Why the EU is suddenly marching to a different drumbeat on defence

A German solider displays a Eurocorps badge. EPA/Patrick Seeger

Now that the most militarily capable member state is on the way out of the European Union there have been proposals for greater defence collaboration between the countries that remain.

Without Britain, the EU is left with substantially degraded defence capacities. As they meet in Bratislava to discuss life after Brexit, EU leaders have taken the bold but risky move to draw attention to the EU’s continuing ability to deepen integration.

It is risky because, despite being a central commitment in the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has only made modest progress towards establishing a shared defence and security policy. Member states disagree on how much they should merge their military capabilities and have made slow progress towards their Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This has so far progressed via a series of civilian and military conflict management missions.

These have been unexceptional, both in terms of size and military capability. The EU has created 1,500-strong, stand-by military forces called Battlegroups (composed of rotating member state armed forces) which have the capability to intervene swiftly for the purposes of managing or stabilising conflicts. These have never been deployed.

Resistance from within

A group of member states remains nervous about the EU developing shared defence capabilities. In some countries, such as Ireland, there is domestic opposition to deepening EU defence links. In others, there is concern about complicating NATO’s role in European security. This is a view openly expressed by the Baltic states – although their fears have been somewhat mitigated by the agreement signed between the EU and NATO to deepen their relationship.

The UK has shifted from being a leader in developing EU defence policy in the late 1990s to a laggard in recent years, so its departure provides new impetus. It has avoided engaging in meaningful discussions on CSDP military operations and resisted proposals to further develop the role of the European Defence Agency. It has also vetoed creating a permanent military EU operational headquarters, despite support from a significant proportion of the EU member states.

The new initiativesare led primarily by France (the bloc’s other big defence power alongside the UK) and Germany. While they are mainly a revival of these earlier proposals, some of the new initiatives do represent a significant departure from current EU defence arrangements. One is to create an permanent defence HQ to give the EU a greater capacity for the command and control of military missions and medical assistance operations. Currently the EU uses operational headquarters “borrowed” from the EU’s member states (including the UK) or from NATO. A proper HQ has been mooted for some time but the UK has been firmly opposed.

EU leaders gather in Bratislava. EPA

Then there is the call for a common budget for military research and for the joint procurement of equipment such as satellites and drones – all to run under the auspices of the EDA.

A further idea is that more shared military forces should be available to the EU. To achieve this, it would use the existing Battlegroups and the Eurocorps (which already brings together Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Poland in a combined force).

To overcome differences of opinion between the 27 member states, the aim is to fall back on the currently unused “permanent structured cooperation” provisions of the EU treaties. These allow for smaller groups of EU member states to undertake deeper defence collaboration even if all member states do not wish to participate.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker’s State of the Union address on September 14 suggested that Brussels agrees with Berlin and Paris on their plan. He expressed his support for a single HQ and for the EU to establish common military assets, as well as a shared defence research budget. Permanent structured cooperation, he seemed to suggest, is as a vehicle for deeper future collaboration.

Forward, ready

The push for a select group of like-minded EU countries to deepen their defence collaboration has quickly taken root. The Italian government has proposed an even more ambitious proposal, which has been described as the “Schengen for Defence”. The Schengen travel area was created outside the EU Treaties by a small group of countries, progressively widened to others and then imported wholesale into the EU. The suggestion is that the same could be done in this case.

The idea would be to establish a permanent “multinational force” the size of a division (between 10,000 and 20,000 personnel) able to act collectively under a unified command and with a common budget to fund its operations. If not quite a proposal to create a dedicated European army, the Italian idea, if implemented, would be the largest and most ambitious European defence integration development since the foundation of NATO in 1949.

As the EU leaders meet in Bratislava for the first time without the UK since 1973, all this will be under discussion. Greater defence collaboration is becoming a key companion to the process of negotiating the UK’s departure. There isn’t, yet, a timetable for creating a European army but the Brexit vote means that the idea has suddenly become more credible than ever.

This article also appears on the UK in a Changing Europe blog