What if a European army was a plan for the future?

(B2) In addition to talking about it, the European army, we should analyse what it would mean. Let’s not try to say whether it is a good or bad idea. Let’s try to see what it would imply. Imagine for a moment a political consensus to create this army. Imagine pragmatic means for implementing it

(credit : Portuguese navy)

By referring to the project of a “real (or true) European army“, French president Emmanuel Macron on Europe1 last Friday (read: Face aux menaces, Macron propose une armée européenne. Un vieux ou un jeune phantasme ?) as well as the German chancellor Angela Merkel in front of the European parliament on Tuesday (read: Une armée (européenne) montrerait au monde qu’entre (nous) il n’y aurait plus de guerre) have awoken an old project. Neither was more specific during these speeches. Let’s try to go further in order to draw the shape of this army.

What an army implies

A army roughly implies a power (a political structure based on democratic legitimacy) and a legal base, an organisation (a political and military command) and a strategy. All of this is concretely lacking today at the European level. And we are starting from scratch or nearly (1). Nevertheless, it does not mean that it is unreachable as long as we take into account what is possible and not what is desirable, that we stop talking and start working.

A army to replace or to complete?

First of all, it is necessary to define what is the object and the objective of this army: is it defensive exclusively of the European territory? Or expeditionary, through participation in UN, EU or NATO external operations? Does it intervene in addition to the national armies or does it replace them? As a first entry or second entry?

An army with an assigned task or future tasks

Then, if we want this project to have some chances of succeeding, we must take advantage of past experience, not project unreachable task. If we make a ‘standby’ force, we find again the downsides of the Eurocorps, the Franco-German brigade, the EU battlegroups as well as the NATO Response Force (NRF), all these units present on paper for which it is difficult to find an operational outlet because the original consensus has vanished.

  • The defined operational tasks would need to be entrusted, from its creation, to this force, even if it means assigning other task thereafter.

The organisation and the number of affected countries

We must also define the number of countries that would deliberately engage in a project that would be as structuring for Europe, such as the format of the army: its size, its organisation (number of brigades, of divisions), its components (land, air, sea) , etc. Finally, the ‘cupola’ organisation must be specified. Does it exist within the European Union, or within NATO or in a separate structure, an autonomous one?

Let’s try to answer some questions

If we take the current data — the succinct one indicated by Emmanuel Macron, by Angela Merkel and by other European leaders —, this force should fulfil the most acceptable, most consensual tasks. It is therefore not a question of assigning it an external peacekeeping task, which is too often linked to a national history, foreign policy or national political organisation (consulting with Parliament for each operation for example). But we can think about entrusting it the defence of the European territory or the protection of Europeans, in addition to a national force.

A force for the defence of the European territory…

It is about making a point, to be present on the territory, to reassure the East European countries, to be able not to call the Americans at every turn (2). Ensuring a forward presence in the East against Russia, indeed to consolidate the borders in the North or the South of Europe, upon the demand from a Member state, this could be the first task of such a force.

… and a cyber European army

It could also ensure some functions such as the protection of European in the case of a major risk (technological, natural or human), a support to the foreign or interior humanitarian operations, or the evacuation of the European residing in a foreign country that would become risky. Finally, it could take as a field of action new areas such as cyber defence.

  • A cyber European army would be a real asset both in terms of deterrence and as a driving element in this new force. Cyber units are being created in many European countries, but creating a common element would be easier because we do not automatically intervene on inherited usages.

The Franco-German couple as driving element

Such an army could only be made by the alliance of two or three large countries. Doing so with 27 or 28 countries means immediately sentencing the project to death. If military logic leans towards a Franco-British alliance, this army will quickly stumble over London politics. Political logic would inclinde towards a Franco-German army, complex to implement, more limited in its ambition, but which would have a virtue: to be more solid and more lasting and to be complementary to the Eurozone.

  • This Franco-German alliance could be joined by some countries more eager to volunteer than others (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Spain… but also Austria, the Czech Republic, Portugal).

A limited size

Rather than defining large unreachable figures (such as the 60,000 men fixed in Helsinki), an army size of 5-6000 men, or 7-8 battalions (roughly a brigade), could suffice at first (by targeting a division level of 10,000 men in a second step). This size may seem minimal, but it seems sufficient in light of various recent commitments. The French intervention force in the Sahel (Serval then Barkhane) and the forward presence in Eastern Europe have a similar size. This could divided in 4-5 land unites, and 1 cyber unit, as well as an air component (transport support unit and helicopter unit) and a navy component. A small permanent central military staff of around 2-300 people maybe be enough.

Organised in national brigades

This army plan does not require the merger of all the corps down to the lowest level (section or company). Nothing prohibits having a national operation up to the battalion level for example, and having  a multilateral operation above for the command.Ce dispositif d’une armée ne nécessite pas de fusionner tous les corps jusqu’au plus petit niveau (section ou compagnie). Rien n’interdit d’avoir un fonctionnement national jusqu’au niveau du bataillon par exemple, et de n’avoir un fonctionnement multilatéral au-dessus pour le commandement.

  • This make it possible not have to solve everything, thus letting national rules still regulate the questions of internal organisation, discipline, uniforms, harmonisation of wages and bonuses.

A semi-permanent, semi-rotating system

In order to be more efficient, the bataillons supplied to the European army could be organised in a mono-national manner, or binational (for countries accustomed to working together). They could be made available on a fixed basis or, in the form of periodic duty, by rotation. However, to be effective, this rotation should not be all-out, it should concern the same units.

  • Their use could be flexible and modular enough, as needed, so as not to fall into the previous throes (seeing a force doomed to remain ‘present’).

An autonomous organisation

This force would not be under the thumb of existing structures (NATO, EU), but could fulfil the tasks which these organisation will have defined, or accepted (on its initiative). The commanding structure, which is political, should remain separated of the two security structures (NATO and EU). Nevertheless, this army could respond to mission decided by one institution or the other. Ideally, a military staff could be located independently or within the European Union, but from a German acceptable point of view (as well as the Brits or any other country), it could be located within the NATO SHAPE in Mons. This would have the advantage of preserving interoperability between the NATO staff.

  • One of the options could be to take the Strasbourg-based Eurocorps, which has been largely underemployed so far, as the core of this staff. The idea of strengthening the EU military staff is a delicate option since it requires unanimity and is met with marked hostility. Read: Le renforcement de la MPCC compromis

An autonomous budget

Its budget will be an important point. If we want to avoid failure or the chasm of technocratic discussions on expenses, we must immediately plan a substantial common budget, allowing to finance the command structure, the functioning, the operations, the intra-European or outside Europe travel, or even the subjection premiums.

A new legal framework

In any case, a new treaty will be necessary to define this set of rules (3). A Treaty that should not only be redacted and signed, but also ratified by the Parliaments of the affected countries. This is an issue that must be seriously thought about, in order to avoid finding ourselves back in a situation where many European treaties (EDC, European constitution…), which are too ambitious or have ‘drifted’ too much compared to the acceptable aim, ended up being rejected.

Some ideas to work on

All of these… are just jotted down ideas. We can imagine other solutions, and there is still a whole set of issues to be solved (especially on the chain of command). They illustrate both the difficulty and the scope of the task, but also that this project is within reach. We just need to have the simultaneous and shared political will and not only the desire to make good rhetoric, which is only good to get conversation going and provides a good laugh to all that think the European project is obsolete.

  • We should not fall into ‘desirable’ projects but start from existing difficulties, to set up a ‘reasonable’ project in the near future (2024-2025). Or be silent, and no longer speak of a European army…

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. Read our analysis: Ce qu’est l’Europe de la défense. Ce qu’elle n’est pas
  2. If Donald Trump gets another mandate (which is not excluded), this would give the American leader until 2024 to remodel his foreign policy. As for Russia, if a ‘softer’ approach is still possible, it is hard to see why Vladimir Putin would stop his policy of Russian re-introduction in the world’s curriculum, when he is on the verge of garnering noteworthy points.
  3. Of course there is a possibility, existing within the Treaty of the EU, of the transition to a common defence policy. But that does not automatically mean a European army (even if it underpins it enormously in the minds of its signatories). Above all, this requires a consensus decision with all the Member States agreeing. In other words : we might as well forget about it

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).