a security deficit, but there isn't much real agreement about which underlying threat is the most important. This why the concept of an EU army probably won't come to very much. If you look at the Finnish paper put to the Bratislava summit, they're actually identifying Russia as the problem. The French, on the other hand, are much more interested in intervening in the Middle East and North Africa. What the Visegrad Group recently proposed looks more like turning the EU armed forces into border guards to keep out migrants.

Every EU member state has also had very different historical experiences using force. Then there are the constitutional and legal aspects. We can't forget that some countries are officially neutral. This would be a very difficult topic for example in Ireland.

Franco-German Brigade beret
Multi-national force structures like the Franco-German Brigade are extraordinarily difficult to deployImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

Compared to other tasks facing the bloc an EU army sounds relatively easy to put down on paper. How easy would it be to actually use such a force?

We can already see in existing multi-national force structures, like the Franco-German Brigade, the Eurocorps, that they are extraordinarily difficult to actually deploy. The Franco-German brigade is seen by Paris, for example, in particular as a disaster in terms of actual useable troops and this is worse. I can't see the scenario where France would agree to give up sovereignty over its own armed forces, because that would risk there being no useful military force. First and foremost, France wants a usable defense and security policy, not one that only exists on paper and exists as some kind of political prestige project.

Following the recent spate of terrorist attacks in France, Paris has noticeably turned to Germany for support as opposed to its old ally across the pond. Is the proposal of an EU army a sign that France and other EU states are prepared to pull away from their dependency on the US and NATO?

For the entirety of the Cold War period NATO was quite simply the defense. There was a clear threat and a clear set of strategies. Western Europe was - as it still is - heavily dependent on the American security guarantee. The concept of an EU military only really came into question in the post-Cold War era. I wouldn't say that France has turned away from America. If anything; in the long-term, France's involvement in NATO has increased and Paris has been remarkably pragmatic in recent years in its willingness to deploy troops and become involved in different missions.

UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon warned at the summit in Bratislava that an EU army would undermine NATO. How would a European military fair in a real crisis?

At the moment, while the outcome of the US presidential election remains unclear, you have to be slightly skeptical about NATO because Donald Trump has made some very concerning comments. The actual test would be if a real crisis test hits Europe. Would European leaders then use this brand new and untested EU headquarters or turn to the tried and tested NATO? Obviously if Trump were to win the US presidential election, all bets are off, but at the moment the pragmatic solution would be to use NATO.

Ursula von der Leyen and Michael Fallon
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her UK counterpart Michael FallonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in July's white paper that Germany was "prepared to take the lead" in the EU's defense policy and has already allowed EU citizens to join the Bundeswehr - Germany's military. Are these the beginnings of a long-term EU army with Germany at the helm?

I'm not seeing the required level of unity between German politicians on this matter. German defense policy is startlingly inconsistent. It seems to depend very heavily on who's holding the defense ministry portfolio and how strong they are in the coalition government at the time.

Surprisingly, there was a lot of opposition in allowing EU citizens to join the Bundeswehr and certain groups in German society deemed the measure a dilution of the principles of German defense. Although Germany has overcome the taboo in recent years of deploying military abroad, it's unlikely that there will be any real commitment to an EU military while this lack of consistency continues at home.

What can we expect to see from the EU's defense ministers in the months following the Brexit?

I do believe that they will manage to set up an operational headquarters, but I suspect it's going to be more minimalist and unlikely to be a standing force. You're not going to get a multi-national European army overnight. It's going to be a project of several decades and that's even assuming that there won't be any constitutional court objections. This is a very long-term goal.

The interview was conducted by Kate Brady.

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