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A step toward an EU army

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
November 13, 2017

An historic breakthrough or just another attempt doomed to peter out? The EU plans to coordinate EU members' military capacities with the long-term goal of an EU army. It's a long road ahead, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Nato-Übung Dragon-15 Bundeswehr Polen
Army units from EU states often train together, but as yet there's no European armyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Waszcuk

The problems of Europe's armies have long been evident. The new US President wasn't the first to broach that painful subject.

The armed forces in many EU states lack funding ,are too small, and are not adequately equipped.  Or – as is the case with the German Bundeswehr – combat-readiness is compromised because they are not prepared for present-day missions and digital warfare. All that is supposed to improve with the defense union, even if not all EU member states want to join.

It is high time for this initiative. The EU took 17 years to agree on the basic principle. Back in 2000, at the EU summit in Nice, the EU decided on joint EU defense policies. The planned union doesn't immediately include a unified integrated European army, however.

Increased efficiency, cost-saving measures

It would make sense, but for various political reasons, it is not enforceable. This first step is about improving the coordination of the development and purchase of weapons, vehicles and equipment. It is simply more efficient and cheaper to build a truck for 23 armies than to reinvent the wheel every time. The EU member states needed decades to reach that simple conclusion.

Of course, industrial policy related interests play a large role. Every country wants to preserve its own arms industry, if only to not become completely dependent on the US. For some EU states, weapons are veritable export hits. It remains to be seen whether economic viability and efficiency will become established criteria in the next big arms projects. The political will to finally tackle that deficit must be worth something.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert is DW's Senior Europe Correspondent

The EU wants to prove that better cooperation can be effective. Coordination on taxes and migration is shaky. Defense projects of all things are now meant to prove that Europe's citizens should hold dear the European "peace project." EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, France and Germany are pleased that the defense union offers them a new project that for once they can almost all agree on. Ironically, that is only the case because the country that has mostly been putting on the brakes – Britain – is leaving of its own accord.

NATO, which is responsible for Europe's defense, is taking a sympathetic view of the project as it promises greater arms expenses in the long run and thus a boost in urgently needed European military capabilities. Some Europeans claim that EU armament coordination is a way to distinguish the union from the US. The Trump administration is unlikely to agree with that perception, at least that's what can be gleaned from the confusing statements from Washington. But as long as the Europeans want to spend more money and lift the burden from the US, Trump the huckster won't mind. He doesn't have a political or military strategy, anyway. The EU would be well advised to be prepared in case the US, or more accurately Donald Trump, decide to reduce their military commitment in Europe or its neighboring regions.

New take on an old idea

A first step has been taken in Brussels. But it's a long road to an actual joint military force in the EU. Just look at the European Defense Agency – it has accrued a lot of paper over the 13 years since it was founded, but there are no joint tanks in sight. The debate about a European army is even older than the European Union and its precursors. In 1950, Europeans came up with a similar agreement on military cooperation. It was never implemented. Maybe this time, it will work.


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union