The European Defense Project: Challenges and Potential

By: Lorris Beverelli, Guest Contributor

Photo Credit: European Parliament

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) serves as the main assurance for European defense. However, the European Union (EU) wants to better organize and increase its own military capabilities.[i] A potential opening for greater military cooperation lies with Brexit. The United Kingdom (UK) has always preferred NATO rely on the protection of the Old Continent, and believes an EU defense force would undermine its relevance. Hence its continuous opposition to the creation of any strategic European command structure which could bypass domestic or NATO institutions.[ii] However, critics must realize such a project would actually reinforce both the EU and NATO, and does not necessarily entail the creation of a supranational “European Army”. While facing several substantial challenges, proper European defense cooperation would be beneficial for regional security and the autonomy of the EU.

With the UK laboriously finding its way out of the EU, France has become the main actor in a potential European military project. A number of factors distinguishes France as the potential leader of such an initiative: it has an experienced and capable military which has executed numerous operations in recent history; its armed forces are the most numerous;[iii] it is one of the few states able to project its power on a global scale; it possesses military bases abroad;[iv] it is a nuclear power; it spends the most on defense;[v] it has a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council; and it is willing to rely on its armies to achieve political goals.[vi]

However, the French Armed Forces currently faces several issues that affect its ability to be an important actor in a major conventional war. Its personnel are limited, with, as of 2016, a grand total of 189,214 soldiers for the three main branches, including only 112,502 of them in the Army.[vii] Additionally, the French military has been badly overstretched and overused for the past few years;[viii] its quality of training has decreased overall;[ix] some of its equipment has become obsolete and is not always operational;[x] and it has become dependent on American support to wage major operations.[xi] Consequently, France alone cannot currently bear the entire weight of European defense.

Germany would be a natural French partner for a European defense effort.[xii] However, the two states are profoundly opposed when it comes to the use of their respective armed forces. On one hand, France has global ambitions and can use its military to achieve its goals.[xiii] Moreover, the French use of force is almost exclusively dependent on the executive.[xiv] On the other hand, Germany tends to have a regional focus,[xv] and its military is mainly established for defensive purposes[xvi] and lies under parliamentary oversight.[xvii]

While Germany recently showed it wanted to increase its military role,[xviii] it does not aspire to be a military power.[xix] However, it is willing to use its armed forces in a multilateral context, be it through pre-existing institutions like the UN or NATO, or new formats and ad hoc cooperation and groups.[xx] Consequently, given its ethos, Germany is currently unable to be the main leader of a European defense project. However, it has the potential to be a leading partner.

EU Member States may also have difficulties agreeing on strategic priorities and the main threats to Europe, notably between migration, terrorism, and Russia.[xxi] Although the former two items are legitimate domestic priorities, the latter represents the most credible external threat to the region.[xxii] Indeed, Moscow partially perceives the EU as a challenger to both Russian great power ambitions and to its own security,[xxiii] and considers itself to be in direct competition with the EU for influence in Eastern Europe.[xxiv] Russia already demonstrated its willingness to seize territory in pursuit of such goals; exercised nuclear intimidation maneuvers; deployed an anti-access and area denial system around the Baltic states; and presented its power projection abilities in Syria.[xxv] Russian will and ability to materially transpose its revisionist intentions may consequently constitute the greatest external threat Europe faces since the end of the Cold War.

In the face of this uncertain international and regional environment, EU Member States need to develop a military component to improve their ability to cooperatively defend the continent. Moreover, it would allow the EU to crucially bolster its hard power capabilities, and open new strategic avenues. The EU has already made some progress and started positive initiatives towards cooperative defense.[xxvi] However, such a project currently remains unclear.

Eventually, willing states should take measures at the strategic level. The creation a proper strategic European structure responsible for the definition and coordination of European military priorities and strategy would be necessary at some point. From there, some form of combined military doctrine could be created, hence promoting a strategic level of European defense thinking and military culture.

Governments would be able to keep command of their own armies, while remaining under the umbrella of such strategic structure. It would define the goals and means to use in the context of an armed conflict or military intervention. Yet, Member States would remain free to use them the way they see fit, and they could coordinate their effort through such a structure. Additional measures could later be created and implemented to reinforce or adapt such a framework to shape it to the preferences of its members.

Only willing states would be part of any such project, and even then responsibilities could be shared between only some of them depending on the situation and mission. The EU allows such a framework to exist.[xxvii] As of now, the EU members as a community lack the strong, united political will to jointly create an effective European military structure. This barrier reflects the reality that only willing states should be part of any new framework going in such direction. Such cooperation could constitute a mechanism for European governments to jointly defend EU territory by themselves, or at least without an over-reliance on NATO. Additionally, it would make the EU as a whole more autonomous and give it more leverage on the international stage.

Furthermore, an EU military structure would not necessarily undermine NATO, whose importance the EU acknowledges.[xxviii] To the contrary, such a plan could reinforce the partnership between the two international organizations, develop additional joint military capabilities, and bolster the defense of European states. As a result, an EU defense project could even further reinforce NATO, as most of its Member States are European, and reduce the military gap between them.[xxix]

The main and often forgotten purpose of the European Union is to maintain peace in Europe.[xxx] Arguably, one of the most efficient ways to ensure peace is to maintain a credible, capable, and deterrent military component. While the EU is ensuring peace mainly through liberal tools such as trade and the free movement of people, it lacks a military component that can make credible threats of the use of force. An actual tool of hard power would grant more autonomy to the EU as an international organization, flexibility when it comes to achieving political goals, and reinforce its ability and credibility to fulfill its main objective: peace in Europe.

Lorris Beverelli is a Master of Arts (M.A.) candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University, with a concentration in military operations. He also holds a master’s degree (M2) in Public International and European Law from Paris Nanterre University, and a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in Law of Armed Conflict and Human Rights from the Geneva Academy.

[i] European Union, Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, 2016, 20

[ii] Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Du Brexit au « trumpisme » : la voie étroite d’une défense européenne”, Les Grands Dossiers de Diplomatie, no. 38 (2016-2017), 84-85

[iii] NATO, Public Diplomacy Division, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2010-2017), Press Release, 2017, 10

[iv] James Black, Alex Hall, Kate Cox, Marta Kepe, Erik Silfversten, Defence and security after Brexit: Understanding the possible implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, Compendium report, RAND Europe, 2017, 70

[v] NATO, Public Diplomacy Division, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries, 6

[vi] Christopher S. Chivvis, The French War on Al’Qaida in Africa, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 171

[vii] French Ministry of the Armed Forces, Defence Key Figures, 2017, 16

[viii] GEN. Vincent Desportes, “Lettre ouverte à la ministre des Armées”, DSI, no. 130 (2017), 75

[ix] GEN. Vincent Desportes, “Un désastre militaire”, Conflits, no. 13 (2017), 48-49

[x] Ibid., 48

[xi] GEN. Vincent Desportes, “Lettre ouverte”, 76

[xii] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, “Les dix principaux enjeux de défense du prochain quinquennat”, DSI, no. 128 (2017), 42

[xiii] Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Du Brexit au « trumpisme »”, 86

[xiv] French Constitution, 1958, Article 35

[xv] Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Du Brexit au « trumpisme »”, 86

[xvi] Deutscher Bunderstag, Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, 1949, Article 87a

[xvii] Ibid., Article 45b

[xviii] Bertrand Slaski, Katell Salou, “Livre blanc allemand de la défense : Entre continuité et évolution”, DSI, no. 126 (2016), 45

[xix] Ibid., 49

[xx] German Federal Government, White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, 2016, 81

[xxi] James Black, Alex Hall, Kate Cox, Marta Kepe, Erik Silfversten, Defence and security after Brexit, 71

[xxii] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, “Les dix principaux enjeux”, 41

[xxiii] European Parliament, Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, Russia’s national security strategy and military doctrine and their implications for the EU, 2017, 1

[xxiv] Ibid., 20-21

[xxv] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, “Les dix principaux enjeux”, 41

[xxvi] European Union, From Shared Vision to Common Action: Implementing the EU Global Strategy – Year 1, 2017, 20-24

[xxvii] André Dumoulin, Joseph Henrotin, “PDSC : Une fenêtre d’opportunité ? ”, DSI hors-série, no. 55 (2017), 23-24

[xxviii] European Union, Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe, 20

[xxix] About the gap, see for example Daniel Fiott, “A Revolution Too Far? US Defence Innovation, Europe and NATO’s Military-Technological Gap”, Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 3 (2016), 2-7

[xxx] European Union, Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, Official Journal of the European Union, 2012, Article 3(1)

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