At a time when the challenge in Europe is holding together a common currency under enormous duress, the idea of creating a common European army might seem—at a minimum—a bit premature. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, made headlines this past weekend when he proposed a new run at this old idea.
Despite the various forms of positive lip service given to this proposal in Berlin, the caveats were clear. Most of the comments in Berlin were phrased around the notion of it being a “long-term goal.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and especially Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen share a vision of Europe, one that moves beyond the current stage of European integration into more political and eventually security structures. But it is exactly that: a vision.
The first hurdle is the implementation model for twenty-eight EU member countries to pool their resources and sovereignty over military command. Such a pooling within NATO suggests that a similar effort could be possible within a European Union framework where a NATO response might not be needed or appropriate. But it would still require effective coordination of resources.
It is already clear that at least some European countries are willing to move beyond traditional models of national sovereignty in the organization, structure, and training of their armed forces. Examples include the BENELUX countries, which have formed a common navy and agreed to merge responsibility for the policing and defense of their common airspace; and Germany and the Netherlands, with the Dutch having fully integrated their airmobile brigade into the German Bundeswehr’s Rapid Forces Division.
Furthermore, the European Air Transport Command (EATC) at Eindhoven in the Netherlands provides a single integrated operational command for the air transport fleets of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain, with Italy to follow in 2016.
While NATO and the EU have formally endorsed these steps, there is bound to be some criticism, in the U.S. circles and beyond, that these efforts will undermine NATO. That was a mantra we heard back in the 1980s when the Franco-German brigade was first proposed.
Getting a consensus within NATO is clearly no easy feat. NATO has three nuclear powers among its members with different capabilities, along with different definitions of national interests. While that has worked so far under NATO, would it also work under an EU flag?
For now, Europe needs NATO as both its military and political umbrella. But there have been—and will be—cases in which an EU response may be more appropriate and even more effective. We see that in efforts to deal with challenges in the Mediterranean and in Mali.
There is an additional reason to see Juncker’s proposal as a way to encourage more capacity in Europe to create further possibility of acting with a more effective political policy in the future. At a time when the U.S. has to recalibrate where it can and steer its resources and capacities on the global stage, why wouldn’t it be useful to see more resources emerging in Europe? Particularly at a time when the crisis in Ukraine continues to threaten Europe, a signal of strengthening European resolve could be welcome.
The path of the euro could be useful to recall in this context. The fact that a common currency was introduced without a common political framework has led to the problems we see today. Should a common defense framework be feasible, it would clearly need to be enveloped in a political union to avoid the missteps that continue to plague the euro zone.
Even if these initial efforts are seen as stepping stones for a more effective European level of defense cooperation, why not explore the opportunity? Encouraging Europeans to build defense capabilities along with the political will to use it should not necessarily be held up by current institutional barriers. Of course it will also need to overcome the hurdles to form a more realistic defense budget in almost all EU countries, with twenty-eight parliamentary prerogatives.
At the height of his political career, Otto von Bismarck offered this insight about Europe: “I always came upon the word ‘Europe’ in the mouths of politicians who wanted something from other powers that they did not dare ask for on their own behalf.” Effectively he was asking the twin questions: who speaks for Europe and why? Over 130 years later, there are many voices that claim to speak for Europe. Juncker is justifiably claiming that role today in his capacity as the President of the European Commission. It is thus his job to seize moments when Europe might envision its next steps.
But it is not only the crisis in Ukraine that should be the catalyst for thinking about Europe’s future. The challenges facing Europe are both within and beyond of its borders. The response to Bismarck lies in the decision to move Europe in the direction of a more unified polity capable of making choices for its common goods.
That may involve a shared armed forces capacity in stages. Yet that process will greatly depend on the interplay of leaders, their respective followers and constituencies, and events. It is another long passage for Europe.
In the meantime, it would be time well spent to define what those common goods are, how they should be shared across the Atlantic, and what is to be done “in the name of Europe.”