With German Support, A European Army Looks More Likely

Chancellor Angela Merkel joins France’s call for an EU fighting force.

A German soldier salutes the flag in Bonn, January 29, 2013
A German soldier salutes the flag in Bonn, January 29, 2013 (Bundeswehr/Alexander Linden)

It looks like a European army might really happen.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, endorsed the call of French president Emmanuel Macron for an EU fighting force.

She praised the 25 member states — Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom are not participating — that committed last year to enhance interoperability, pool their defense procurement and improve military logistics under the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

But a proper army, she said, would make war in Europe impossible and “complement” the NATO alliance.

French wish

After Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, I predicted that France could finally get its wish.

Walter Russell Mead explains why France is so keen on an EU army:

  • It would restore Franco-German parity. German is economically dominant in Europe but unwilling to remilitarize. Which, given the history of the last century, is something few want to encourage anyway.
  • It opens the door to fiscal relief by the back door. France could reasonably argue that its burden of defense spending in the common EU interest should give it more budgetary room.
  • It would support the French weapons and high-tech industry.

America wary

America has long worried that a European defense union separate from NATO would either lead to Germany dominating it anyway, rekindling the suspicions of its neighbors, or France using it to steer EU foreign policy away from the United States.

Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, famously postulated “three Ds” for European defense cooperation:

  1. No duplication of NATO.
  2. No decoupling from NATO.
  3. No discrimination against non-EU NATO states, like Turkey.

Ever undiplomatic, President Donald Trump took to Twitter twenty years later to remind the French who had liberated them from the Germans in World War II. “Pay for NATO or not!” he threatened.

Trump opposes an EU army, but it are his threats to withdraw America’s defense commitment to Europe that have caused the continent’s leaders to consider combining their armed forces.

Is it realistic?

In the short term, an EU-only defense is unlikely to deter Russia, warns Tomáš Valášek, the director of Carnegie Europe. It doesn’t yet have concrete plans, commands and sophisticated weapons in meaningful numbers. The German army is barely combat-ready.

But the ambition adds to existing initiatives, such as the sharing of military assets and the joint development of weapons systems, like the Eurofighter.

Europe cannot yet replace NATO, but it can augment it — and prepare for the day when America once again withdraws behind the Atlantic Ocean.