Category: Brexit-News

European Army – some facts and context

European Army – some facts and context

I originally wrote this article (paper seems to grand) during the referendum campaign.  At the time I was a serving officer in the British Army and as such was forbidden from engaging in party politics.  But that didn’t mean I couldn’t comment on points of fact.  The threat of an EU Army was a frequent motif during the referendum campaign and frankly it was just not really based on anything.  There was a mixture of glaring errors, lies and people who didn’t seem to understand what any of the words they were using actually meant.

Asides from 17 years regular service as an infantry officer, my bachelors degree is War Studies and my masters is Philosophy with the main focus on political philosophy. During my time I have served with a NATO HQ and with the Dutch Army and at the time I wrote the original draft of this I was stationed in Germany. I say this simply to establish my credentials.  Whether I constitute one of the much maligned “experts” or not I know this subject from academic study and living of the reality.


The EU (even before it was called the EU) was always supposed to bind Europe together to prevent another world war.  An effective way of doing that is to take control of the means of waging war, but that would end countries’ sovereignty.  So support for a single army or defence force is practically non-existent. Binding countries’ militaries into close cooperation was potentially as effective – if only to bring soldiers and officers together working closely and building friendships and trust.

Whatever high idealism may have been in evidence at the foundation of the EU, the reality is  Europe’s defences were shaped by the Cold War.  Defence was focussed almost entirely on fighting the Warsaw Pact (and the prospects weren’t good).  Every Western European country (statelets like the Vatican City excepted) was either in NATO or had some close relationship to it.  NATO fulfilled the role of binding Europe and its militaries together. To counter the threat most European countries had large standing armies with lots of tanks manned through conscription.

In the 1990s the world radically changed. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union was breaking up, George W Bush proclaimed a new world order (not the one with the lizards) and there was increasing East West cooperation over various trouble spots from Iraq to Bosnia.

Armed Forces around Europe restructured as did the US. The end of the Cold War coincided with what was known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (greater surveillance, battlefield communications and smart bombs dropped by stealth aircraft). Big armour-heavy standing armies were expensive, weren’t needed to resist the Russians, weren’t the right structure for overseas interventions (and there were issues about conscripts who crewed them dying in anything other than a war of national defence) and the new technologies appeared to render the old way of doing things defunct.

All Western armed forces and all the former Warsaw Pact Armed Forces restructured and (quite rightly) they began to consider a range of ideas, which would previously have been considered unthinkable. It should be noted – considering a wide range of options is not the same as endorsing any one of those options.

One big issue at the time was whether the US would stay in Europe. Western Europe’s integrity was assured by US troops, ships, planes and nuclear weapons. Successive US administrations have raised their concerns over the failure of various European states to stump up the 2% of GDP required for defence spending. If the US were to pull out (and in the nineties this was seriously discussed) and a nationalist government elected in Russia (and this was a serious concern at the time) or an element of the Russian Army mutinied and headed West then Europe would need a defence structure capable of dealing with that situation.

Another issue which was causing a rethink on military structure was the increasing cost of individual units. Hi-tech weaponry is very expensive. Airframes are expensive. Training is expensive and the infrastructure and logistics and support to back these up costs money. If you want a single paratrooper, you need a parachute school, a training plane and then a plane to jump out of with ground crew and maintenance and an airfield. If you him to jump on his own you need a plane. If you want a battalion you need x number of planes. Two battalions two x planes. And you may only use those planes (specifically configured for parachuting) once during an operation. As armies shrunk these support costs made up a bigger and bigger element of the overall costs of the armed forces.  They became a bigger burden to deliver less capability.  Governments across Europe quite reasonably started talking about sharing things like transport aircraft.

Of course with all that change people discussed a new European defence identity and the French and Germans decided to form a Franco-German Corps (a Corps is typically about 100,000 men, but can be more).

It didn’t happen.

Firstly, whilst the EU might actually be better off in the long term with its own defence structure (and it might), in the short term (and we’re talking at least a decade and probably more like two) sabotaging the link with the world’s only super-power is pretty daft.

Secondly, it was likely to be unable to respond to many of the threats European countries are concerned by.  For good or for ill, most of the Western European countries were colonial powers. Would shared military capabilities (not even an Army) be suited to responding to a crisis in Mali, to an Argentine threat to the Falklands or a Venezuelan threat to Curacao? Quite possibly not! That was enough of a red line for several countries to scupper any real plans for an EU Army.

Thirdly, an EU Army would certainly end countries’ ability to exercise an independent foreign policy and thus end their sovereignty. The number of people in Europe who support an end to national sovereignty is tiny.

Fourthly, an aspiration is one thing, but there never was any coherent plan.  Militaries rarely move without a plan and from historical experience when they do, they usually get wiped out.

Fifthly, NATO works.  And if it ain’t broke then why try to fix it? There was talk in the early nineties of NATO having done its job and thus the time to retire it being here.  It became clear fairly quickly NATO would survive, as its role broadened to wider security (particularly with peace-keeping/enforcement in the Balkans, but later also in Afghanistan).  NATO did not become obsolete as many had predicted.

By 2002 when the UK opted to go with the US into Iraq and France refused it was pretty clear a European Defence structure and common policy was not on the cards. Very few people really wanted it and it wasn’t practical anyway.

What was left of that? Well the Eurocorps exists as a NATO HQ based in Lille. The EU has Battlegroups. (A battlegroup is a battalion [roughly 500-600 men] with attachments like engineers). These are not EU troops. On a rotation countries provide them for EU missions.  And they aren’t configured to fight a war.  They are designed for peace-keeping and humanitarian missions. At sea there is a similar arrangement with an EU task force combating piracy.  EU countries do share resources either with bilateral agreements or as part of NATO. (So at least some of the planes that were used to get the French to Mali were British)

Essentially, the resurrection of interest in a European Army which came about in the nineties pretty much died in the nineties.  The ambition was pared right back to an ability to do the easy stuff everyone agrees on – humanitarian ops, counter-piracy and a bit of peace-keeping, but only really in the most permissive of environments.

It would be silly to pretend there aren’t still people in and around the EU Parliament who would be fond of the idea of an EU Army, but all the objections still stand. If you want to debate this, it is worth reading the relevant section of the Naples Treaty. What it says is that when all member states agree then they will move forward with planning. That is pretty much saying “when hell freezes over then we’ll start looking at the problem in detail”.

In the run up to the referendum there was a lot of chatter about this. Most of it comes from anti-European politicians and activists making shit up to serve their political agenda.  And I cannot in good conscience pretend there is any more to the scare stories in the tabloids or blatantly disingenuous videos circulating online. It is unfortunate that the UK was providing an EU Battlegroup in referendum year and that the press for the most part had no idea what a battlegroup was. One report even said it had two UK divisions under it. (A division consists of 3-5 brigades and brigades consist of 3-5 battlegroups)

There is also the Trump factor. Of course, when the US elected a President who refused to confirm he would meet his NATO commitments, people started looking at other options. They would have to be ludicrously inept not to.  But it is worth noting Trump is echoing a sentiment a lot of Americans share – Europe needs to do more to cover its own defence.

The few shrill voices that want a European Army will inevitably be more widely heard right now; there hasn’t been such an imperative to plan for a defence of Europe without the US since at least the nineties and the UK’s withdrawal emboldens the proponents of greater integration.  Any EU member can block further integration and the one country everyone knew for a fact would do so was the UK. (We were never going to be forced into this). Actually, France for certain will veto it too and it would be shocking it they were the only ones to do so.

Where does that leave us? Well there is no plan for an EU Army, greater European cooperation will take place within NATO (undoubtedly with an eye to how it does so if NATO ends) and this is all a bit of a non-argument.

I’d leave you with four thoughts:

1) Would a European Army be so bad? (I think it would actually, but there are certainly arguments for it and it’s worth understanding what they are rather than just aggressively rattling the Telegraph at the mere mention of it)

2) This is not going to happen anytime soon. If it does it will be because the world has changed.  If that world looks very different from this one then the logic may be very different.

3) It will be that generation’s decision whether to join in those specific circumstances we cannot know – not our’s.

4) People who talk about this a lot never, mention a European Airforce or Navy do they? It’s almost as if they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

(Oh and if you’re in any doubt as to point 4, the photo accompanying this article originally comes from PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images, but I found it on Breitbart.  The breitbart article from May last year claimed to have exposed German plans for an EU Army.  Those aren’t German soldiers.)