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Another European army?

Europe has been going through a difficult time lately. The UK’s looming exit from the European Union has left many in Brussels feeling lost – they are used to having countries knocking on the door, not making their way to the exit. European politicians have now began to take more populist stances, including questioning the need for further integration, and the value of trade deals like the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Partnership agreement being negotiated with the US.

As a result, a number of European politicians are enthusiastically pushing a project which they feel would bring Europe closer together: a unified European army. The idea sounds nice on paper, but is very difficult to implement in reality.

One thing that should be discussed in excruciating detail at the outset (but won’t be) is exactly why the EU needs a single army, and what its aim would be. Europe already has a defence organisation - NATO. Out of the current 28 EU member states, 23 are NATO members, with the exception of Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden.

None of these countries can be considered as major military powers, and two of them (Sweden and Finland) were actually cooperating with NATO more frequently in the last year or so, as a result of Russia’s increased military activity in the region.

Martin Scicluna’s piece (August 31) outlined the continued importance of the NATO alliance, and how any single European army should not compete with NATO. The problem is that a European army will inevitably compete with NATO for influence, leadership, and resources. This is counterproductive.

NATO is an imperfect institution dominated by the US. Europe needs to do more to ensure its security – but reinventing the wheel is a non-starter

At a time in which European unity has shown some signs of fraying on the issues of migration and an eight-year recession, creating  a second defence institution for Europe might initially bring Europe together, but it will also create an institutional barrier between the EU and the two most powerful military members of NATO – the US and the UK.

Europe also faces a number of challenges which some politicians seem to be forgetting. Armed forces are an extension of a state’s foreign policy, and are utilised in situations in which it is considered to be in the self-interest of that state to do so.

The element of an established and comprehensive foreign policy is thus central to the use of the military in conflict situations. Does Europe have an established foreign policy which is clear and agreed upon by members in a manner which allows for rapid intervention by armed forces in a major conflict situation? I am not convinced.

According to the EU External Action Service, the EU is actively involved in six military and 10 civilian operations, which includes tricky deployments to places such as Mali. However, none of these operations can be considered complex, large-scale operations.  The EU had time to discuss these operations at length where necessary and there was no time-critical imperative in most cases.

There was no real and immediate threat to an EU member state. There was no immediate crisis that required leadership and consensus.

Europe has found it difficult at times to find common ground between its members on security and geopolitical concerns. It was unable to build a consensus to intervene in the war in Yugoslavia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999. On both occasions, NATO intervened through the use of US airpower.

In Libya, EU members operated under the umbrella of NATO, as several key EU members opposed the intervention. European nations also required the use of US logistical (such as refuelling aircraft) and intelligence capabilities in order to continue their operations against Gaddafi’s forces, given that they did not have the capability to carry out sustained operations themselves.

Which country is going to seek to provide leadership for an EU army? Germany will be a bit hesitant given its history and is not currently spending anywhere near enough money on its armed forces to be an example. The UK will be have left the EU. France is stretched thin due to its heightened security alert at home, and operations in Syria, Iraq, Mali and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. Spain and Italy have their own political and financial considerations to ponder back home.

NATO is an imperfect institution dominated by the US. Europe needs to do more to ensure its security – but reinventing the wheel is a non-starter. It is not investing enough in its own defence, and a glance at NATO member spending shows that. The creation of a separate defence institution aside from NATO will divert resources unnecessarily. Europe will still be plagued by internal debates on whether to intervene in a crisis given that its foreign policy takes a considerable amount of time to shape in order to please all concerned.

Europe should invest more money in its defence. It has neglected this area for far too long. But resorting to building an army which would compete with NATO’s resources is not the solution – it’s creating new divisions, only this time, it won’t be in Europe, it’ll be with its Atlantic partners.

Matthew Bugeja is an independent geopolitical consultant.

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