Opinion: Digging up a political corpse | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.03.2015
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Opinion: Digging up a political corpse

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed a joint army for the European Union. But this move, evidently meant to make an impression on Moscow, is unlikely to succeed, DW's Felix Steiner writes.

Jean-Claude Juncker's proposal for a European army makes one wonder whether he has a book on European history in his office. If he does, he should study the chapter on the European Defense Community. It should tell the story of a sad failure that happened more than 60 years ago.

In an interesting parallel to the situation today, the plan came about in the face of a crisis: in July 1950, North Korea, aided by the Chinese, attacked South Korea, with the aim of uniting the country under communist rule. There were similar fears of something like that happening in Western Europe, and so the revolutionary concept was born of removing the armed forces of France, Italy, West Germany and the Benelux countries from their national command structure and placing them under a common supranational high command.

The idea was that the countries of Europe would be stronger together, while individually they wouldn't become too strong - especially Germany, which still faced massive distrust less than ten years after the end of the Hitler era.

Big powers feared losing sovereignty

Although the plan was near completion after only four years, it ultimately failed. And that happened in the parliament of what was then the EU's most powerful member - the French National Assembly. Why? Because the "Grande Nation" didn't want to give up that much of its sovereignty. In addition, by August 1954, the acute war fears of the summer of 1950 war had long since subsided .

We must therefore allow ourselves the obvious question: What in the Paris of 2015 is supposed to be different from the Paris of 1954? How, for example, could France continue its extensive military involvement in Africa if the EU had to decide on every detail? It could not! Would it allow this? Certainly not! So Juncker's proposal has already failed in its rudiments - where it failed before.

Who decides to deploy German soldiers?

But it's not just France. The German parliament has the broadest say of all parliaments in the EU when it comes to military deployment. Does anyone seriously think German lawmakers would hand over this right to an EU institution - no matter whether it was the European Parliament or the European Commission?

No - Junckers' proposal has no chance, not least because his reasoning is simply wrong. Juncker says Europe's current policy toward Moscow is not credible, whereas a common army could show Russia that the EU is serious about defending its values. But this begs the question of what a joint military force would do differently. A common army whose use is categorically ruled out at the beginning of a crisis is no more of a deterrent than 28 national armies that everyone ruled out using in the Ukraine conflict from the start. That is why Europe is not credible, along with the fact that Europe's politicians talk too often with different voices and do not follow a single line - such as when the majority wants to isolate Vladimir Putin and individuals leaders then play host to him or visit him.

The problem of military power in Europe does not lie in the national organization of armies. If the EU countries still cannot defend themselves today and are even more dependent on the United States now than during the Cold War, that has quite simply to do with the fact that no one wants to spend the money. This is also the precise reason for the treacherous side to the applause Juncker received from Germany's Social Democrats: a joint army would create synergies and could thus save a lot of money, they cheered. That's because they want to invest even less money in their own security.

Small states are much further ahead

The EU could learn a lot from its small member states: some of them have already specialized their troops in particular types of weapons used in the NATO alliance. Only the large states such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Poland and Italy still follow a 'general store' military approach: a little bit of everything, but nothing really well done. The relevant bodies that could promote further troop specialization and division of labor on the EU and NATO level already exist. But their results so far have been modest. And the Great-Power posturing of the nuclear-armed, UN-veto-wielding powers hinders any progress.

One final note to Jean-Claude Juncker: the EU battle groups have been available for almost exactly ten years - as rapid deployment groups for Europe and the crisis areas of the Middle East and Africa. Responsibility for them rotates among the various nations. Some battle groups already have an exemplary multinational structure.

But in ten years, they have never been put to use. Ultimately, everything boils down to having a joint political will.