Brexit has opened the door for a new European defense union led by France and Germany. However, even between these two nations, there is very little agreement on what a European Army should be.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk, left, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, center, and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, right, after signing the EU-NATO Joint Declaration at the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, July 8, 2016. Photo: AP

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The British decision to leave the European Union has prompted the remaining EU members to re-think how the union operates and develops strategies for its future. One of the issues recently discussed is a renewed effort to boost the EU’s defense capability, which may ultimately lead to creation of a European Army.

The imminent departure of Britain, the EU’s most skeptical member, potentially creates opportunities for further integration among the remaining EU states. After all, the ultimate horror of Britain’s Eurosceptics has always been a European Army, which some of them find impossible to think about without invoking the image of Napoleon or Hitler.

It is no wonder that those in the EU who favor closer military integration sighed with relief after the Brexit vote, with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen unambiguously blaming the British for a lack of progress toward a common security and defense union.

With the British out of the way, will the remaining Europeans now be able to proceed with their long-stated goal of creating a European Defense Union?

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.

At the moment, this looks unlikely at best, exposing the British factor as more of an excuse rather than a real reason for the lack of a noticeable progress towards a great European defense union.

The broad outlines of the European Army concept

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has called for a “move forward to a European defense union,” which is basically a “Schengen of defense.” Current proposals include closer EU defense cooperation, overseen by a new military headquarters, which should allow a rapid response to military deployment overseas, particularly by new EU “battle groups” (joint battalions from small groups of EU states).

Further proposals envision a new command center for medical assistance, sharing of strategic assets and intelligence data, and a single EU budget for military research, as well as a coordinated procurement program (boosted by tax relieves) for airlift, satellite, cyber-defense assets and surveillance drones.

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Political obstacles

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.

By the late 2000s, the U.S. fear of Europeans going it alone in the defense sphere gave way to American annoyance at Europe’s reluctance to pay for its own security with the U.S. accounting for some 75 percent of NATO spending.

Indeed, unlike the U.S., which maintained its military budget since the Cold War, the Europeans cut defense expenditures dramatically and the vast majority of European NATO members fail to meet the agreed target of 2 percent of GDP military spending.

Across the Atlantic, this is seen as free riding on the U.S., a theme made popular by the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Ironically, Trump’s victory could one of the few things able to spur the Europeans into a concrete action over common defense policy, but this would entail a real choice in favor of guns instead of butter by the Europeans, something they have been reluctant to do so far.

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.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, calls for a return of border controls in the Schengen zone to the national governments. In this atmosphere, a creation of a real EU defense union seems politically ill-advised, particularly since security matters are one of the most sacrosanct attributes of the state. In other words, pushing for more integration might not be the right response in the face of a wide popular resentment of excessive EU integration.

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Structural obstacles

In addition to relations with NATO and the U.S., combined with the hostile popular mood in member states to further integration, 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.

On the other hand, 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.

France is a probably the only nation in the EU that aspires to what traditionally has been known as great power status. France is an official nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council (both attributes it shares with the UK), and still is in possession of relatively extensive overseas territories around the world from the Caribbean to the Pacific. As well, it retains its informal status as a patron for its former colonies, particularly in Francophone Africa, where it continues to intervene militarily, for example, in Mali.

The French panache for making big waves in foreign policy, most recently seen in its airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, is in great contrast to German post-WWII pacifism and unwillingness to use military force in foreign policy.

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 look rather unpromising for the foreseeable future.

What comes next?

There is certainly a rationale for a greater security and defense cooperation between EU member states. Such a cooperation would make economic and logistical sense, for example, by pooling resources together and creating a more efficient coordination of defense research and procurement. However, there are much greater political and structural obstacles to a European Union armed forces that are unlikely to be overcome in the foreseeable future.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.