The European Union may not end up having a joint army, as shown by the opposition of several member states to the recent declarations of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. But it should move forward with a new framework for defense cooperation. The report of the CEPS Task Force on Security and Defence, presented on March 9 in Brussels by former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, argues that it is high time that EU member states took bolder and more concrete steps to address common threats. The Task Force suggests policy actions to further the EU’s strategic, institutional, capabilities, and resources cooperation in the field of defense, bundled in an overarching framework of a “European Defence Union” (EDU), which would follow the blueprint of the European Monetary Union. An EDU would enable the European Union to effectively support NATO in territorial defense in the east. It would also allow Europeans to address instability in the Mediterranean.
Rather than being surrounded by a ring of friends, the EU is now faced with an arc of instability stretching from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, through the Middle East and the Caucasus up to the new frontlines in Eastern Europe. The threats are not purely military in nature but range from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to cyber-attacks, piracy, the actions of ethno-nationalist groups with subversive intentions, and threats to energy and environmental security. Radicalization in the EU and extremism in the neighborhood act as “communicating vessels” and blur the difference between what is internal or external to the EU.
At the same time, Russia’s infiltrations in Ukraine and aerial and naval provocations have delivered a blow to Europe’s post-Cold War security order, reawakening fears of armed attack or even occupation. The reactions to these provocations and fears have differed; some member states have defended their neutrality, and others have responded by deepening military cooperation with NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia’s shock to the system has also exposed the fragility of European gas supplies, propelling EU policy toward the creation of an Energy Union.
The differing threat perceptions and security interests of member states have prevented the emergence of a common strategic culture and hampered the creation of joint structures, procedures, and assets at the EU level. Whereas Central and Eastern Europe is exercised by Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, EU member states in the south worry more about the violent implosion of Libya and the challenges posed by waves of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean. This national-level navel-gazing, however, is not only short-sighted; it also fails to appreciate the strong public support for a broadly European project in the area of defense; for the past ten years, polls have consistently shown that more than seven in ten Europeans support such an integrated program.
Against this backdrop, the cost implications of non-Europe in defense—currently estimated at 26 billion euros per year in a 2013 European Parliament Report—could rise to 130 billion euros as the security environment in the EU’s strategic neighborhood worsens. Member states could achieve much more value for their money than the 190 billion euros they spend to maintain 28 national armies, comprising roughly 1.5 million service personnel. In addition to the cost factor, political, moral, and strategic imperatives also urge the EU to step up its efforts in defense cooperation.
The “European Defence Union” (EDU) framework proposed by the CEPS Task Force is designed to support NATO in its territorial defense tasks while at the same time acting as enabler of an ambitious EU foreign policy in the strategic neighborhood.
The report sets two general targets for reaching military autonomy: first, capacity to support NATO and Nordic, Baltic, Central, and Eastern European countries in deterring and countering conventional and hybrid warfare tactics. This entails capabilities for identifying, evaluating, and responding to threats through a mix of special, permanent, and rapid reaction forces, cyber defense, and public diplomacy; and second, political and military autonomy to conduct intervention operations in order to respond to or deter crises. Such operations would typically be conducted in partnership with regional actors, regional organizations or the UN to protect, among other things, respect for fundamental rights, the rule of law, the principles of the United Nations Charter, and international law, as well as the Union’s own fundamental interests, security, and independence (Article 21 TEU).
The EDU framework builds on a gradual integrative process to develop new habits of cooperation based on strategic convergence, while developing an EU vision for better and more efficient cooperation in security and defense. Policy actions include strategic upgrade to redefine the EU’s level of ambition and changing threats; reform of institutions, procedures, and financing of a common defense, namely through regional clusters for pooling and sharing of military capabilities, the creation of a Eurogroup of Defense Ministers and permanent EU military headquarters in Brussels to ensure quick planning, command, and control; industrial harmonization to re-galvanize the European defense technological and industrial base by stimulating investments in innovative research programs.
The European Council should define a roadmap with practical and realistic steps to move, by stages, from the blueprint to the launch of the EDU. To that end, EU leaders should appoint an independent committee, supported by the EEAS and the relevant branches of the European Commission acting under the authority of the HR/VP, to propose such a roadmap, similar to the approach to create the EMU and involving the attainment of harmonization criteria and mandatory milestones for upgrades in each basket of reform. Although the process of bringing European armies to a more structured cooperation and, where appropriate, closer integration will certainly be complex, the numerous crises facing Europe have made change possible. These crises also offer an opportunity to secure a more peaceful and prosperous future for the EU.
Sixty-five years after the Plan Pleven to create a European Defence Community, EU member states need to formulate and elaborate a bold vision for defense integration consistent with current concerns about security environment and austerity.
Rationalizing EU defense cooperation will likely have spillover benefits for NATO too. Whereas the United States opposed the development of distinct defense structures within the EU a decade ago, their establishment has since become a matter of course. Of the 28 EU member states, 22 are NATO allies. Action to improve the EU’s own defenses would simultaneously strengthen Europe’s influence within NATO and enhance the credibility of the Transatlantic Alliance, thus preventing it from descending into what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously described as “collective military irrelevance.”