EU army? Much ado about nothing

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (center). Turkey, 7 March. [European Council]

The creation of a “European army” has appeared to some politicians as a realistic possibility, now that the UK can’t obstruct such a goal. Big statements have been made at high levels, but analysts question the substance behind the rhetoric. The EURACTIV network reports.

Since the Brexit referendum, French President François Hollande’s activity with EU leaders has focused on European solidarity in defence, a subject long blocked by Britain.

Hollande embarks on tour to push for European 'army'

French President François Hollande visited Portugal on Tuesday (19 July) and will stop over in Ireland on Thursday (21 July) in an attempt to reinforce the foundations of the EU, including fostering increased defence cooperation, following the terrorist attack in Nice last week. EURACTIV France reports.

Officials in Paris believe attitudes towards tighter EU defence cooperation could change now that British voters have decided to leave the European Union in a referendum in June.

Another development which could impact EU decision-making on defence issues is a Donald Trump victory in the US, whose commitment to NATO is questionable, to say the least.

NYT: Trump questions US commitment to NATO

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has raised fresh questions about his commitment to automatically defend NATO allies if they were attacked, a stance in keeping with his “America First” agenda, the New York Times reported on Wednesday (20 July)

The French president said that the EU must “insist on security and defence aspects” in view of the 16 September’s Bratislava summit, where Union leaders will attempt to find new ways to relaunch the black after the shock of Brexit.

Bratislava summit to focus on security

The informal Bratislava summit of the 27 heads of state and government of the post-Brexit EU will focus mostly on the internal and external security, a high-level diplomat told Brussels journalist today (2 September).

Meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel aboard an aircraft carrier anchored off the Italian island of Ventotene on 22 August, Hollande said he wanted greater cooperation on defence with plans for an EU army more likely to go ahead without British opposition.

‘Europe must ensure its own defence, and France is certainly playing its role,’ he said.

For her part, Merkel insisted there should be greater intelligence-sharing in the fight against Islamic State.

“We feel that faced with Islamist terrorism and in light of the civil war in Syria, that we need to do more for our internal and external security,” Merkel said at Ventotene.

Visegrad ambitions

During a summit with Germany on 26 August in Warsaw, it was the turn of Eastern European member states to push for the bloc to create a joint army. In particular, Hungary and the Czech Republic made the case for a European army, while Slovakia and Poland were much less vocal.

“We must prioritise security, and let’s start by building a common European army,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, said during talks with Czech, German, Polish and Slovak leaders.

Czech Premier Bohuslav Sobotka, for his part, said that first and foremost, EU leaders have the duty to guarantee security for European citizens.

“We must continue the Coast Guard Agency project, and the time has now come to consider the creation of a joint European army. Only EU-wide armed forces will allow us to defend our interests on our own”, Sobotka said, adding: “We should also begin a discussion about creating a common European army.”

Sobotka mentioned the idea of creation of the EU army already before the V4+ summit in Warsaw at an annual meeting with Czech ambassadors held on 22 August in Prague. Speaking about the need of assuring security, including strengthening cooperation among the European intelligence agencies, he said: “I am also convinced that in the long term, we will be unable to do without a joint European army. I believe that autumn negotiation in this field will bring concrete commitments and proposals.”

The Czech premier argued that a joint EU military force should not compete with NATO, but that it should become a ‘more actionable and reliable partner’.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also supported the idea of stronger security, but urged caution on how plans were translated into acts.

Eastern EU leaders call for joint army at summit with Germany

Eastern EU countries on Friday (26 August) pushed for the bloc to create a joint army as they met with Germany for talks on sketching Europe’s post-Brexit future.

It appears that both Orbán and Sobotka linked the idea of a European army with the need to protect the EU’s external borders. Most EU countries, however, reject the idea that the army should be responsible for guarding the borders.

Orbán also argued that migration and social issues should not be managed at EU level, and that instead, the priority should be security, and establishing a European army.

The host of the Warsaw meeting, Polish Premier Beata Szydło, called for setting up a European border guard to protect the EU’s external frontiers, an idea closer to mainstream thinking in the EU.

New ‘European Border Guard’ system to be agreed by 30 June

EU interior ministers formally agreed yesterday (21 April) on a proposal for a new border and coastguard force that could intervene in under-pressure countries like Greece to slow the influx of migrants.

The new push by Orbán and Sobotka for a European army may appear to be surprising, because in the recent past, their countries had opposed any projects that could undermine NATO. The two leaders appear to have found new arguments in the post-Brexit referendum situation, but analysts said they are just trying to sound pro-European at a time when others blame them for a lack of solidarity in sharing the refugee burden.

UK, Central Europe frown at Juncker’s European army

During an interview on 8 March, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the EU needed its own military, in order to deal with the Russian threat, as well as to restore the bloc’s standing around the world.

Mogherini: Maybe in 100 years?

“Great Britain’s exiting of the EU means that the European pillar of NATO will be somewhat weakened, and beginning preparations for the establishment of a joint European army would serve to strengthen that pillar to some extent,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers that in Bratislava on 2 September.

The EU is not going to get an army of its own in the near future, but in the meantime it should play a greater security role, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said on the same occasion.

“We all agree that the European army is not something that is going to happen any time soon,” Mogherini said after the Bratislava ministerial.

“Fifty, 60, 100 years from now, who knows?,” Mogherini told a briefing when asked about the possibility of a “European Army.”

Czech Republic divided

Jakub Kufčák, a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, said that he doesn’t believe that there has been a fundamental change in Central European countries regarding their position on the “EU army”.

“In my opinion what we are witnessing is a ‘compensation move’ with [the Czech Republic and Hungary] trying to be seen as pro-European vis-a-vis Western Europe and especially Germany. From the Czech perspective, an EU army is not a commonly shared goal for the main political parties or coalition partners (perhaps with the exception of the Czech social democrats). That is why the Czech Defence minister Martin Stropnický (ANO) tried to counterbalance Sobotka’s statements and instead stressed the importance of the EU Battlegroup reform, said Kufčák. [EU Battlegroups are rapid reaction forces which were established in 2005, although they have never been involved in any military action since.]

Stropnický said that battlegroups are not very useful, as there must be a unanimous agreement among the member states on their use. “If we are talking about a future European army, I think it would be rational to start with changes in the rules for a possible use of the Battlegroups,” he said.

According to Kufčák, the Visegrad countries, perhaps with the exception of Poland, are not ready for an EU army in multiple areas. He said that militarily there wasn’t much military capability to be combined, as the V4 couldn‘t even agree on permanent unit during the Visegrad Czech Presidency – a proposal killed by the Czech Army that prioritized NATO tasks.

“Politically there is no will to create and cement defence cooperation (read dependencies, e.g. German-Dutch corps) even in the V4 framework…how would that work on the European level? What we are left with bare words without action. First, we have to put (our) money where our mouths are,” Kufčák added.

Poland keeps an eye on USA

While Poland has expressed in recent months support for “creating a European army”, it does not have in mind a supranational army. As the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs have explained in a statement made to, “Poland supports the development of CSDP as a way to supplement NATO activities”. Yet the MFA wants to focus primarily on cooperation between the EU member states, such as improving resilience with regards to hybrid warfare, improved border control or creating an “operational command centre (an EU Headquarters)”.

This stance resemble closely the general view in Poland that NATO, and the USA specifically, are primary guarantors of security. In this context, the EU is perceived more as a provider of economic security and development opportunities rather than hard security.

Marcin Terlikowski, the head of European Security and Defence Industry Project at Polish Institute of International Affairs told EURACTIV that the current attempts to increase security cooperation within the EU are more likely to succeed than the attempts made in the past years.

“The Americans have moved their ‘strategic focus’ away from Europe to Asia and, taken together with an increasing number of threats on the Eastern and Southern border of the EU, it has changed views on security both among politicians and societies [of the EU member states” – he said. Terlikowski added that the current capabilities of EU countries are lacking due to policies after the end of the Cold War. In his view, it will take years to bring them to such a level that will allow for effective provision of security within Europe.

Slovakia unconvinced

In Slovakia, responsible ministries tend to repeat that the principal guarantor of national security is NATO. Even now, when neighbouring countries mulled the idea, there was no Slovak politician openly endorsing the common army.

Security and defence expert Marián Majer says that the Visegrad countries mentioning European army is “paradoxical”, since they are unable to fulfil their present commitment to NATO. Speaking to Slovak daily SME, he claims that this is a trick by which the Visegrad group is trying to promote the European Union, after having slammed Brussels ´policy on refugees.

Slovakia holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and prefers to stick to mainstream policies while its stint lasts.

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