A European Army or an Army of Europeans?

"World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it".

The Schuman Declaration, 9 May 1950

Europe’s defence dilemma

Alphen, Netherlands, 29 March. To paraphrase Churchill, a European army is a riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma floating on a sea of verbiage. Can Europe finally make the leap from seemingly bottomless strategic pretence to real-time strategic defence?

Let me begin by putting the current debate about a European army in its historical context. On Friday last at an excellent conference on transatlantic relations co-organised by the George C. Marshall Center and the Federal Academy for Security Policy I gave a talk at Berlin’s Hotel Palace on Britain’s post-Brexit relations with European defence. As I spoke I was metres from the famous and half-ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtsnichekirche. Seventy-five years before, on the night of 27-28 January 1944, 515 Royal Air Force Lancasters from Numbers 1, 5 and 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Groups, RAF Bomber Command, had attacked Berlin. The main bomber force had been vectored onto its target by 15 RAF Mosquito fighter-bombers of 8 Group who ‘painted’ Berlin city centre with marker flares directly over the church. The attack was but one of many such bloody attacks that saw the systematic destruction of Berlin by American, British and aircrew from many allied nations during World War Two.  The ghosts of that night still haunt Berlin and act as both impetus and brake on European defence.  The Groundhog Day talk of ‘strategic autonomy’ and a ‘European army’ is set against this backdrop of historic destruction. Let me deconstruct both. 

The dilemma of European defence is essentially simple. If Europeans want the hard-pressed Americans to maintain their defence guarantee to Europe then Europeans are going to have to spend more on defence and build more and better armed forces. If Europeans build more effective armed forces then the ‘strategic autonomy’ from the Americans some crave will flow naturally. However, most Europeans are either unwilling or unable to spend much more on defence.  Germany, which is vital to any credible land defence of Europe, is utterly reluctant to spend what it should on defence partly because of history and partly because of its own domestic politics. The result is a Europe that can neither defend itself adequately in the face of the threats it faces, nor help ease the growing pressure on US forces that would enable the Americans to defend Europe. Instead, many of those same Europeans who promote ‘strategic autonomy’ want the Americans to underwrite said autonomy by offering inadequate policies that bear no relation to the defence-effort needed, or promise force modernisation that could take decades to realise. In other words, too many Europeans want strategic autonomy that is non-autonomous. Hence the current, and latest, round of vacuous talk about a ‘European army’ in which the neither means nor the ways bear much relation to the ends. 

The German question

Last week in Aachen, the historic centre of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne’s ninth century court, a meeting took place between the French and German leaders at which the German question was again addressed – how much military power should Germany have and who should command it? Between 1952 and 1954 the first experiment in creating a European army was conducted. Entitled the European Defence Community it essentially involved the rearming of Germany but no German forces under direct German command. Paris was insistent – Wehrmacht divisions? Never again! The pressure for the EDC came from the Americans who were facing pressures from the Red Army in Europe and the Korean War in East Asia, and at one and the same time. Plus ça change?

A lot of the Aachen meeting was devoted to high-sounding statements couched in Franco-German axis speak. The consequent ‘Treaty’ stated that a Franco-German Defence and Security Council would be established that would oversee military co-operation and provide “…aid and assistance by all means at their disposal, including armed forces, in cases of aggression against their territory”. At the same time, the Council, according to Chancellor Merkel, would help foster a “common military culture” that, “…contributes to the creation of a European army”.

Those two statements alone encapsulate all that France and Germany disagree about over a European army versus an army of Europeans. For the French, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy is effectively dead. It died in the sands of the Sahel and was killed off by a lack of European solidarity with France for a mission that Paris believes of importance to the whole of Europe. Paris, instead, is focusing much of its effort on the European Intervention Initiative (or E2I) outside of the EU institutional framework, partly to accommodate post-Brexit Britain.  The French idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ can only be built by less EU defence and a new and better army of Europeans led, of course, by Paris.  For the Germans, ‘strategic autonomy’ can only be built by more EU defence, even if for Berlin NATO remains the main focus of any real defence of Europe. 

Germany aspires, or its leaders pretend they aspire, to some form of European army, i.e., a supranational force a la EDC eventually, and utterly implausibly, run by Brussels. General Selmayr? In other words, whilst the French and Germans can agree for now on a future European force that is ‘joint’ the Germans insist it must have the explicit ambition to one day become ‘common’. Experience suggests that as soon as one attaches the word ‘common’ to any European defence policy one can guarantee legions of more German lawyers, but few more European warriors. 

The EDC failed for three reasons that continue to stymie ambitions for a European army. Firstly, the French Parliament could not countenance the submersion of the French armed forces, and with it France’s distinct strategic identity, within a supranational structure. Secondly, then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the wily Konrad Adenauer, really wanted German membership of NATO and thus Germany’s return to equal status with the Western allies. This he achieved in 1955.  Thirdly, Sir Winston Churchill famously said in 1953, when the French were pushing hard for Britain to join the EDC, “We are with them, but not of them”. Nothing new there then. 

The British question

The British question for European defence is also as hard to answer now as it was then. The hard truth for the French and Germans is that whilst the Americans are the indispensable power for the credible defence of Europe, the British still remain the ‘bloody useful and still quite important power’ for any meaningful defence of Europe, particularly if US forces are busy elsewhere.  This is even if, as I said in Berlin, Brexit is fast eroding Britain’s commitment to the defence of Europe. Bust up and break-up is what happens to defeated powers. Britain has too all intents and purposes been defeated by the EU over Brexit.  London is already behaving like a defeated power with its political elite fast descending into what will likely be a protracted squabble over who lost Brexit and a prolonged struggle now to keep the UK together. Other Europeans need the British to engage seriously in the defence of Europe thus they are all going to have to pretend very hard that they have inflicted no such defeat on Britain.

The other factor, which pre-dates Brexit, is the defence-strategic choices Britain is making. Those choices hardly suggest the British Army of the Rhine reborn. New fleet aircraft carriers, nuclear ballistic missile submarines, new nuclear attack submarines, new frigates and a host of F-35 strike aircraft do not a Continental Strategy make. The British Army is the smallest it has been since Napoleonic times and could fit inside Wembley Stadium. And, whilst the Royal Navy and RAF have hit their respective recruitment targets, the Army is unable to ‘man’ even the tiny 82,000 strong force set by the last defence review in 2015. The British Army maybe a ‘high-end’ force, but it is a very small high-end force.  In other words, even though Britain’s future force will pack a considerable punch much of the main land force for the credible defence of Continental Europe must come from an army of other Europeans, necessarily and essentially focused on Germany.

No European audit, no European army 

Back to the European defence dilemma. All that really matters is that Europeans collectively generate the required defence outcomes they need. However, it is the Americans, and Europe’s potential adversaries such as China, Russia et al that will set the scale of those outcomes. Realising such a force goal will thus require the application of an appropriate level of resource in an effective and efficient way with sufficient redundancy therein for Europeans to act as effective first responders in and around Europe, across the conflict spectrum and in parallel if needs be. Such a force once generated could either be committed to NATO, Europe’s primary line of high-end defence for many years to come, or the EU, Europe’s primary vehicle for dealing with complex strategic coercion short of war also for many years to come. 

The enduring weakness of European defence is that too many Europeans still think words can substitute for force. That was the essence of Aachen, a large mouse pretending to roar like a lion. If France and Germany are serious about leading Europe towards strategic autonomy they will need a plan.  That plan would necessarily first involve a thoroughgoing audit of all European defence forces and resources for only then could synergies be identified that would end the culture of irrational national duplication of effort. Europeans could only then begin to better spend existing resources and move towards the modular, standardised army of Europeans that would balance the demand for national sovereignty over sanctioned violence and the aggregation of force for strategic effect. Aachen would have been much more impressive if France and Germany had started Europeans off down that road by building on Berlin’s commitment to act as a framework power. Only via such strategic realism and pragmatism will a European future force be realised that combines both the necessary of speed of decision and action necessary for fighting future war with the mass of force and resource needed to cope with contingencies across the people protection/power projection continuum.   

What army?

The strategic ambition therein implies another question. What future force in which to invest? Creating a European military culture is one thing, but if it is simply a culture of legacy left-behinds that makes no attempt to balance strategy, capability and technology then be it a European army or an army of Europeans it will be an army of the strategically-irrelevant. Therefore, to solve the dilemma that is European defence, and thus prove that Aachen was more than strategic theatre, Berlin and Paris would need to answer two other pivotal questions. What kind of future forces do they think Europeans will need? What is the relationship of PESCO and its European Defence Fund to the generation of such a future force? 

If ever-decreasing PESCOs simply lead to an analogue ‘European Army’ that bolts together a lot of European legacy stuff then it is yet more European strategic pretence. If, on the other hand, PESCO is suffused with sufficient ambition to help forge what no single European state can aspire to then it has purpose. Europeans will need an information-led digital 5D future warfare defence that counters disinformation, destabilisation, disruption, deception and destruction. Such a a twenty-first century European defence would necessarily be built on a European future force that masters the cross-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge, and which is powered by the revolution in military technology and the application in the battlespace of Artificial Intelligence, big data, machine-learning, quantum-computing et al. Only with such a force will European defence, and thus European deterrence, be credible and European strategic autonomy steadily emerge. 

NATO? What France and Germany envisioned at Aachen could, at best, be the beginning of a re-pillared hybrid NATO that is part alliance, part coalition. The Alliance would thus provide the framework for a Yankosphere that would include the US, Britain and Canada, and which could also reach out to Japan and the other Five Eyes powers, and a Eurosphere led by France and Germany. At worst, the Eurosphere will simply become yet another gilded European repository for the strategically lame, the left behind, the incompetent, the strategically-retired, or the plain simply can’t be bothered.  Where Aachen would leave countries like the Netherlands is anyone’s guess. Its very small but good army is close to the Germans, its very small but good navy is close to the British and its very small but good air force is close to the Americans.   

A European army or an army of Europeans?

All that really matters is that Europeans collectively generate the required defence outcomes that are “…proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”, as Robert Schuman suggested, and consistent with the effective maintenance of a credible transatlantic security relationship and the equitable sharing of burdens that a deep and enduring relationship will demand and entail.  The mistake many in Europe now make is to believe strategic autonomy is the heir apparent to the 1950 Schuman Declaration. It is not. But, it IS time Europe grew up strategically and here I am in full agreement with Paris. ‘Creative efforts’ today mean a transatlantic security and defence relationship underpinned by a level of European military capability and capacity that is fair to the Americans and proportionate to the defence of Europe. Whether a defence hike is achieved via a European army, or the more likely army of Europeans, Europeans are going to have to spend more on defence and generate far more advanced forces. To that end, the French and Germans must recognise there is a marked difference between defending Europe and using defence as a lever for political leadership of Europe which they did in Aachen. Politics dressed up as defence has been the curse of European defence.

Twenty years ago I published the first of the Venusberg Group reports on the future of European defence for the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Reading that report again I am struck by how little of substance has changed and how Aachen seems so very 1990s. What an appalling indictment of Europe’s leaders. The bombing of Berlin less than a lifetime ago should also set European defence and Brexit in their respective strategic contexts. First, big wars happen. Second, once enemies are now friends and it must stay that way. As for a REAL European Army it could only exist if there was a REAL European Government. I am not holding my breath.

Julian Lindley-French