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Ever Closer Union? Prospects for a unified EU defence force post-Brexit

November 10th, 2017

Max Rogers – Research Assistant

With the UK set to leave the European Union in March 2019, much of the commentary in recent months has focused on the likelihood of whether the country will leave with or without an exit deal. This focus on the UK’s future economic prospects outside the EU, especially the shape of the future trading relationship, is of course a matter of great importance. However, as has been typical both during the Brexit negotiating period and before and during the referendum campaign, issues of security and defence have largely lost out in coverage in comparison to matters of economics and sovereignty.

During the EU referendum campaign, the issue of the potential formation of an ‘EU Army’ became a political football used by both sides. The Leave campaign argued that the UK would be made to merge its forces into a new EU military force if it remained in the EU. In reply, the Remain side argued that the UK would be the key factor in stopping the formation of an EU Army given the UK’s long record of opposition to closer EU integration on security and defence issues. With the Leave victory, its proponents argued that the UK had been saved from being forced into an EU Army, whilst defeated Remainers maintained a view that closer EU integration on security and defence was now far more likely with the UK due to leave.

In the 16 months since the Brexit vote, European Commission figures have certainly hinted towards ever-closer security and defence union after the UK leaves. In his recent State of the Union address, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made clear his desire to see an EU Defence Union be created. This is unsurprising coming from Juncker, who has called for such a move throughout his presidency. In his speech, he claimed that the threat of aggression from Putin’s Russia and the prospect of defensive pullback by Trump’s America illustrated the need for the EU to take charge of its own defence. Furthermore, Juncker argues that the creation of such a Defence Union would further unify and solidify EU values, make spending more efficient and deepen European integration.

In recent weeks, the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, has joined calls for an EU defence force. This is a significant development, as Macron, thanks to his stunning victory against many established French political forces, remains as the most visible and dynamic of the major EU leaders. However, Macron’s speech in September, where he outlined his desire to see unified EU defensive capability, was fairly reticent on detail. He said he desired the EU to have ‘autonomous capacity for action’ but that the force should ‘complement rather than replace’ NATO capabilities in the defence of Europe. Further Macron proposals included a shared defence budget, an EU military academy and a renewed common defence policy.

Behind both of these high profile interventions lies a clear theoretical vision of a more unified, common EU security and defence policy. Both leaders will have seen the EU’s poor responses to the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, particularly in the Yugoslav wars; as well as how the established security and defence leaders of the US, UK and France have picked up a lot of the slack in the resulting military, humanitarian and anti-terror campaigns since then. The conclusion they have come to, therefore, is that closer security and defence cooperation, the flagship form of that being an EU Army, will be the way to solve the issue of the EU not being taken seriously as a global power, whilst also unifying member states behind it.

Despite this lofty ambition, reality threatens the path forward to far closer security and defence cooperation. At a summit in September 2016, one of the first without the UK, EU leaders agreed on a plan for how to improve defence cooperation, aiming for more concrete proposals by June 2017. However, the conference ended acrimoniously as the then Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, criticised EU direction on migration and the economy. This both overshadowed the progress made on defence and highlighted the critical issue going forward about how an EU Army would work – namely, how would it be commanded?

Around the same time, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland were reported to be the main coalition of opposition to plans for an EU Army and closer defence integration along the lines of proposals by Juncker and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The reservation of the four governments was primarily due to doubts about whether the EU Army and the other proposals outlined by the Commission were the best way of deterring aggression by Russia. They instead argued that the idea of a ‘military Schengen’, a way for troop deployments and military resources to move more quickly through the EU, was a better idea.

In the time since then, the combined wills of the EU Commission, France and Germany, have sought to advance their ambition for closer union in defence and security terms. The new push from Merkel’s government to take lead on issues once held by the US in response to Trump’s policies, combined with the new life breathed into French actions by Macron’s ascension, can be clearly seen. Furthermore, the formation of the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency can be seen as a significant step in cooperation across member states on security issues. The Commission declared the new agency as making the border of one member state logistically and legally the border of all member states, as well as outlining how the agency could deploy its 1,500 strong force of border guards to any EU nation.

Whilst the Commission delights in this step, there are still hefty obstacles in its way. The first, as alluded to earlier, lies in issues of command and control. How would an EU Army and defensive command structure be governed? The Commission President, the European Council and the European Parliament are all likely contenders for such a role and all would very likely be unhappy if another received the primary commanding position. Furthermore, would the national leaders of the 27 member states be happy with potentially losing autonomy to EU bodies on such an issue when actions by the defensive force could affect their states?

This brings us to the second obstacle to be addressed: what form would an EU Army take? The new Border and Coast Guard agency has its own 1,500 guards whilst each member state retains its own border agencies and personnel. Would the EU recruit its own soldiers along similar principles, or would it operate along the lines of how the UN does with its peacekeeper forces, working with the national governments and armed forces on a rotational basis?

Finally, and again as mentioned earlier, the issue of agreement amongst the 27 member states in planning and execution of a common EU defensive force and policy set is a key challenge. It is already difficult enough for the member states to agree on issues such as migration, the economy and sovereignty, so to throw in the new policy areas of defence and security for common agreement will simply be adding more likely division. With regard to principles, would each member state have a veto over action akin to the permanent members of the UN Security Council? Would a majority vote amongst member states on the European Council be a way of approving action? Both options would lead to further division within the EU, as one state with a pro-Russian government could veto defensive military action against Russia, despite the support of the other 26 for action, or blocs of states could form coalitions in opposition to other blocs.

As the questions about planning and execution of an EU Army and other deeper security and defensive cooperation policies will crop up at some point down the line, leaders amongst the Commission and EU member states must come up with answers to them if they truly desire to move forward in such a direction. Given how division about issues such as migration, economics and Brexit are already clear amongst member states, advances towards deeper security and defence integration, despite seemingly positive steps forward to it by the EU recently, are still in the very early stages.

Image: Soldiers on an EU-administered mission in Chad (Source: Szanowny Panie/Polish MoD)

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