Despite the Brexit vote the UK is vowing to continue playing its full role in the EU and says it will oppose any attempts to create an EU army because it could “undermine” the role of NATO. However, not only has European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the UK would not have a veto over closer defence cooperation but the very idea of an EU Army is as much of a nonsense as a NATO army. The latter doesn’t exist and the former is not being considered.
British media got all excited this week over a comment made by UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon ahead of an informal EU Defence Ministers’ meeting in Bratislava (Slovakia, which currently holds the revolving 6-month presidency of the EU), that NATO “must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe,” and said that Britain is “going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army, or an EU army headquarters which would simply undermine Nato.”
According to Fallon, other EU members share the UK’s concerns. “There is no majority here for an EU army. There are a number of other countries who believe with us that that cuts across the sovereignty of individual nation states.”
But Fallon appeared to be barking up a non-existent tree. The idea of a European army was not on the defence ministers’ agenda in Bratislava.
As Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative, told journalists at the end of the meeting: “in our three hours discussion on this topic with all the ministers I never heard once the word veto, I never head once the word blocking and I never heard once the word army.” She noted that “If you look at NATO, NATO does not have an army. This does not mean that it is not an effective military alliance.” She stressed that the EU is “not a military alliance but [it does] have instruments that allow us to cooperate more on defence.”
Amongst these instruments are the Battlegroups, formed 10 years ago but never used “because of lack of political will,” she said, suggesting that “maybe there are ways in which we can work on making them usable.” Another, somewhat surprising “instrument” Mogherini mentioned as “very important” was investing in the defence sector and “especially the industrial base.” She remarked that defence spending and investment in the EU was about 50% of what the United States spends but that output was not 50% but only 15% because of the lack of economy of scale. “This is something that can be addressed through more cooperation on the basis of the industrial initiatives and especially looking at research, technology and innovation on the field of defence.”
She insisted that “this is not about a European army. This is about strengthening defence cooperation inside the European Union.” She noted that what she had seen and heard inside the meeting room “was a united sense of purpose on doing things that we can do and that we must do.” Mogherini said better cooperation amongst Europeans would help NATO as it would translate into more capabilities that would also support the North Atlantic Alliance.
German Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen echoed the statement, saying “We need a strong Europe and whatever strengthens Europe in defence also strengthens Nato,” words underlined again by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (always invited to attend the EU defence ministers’ meetings), who told reporters that there was “no contradiction between strong European defence and a strong NATO.” The importance lay in avoiding duplication, he said.
But will EU member states be able to afford to make European defence stronger when many of them, as the graph below shows, don’t even meet the NATO recommended level of 2% of GDP spent on defence?