Debates: According to top experts, the prospects for a common European Army are unlikely to end up with any practical moves in this direction.

A Romanian soldier holds the European Union flag during a flag raising ceremony. Photo: Reuters

During the recent unofficial EU summit held in Bratislava on Sept. 17, European nations discussed the question of a European Army. At a time of crisis within the EU, its leading members are trying to look for ways to unite member states and overcome the current challenges. While France and Germany were pushing the concept of a European Army forward, other EU members were not unanimously excited about such an idea.

There are both incentives and obstacles for the creation of a European Army. With that in mind, Russia Direct asked experts to clarify the prospects for the creation of a European Army and describe how it could affect Russia-EU and EU-NATO relations.

Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow in the Wider Europe Program, European Council on Foreign Relations

When I joined the Austrian Defense Ministry in 2003, one of my first jobs was to take part in workgroups on further Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) integration. But none of the things discussed back then ever came close to being implemented, and I don’t know how many idea papers, initiatives, memos, policy proposals, etc. on this I have seen in my life that never became a reality.

We should recall that even under the current legal provisions of the Lisbon treaty, we should integrate much, much closer on defense, but we don’t. There is no structured cooperation, the Defense Agency is starved to death and nobody conceives of defense projects through it. There are no real military CSDP missions worth the name (the one in Bosnia is the most "militaristic" one, the rest are policing at best), etc.

Britain, as one of the biggest skeptics of the common European military, is now leaving the EU, but is not out yet. Now some politicians fantasize about a European army to show that without the UK, much more can be possible. But this is all hot air. Nothing substantial.

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The other states are not so openly skeptical about CSDP, but are equally skeptical. In the Europe that remains, we only have two real full spectrum armies: the French and the German. Then there will be some armies that are capable, although not full spectrum, like the Italian, Polish or Spanish armies.

On the other hand, the EU has an increasing number of nations that don’t have any real armed forces, like Austria, Hungary, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, etc. Any European Army would bind the few real armies to the political will of governments when they have neither an army of their own, nor any sort of foreign policy culture or insight to know on what to decide upon (particularly Austria and Hungary).

Subordinating the French armed forces under the European structures will not mean that the rest of Europe would support the French in North Africa, it would just mean that there is no agreement to use armed forces in North Africa/Sahel, hence no forces whatsoever will be sent there. So the French will not be so unthinking and subordinate their army to the EU bureaucracy.

Last but not least, any European army would need the EU treaty to be amended. And at the moment, no one has the appetite to undo the Lisbon treaty because in an era of Euroscepticism, we would probably get less Europe instead of more in the end. No single government has yet made any serious proposal to change the treaty.

So I believe, nothing is going to happen on this. Whatever the debate, in any foreseeable future, there will be no European army.

Sergey Rastoltsev, research fellow, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The European Union was largely created in order to avoid another catastrophic war like World War II. The idea of ​​creating a single European army appeared during the early days of the EU and was aimed at excluding any possibility of a conflict between the European nations.

European leaders returned to this concept many times, often in difficult periods. Today, when the EU is in a “critical situation,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, the creation of a new military force is a way to respond to this crisis. Systemic economic, political and social crises in the EU intensify the new security challenges and raise the question of what the new European army will do.

In fact, the traditional challenges of “hard” security (military and state-centered) are not that relevant for the EU today. Rather, it faces a number of non-military challenges, so-called “soft” security issues: migration, terrorism, transnational crime, local hybrid conflicts etc. Despite their “softness,” these problems are very serious and relevant, as ordinary Europeans are threatened directly by them.

The goal of creating a European Army today is not an attempt to create a new powerful military force on the continent instead of NATO. Given the enormous superiority of the U.S. military and the current difficult economic conditions, the EU does not even pretend to replace NATO in any way. It is rather a question about an international force, which will deal with internal challenges of a “soft” or mixed nature within the EU and at its borders.

If such an army will be created, it is likely to perform military police tasks, and there will be more than enough work in the field of internal and border security, while NATO will remain as the basis of external “hard” Western European security. Thus, cooperation between NATO and the EU in the field of security will not undermine, but on the contrary, will strengthen two organizations as they will complement each other in different spheres of security.

European countries together with the U.S. have accumulated a very solid experience of joint cooperation in the field of European and Transatlantic security and it is unlikely that the creation of any additional military contingent can damage their relationship in this area.

As for Russia, in the current tense conditions, it is likely to react critically to the creation of a unified European Army. Most analysts in Russia believe that such a Euroarmy is unlikely to create serious competition for the Russian army or to replace NATO. However, it can become an additional irritant in the military-political relations between the EU and Russia.

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Another issue is that if practice demonstrates that the coming Euroarmy will not pose a threat to Russian interests, Moscow will quietly accept it as a new military and police force that is not able to compete with Russian military power. Besides, if EU-Russia relations improve, the European Army has more chances to cooperate with Moscow rather than NATO, which is traditionally considered to be a vestige of the Cold War and the conductor of U.S. interests in Europe.

Alexander Titov, lecturer in Modern European History, Queen's University Belfast

Judging by statements from the French, the Germans, the Italians (the new “Big Three” of the EU) and some East European members such as Hungary and Poland, there seems to be a strong impetus to move along the road of greater security and defense cooperation in the EU than ever before. However, for this to have a meaningful result, some fundamental structural, political and practical issues would have to be resolved.

Any discussion of a common EU defense initiative cannot avoid the topic of NATO and relations with the U.S. A traditional fear in Washington (and London) was that the Europeans would be able to supplement NATO with a new defense structure thereby decreasing, or even eliminating, their reliance for security on the U.S. These fears have never materialized and all major Western interventions of the post-Cold War era were led by the U.S., most notably in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In the post-Brexit EU, there is also another serious obstacle to EU defense integration plans. National elections are due in Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands, where politics are dominated by the rise of populist, anti-immigration and anti-EU forces. These ideas are rapidly moving from the populist fringe to become part of the political mainstream. As calls for a reform of the EU grow louder, the popular mood has already shifted decidedly towards giving more power to member states.

There is also the issue of different priorities among EU member states. Eastern European countries look for further assurances of support for their territorial integrity from Germany and France in case of Russian aggression while Italy is mostly concerned with securing its southern flank, particularly stopping illegal immigration flows from North Africa. This might require greater involvement by the EU in countries such as Libya, something for which Central and East Europeans would have little appetite.

With the British departure from the EU, the power dynamics revert back to the traditional Berlin-Paris axis. Given the different security priorities of various member states, the French-German tandem will be the key to a successful common EU defense policy. There lies, however, a problem of profound differences in the two countries’ approach to international affairs.

While the French look at the common EU defense initiative as a way to bolster its ability to intervene militarily abroad, the Germans see it as a part of a larger European integration project, i.e. primarily an internal political project, an expression of the ultimate unity of European nations.

If the two leading EU nations cannot agree on such fundamental issues, then the future of the EU joint defense project looks rather unpromising for the foreseeable future.