The never-ending debate of the European Army and why it is unhelpful


Ever since its first proposal in the 1950s, the European army has been a ghost in the system of European Defence debates. But it is an unhelpful and distracting concept for the challenges that the EU and Europe more broadly are currently facing.

Few ideas appear with such regularity in discourses about European defence as the “European army”. Every time Europeans realise that we lack critical defence capabilities, that Europe cannot guarantee its security without the United States, this proposal comes up – especially in Germany. Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party in the European Parliament, recently argued in favour of it, as did the SPD parliamentary group leader, Rolf Mützenich. Angela Merkel, in 2018, made reference to a European army, a response to a similar proposal from French President Emmanuel. Influential figures of the German Greens have made the same argument, such as Cem Oezdemir and Jan Philipp Albrecht. Almost all major German political parties had a reference to the European army in their election manifestos for the last federal election. 

The problem is that the “European army” is an ill-defined idea. In fact, it refers to two ideas that are different from each other. Both are problematic in their own right.

What IS the “European Army”?

There are, broadly speaking, two models of a European army, with sub-variations. First, a single army for the EU. This would mean combining the 27 national armed forces of the EU members into one common force. The Bundeswehr, l’Armée francaise, the Nederlandse krijgsmacht etc. would all be disbanded and integrated into this army. This way, the EU gets a force with over a million soldiers and large amounts of equipment. The efficiency gain appears enormous, the political signalling powerful.

A sub-option of this solution is combining the armed forces of a smaller number of EU members (or even non-EU Europeans), for example the most capable, or in regional groupings.

The second idea of a European army is to create a 28th army, or European intervention force. Rather than disbanding the existing national armed forces, there would be an additional force – equipped by and made up of soldiers from all (or some) European states. A working group of the SPD parliamentary group outlined this proposal in 2020, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron appear to have been referring to such a European intervention force back in 2018.

The attraction of the European army

There are good reasons why these proposals are attractive at first glance. Europe’s defence is deficient. It does not deliver enough “bang for the buck”, ie. capabilities for the money spent. Europeans have 17 different types of battle tanks – the United States has one. Where the USA has six types of combat aircraft, Europe has 20. And even though the EU states combined have around 1.3 million soldiers under their command, every time there is need to deploy forces, Europeans struggle to send and equip even small numbers of soldiers. In the EU, there are 27 armed forces, 27 procurement authorities and 27 defence industrial markets.

Thus, the idea of combining capabilities and making substantive improvements in efficiency and ability is seductive. A European army might have capabilities that most European states are unable to field, such as aircraft carriers or space forces. The political signalling of such a move could be powerful and turn united Europe into a credible military actor. Procurement would be joint and only a few weapon types would be used instead of the large numbers we have today.

Equally, for the EU to have its own intervention force, a 28th army, could be an important political signal, as the EU – here understood as the institutions in Brussels – would no longer be so dependent on the 27 member states. And if each member state gave a bit, enough money, equipment, and soldiers could come together to create an able force.

There is always a catch

But what sounds good is so complicated to make it highly unlikely if not impossible. More importantly, even if all practical challenges could be surmounted, a European army is not desirable (for the first proposal) and largely useless (for the second) unless there is a complete remodelling of European politics. 

With regard to the first proposal of a single army, several problems arise. Who should participate? Often, people talk about an “EU army”. But the idea of combined armed forces of the EU27 is practically impossible. Four EU states are neutral: Austria, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus. According to their own laws, these states cannot join military alliances. They could of course decide to change this through political processes, but there is no evidence that this is in any way likely. On the contrary: neutrality is viewed very positively by the political realm and society in all four countries. This leaves the remaining 23, or groupings within this group, plus potentially states that are not in the EU, such as the United Kingdom or Norway.

If a European army is created, who will decide when and where to deploy it? European countries have different political traditions and legal requirements in this area. In Germany, for example, the parliament plays a crucial role: only the Bundestag can decide on foreign military deployments. In France, on the other hand, the president largely decides alone on the deployment of the armed forces. But whether executive or legislative, the EU has both only to a limited extent, and arguably with limited democratic legitimacy. Most proposals want the European Parliament to decide, although, as not all EU members are likely to participate, this would mean only asking part of the European parliament. This is possible, but one might remember that Europeans are represented in a rather imbalanced way in Brussels and Strassburg; while one German MEP represents around 843,000 Germans, one Maltese MEP speaks for 70,000 Maltese. Alternatively, deployment decisions could be made by the European Council which is made up by the heads of state and government (who could in turn be given mandates by the national parliaments, as required in the case of Germany).

These are possible solutions, but the crux of the matter is: what happens if there is no unanimity? If, say, France, Belgium, and Sweden want a deployment, but another group around Germany, Spain, and Poland does not? One could agree to a majority rule: whoever is outvoted must go with the others. But the decision to send citizens on a military mission in which they can be wounded and killed, and have to kill, is the highest sovereign national right. Which country, which society would be willing – should be willing – to surrender this right? Anyone would want to either have a veto – which would guarantee that the European army could never be deployed – or at least be allowed to not participate in a mission. But for some not to participate would be impossible from a practical standpoint. After all, the idea of the European army is to pool forces. The end of duplication – or twentysomethingfoldisation. How could one country then separate out its soldiers, tanks, and ammunition? Which rifle belongs to Sweden and can be deployed, and which belongs to Poland and stays behind? Will all the armoured infantry suddenly be missing because they come from non-participating countries? If a truly integrated European army is built, it is no longer possible to have such national elements without loosing the main advantage the common army was created for.

Practical questions of what language the forces should operate in, where they should be stationed, and which European arms manufacturer get to equip them and which might face bankruptcy, might in theory be solvable, in practice they are likely to sink the project before it swims. What were to happen with France’s (and in a non-EU grouping, the UK’s) nuclear weapons is another question: Austria, Ireland, and Malta have ratified the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, Germany and the Netherlands attended the first meeting of the treaty parties as observers.

The kind of European army outlined in the first proposal is not impossible, even if the practical problems today appear rather insurmountable. But it can and should only be envisaged once the United States of Europe have been founded. If European states join together in a common state, thus abdicating national sovereign rights, a European army could – and should – be formed. But creating joint armed forces before a joint state, before a real European demos, is putting the cart before the horses and guaranteeing defence paralysis at a time of heightened threats.

This might lead one to favour the second proposal of an additional force. Here, there is a funding problem. European countries already struggle finding enough money for their defence budgets: only ten European NATO countries currently reach the target of 2% of gross domestic product for defence, while 18 do not. Equally, recruitment for an additional force would be a problem, as almost all European countries struggle to find soldiers. But assuming that money and people could be found, as with proposal one, the question remains as to who would decide to send this army and what happens if there is disagreement. Most importantly, it should be remembered that the EU actually already has forces that are similar to the proposed. The “EU Battlegroups” have been operational since 2007. They bring together several thousand soldiers who are supposed to be operational within 10 days. The battlegroups are provided by EU states on a rotational basis. However, to this day, they have never been deployed – because EU member states could not agree to do so. The 2022 EU’s “Strategic Compass” furthermore plans for the establishment of “an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity” of up to 5,000 troops. One might see this as the first step to a European army of the second type. But so far, the proposal has been hindered by the problems outlined above. Furthermore, 5,000 soldier is actually very little as soldiers need to regularly be rotated – this force would be too small for any EU operation. The plans, as currently envisaged, therefore do not appear to solve the problems they were conceived for: they do not improve Europe’s defence capabilities, do not provide more bang for the buck, do not avoid duplication/twentyfoldisation, and do not turn the EU into a credible actor in defence.

Let’s focus on the necessary and useful

A third option exists: increased cooperation on defence matters among Europeans, without the establishment of joined forces. Europe absolutely must do more for its defence, and cooperation on training and procurement are important steps in this direction. The EU has begun to do a lot on this recently. PESCO, EDF, ASAP and EDIRPA – the Brussels abbreviation machine is in full force. Behind the acronyms there is real money and a renewed willingness to increase European capabilities. NATO's framework nation concept is also a step in this direction.

Europe is at a security crossroad. Challenges arise from everywhere, and we urgently need to work on building up actual capabilities. Debates on the lofty idea of a European army are becoming dangerously distracting. Instead of debating an idea that at best might become relevant in decades, at worst will never see the light of day, we should focus all our efforts on working together to strengthen actual capabilities such as through common procurement, investment in military development, and joint trainings.

This article first appeared here: