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European Army – Realities and Chimeras

The recent NATO summit, held on July 11-12, 2018, once again didn’t turn out as bad as expected. It started with a burst of theatrical thunder from U.S. President Donald Trump. He criticized the supposedly unfair sharing of the burden among NATO members, reminding the allies of their agreement to target spending two percent of GDP on defense. NATO, and transatlantic relations even more so, have experienced a crisis of trust and purpose since Trump came to office. This in turn, in an EU that is itself mired in crisis, has amplified calls for strategic autonomy. The way to achieve such autonomy, protagonists argue, with reference to the Lisbon Treaty, is to develop the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The creation of a European army has been a talking point for some time now,1 along with the need for a “European pillar” in NATO2 and the goal of a European Security and Defence Union.3 In its current coalition agreement, the German federal government promises to “develop a European defense union” and take further steps along the road toward an “army of Europeans.”4

Supporters say that if defense was also brought within the Community framework – like customs and currency policy – then everything would be different. So wouldn’t an integrated European army be the solution? Wouldn’t this solution lead to a more efficient use of defense budgets, be a step forward for integration, be more effective on the world stage, and be more useful for security policy purposes? The European Parliament published a report in which the costs of EU defense policy fragmentation are estimated at 136 billion euros per year.5 Egon Bahr, for his part, thought that creating a European army would enable Europe to break out of its role as a security protectorate of America.6 Faced with the erratic policies of a Donald Trump presidency and the associated uncertainty of the American security guarantee, that would be an enticing prospect. So why is it that Europeans so far have not succeeded in developing an independent security and defense policy? A look back into history will provide some initial answers.

A look back into history

The European army project, as a long-term goal, is supported in particular by Germany’s governing parties. But it came close to realization once before, between 1950 and 1954. At that time, France was the driving force behind both its initiation and its failure. After the end of World War II, the Cold War led to a change in threat situation, with an increasing focus on the Soviet Union rather than Germany. The Treaty of Brussels, signed in 1948 by France, the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries, was still directed against possible aggression by the Soviet Union and Germany. In 1949, France became a founding member of NATO. Under American pressure to build up Western Europe as a “dagger” aimed at the Soviet Union, from 1950, Paris pursued a policy toward Germany and security that was based on “security and control through integration.”7 

First of all, in 1952, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). At the time, these sectors were important both economically and for defense. The ECSC placed them under the control of a “High Authority”. The Treaty establishing the European Defence Community (EDC) was signed in 1952 by all participating states. However, in 1954, following tough international negotiations, France failed to ratify the treaty. In the French parliament, there was no longer a majority willing to accept a considerable loss of national sovereignty in this vital policy area. In 1953, a draft constitution had been drawn up for a European Political Community (EPC), with strong supranational traits. This became obsolete with the failure to ratify the EDC treaty in 1954. The end of the Korean War and the death of Stalin, as well as the outcomes of the Geneva Conference and the fading prospect of German reunification, had changed the security situation for Paris. As an “alternative solution,” the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO and the Western European Union (WEU), which emerged from the Treaty of Brussels. Whereas NATO would now be in charge of external military security, the main task for the WEU was armaments control with respect to West Germany. These developments marked the failure of the only previous attempt to create a European Army. But if a European Army was not acceptable even in the historically favorable circumstances of that time, then the present-day chances of success cannot be good.

In the 1980s, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt was made to reform the WEU, which had largely lain dormant for thirty years, and to use it as an institutional framework for developing European defense capabilities. This process started with the removal of all unilateral conventional armaments restrictions that still applied to the Federal Republic of Germany. A number of bilateral and multilateral steps in military cooperation followed, along with an agreement to consult in all military matters. In the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, the WEU still featured as the military arm of the EU. But it was eventually replaced as a result of the decision in 1999 to develop the CSDP within the EU framework. 

This decision was preceded by the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, which brought the realization that most EU states were incapable of military intervention in their own back yard. France had originally sought to establish European autonomous defense capabilities within the WEU framework, while the United Kingdom had opposed the idea, fearing it would weaken NATO. But in response to the Kosovo War, the two countries signed the Saint-Malo declaration in 1998. This endorsed the creation of intervention capabilities within the EU framework. Yet the main purpose here was not and is not to form a European army to guarantee the defense of Europe, but rather to improve military capabilities for international crisis management. Moreover, this initiative was mainly targeted at Germany, which in the view of Paris and London was investing far too little in military capabilities.

CSDP in progress

The Common Security and Defence Policy initially developed very rapidly. It was described in the beginning by the then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Javier Solana, as the “integration project of the next decade.”8 The process started with the 1999 European Council meetings in Cologne and Helsinki, and can be divided into three stages. In the first phase, the essential institutions were established. Then the operational phase began. The third stage has been running since 2016, and places a greater emphasis on building civil and military capacities. Although this was on the agenda from the outset, and is also the main reason why the CSDP was initiated, the results have fallen far short of expectations, not least because of the financial crisis that broke out in 2008. 

In the Amsterdam Treaty and in the Treaty of Nice, the EU created the legal bases for the implementation of crisis management operations. Firstly, the office of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy was created. The holder of this post also chairs the Foreign Affairs Council. Secondly, the High Representative (HR) was provided with a policy unit – a small staff that has now grown to become a veritable European diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS). Thirdly, the Petersberg tasks were incorporated into the Treaty on European Union.9 As a result, civil and military crisis management became a task area for the EU. Next, the Political and Security Committee (PSC) was created, as a key element of the crisis management system. It comprises Permanent Representatives of the member states and one representative of the Commission. Under the responsibility of the Council, it ensures political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations. A separate committee for civilian crisis management was formed (Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management – CIVCOM), comprising representatives of member states and the Commission. CIVCOM advises the PSC. The military committee (European Union Military Committee – EUMC) is composed of member states’ Chiefs of Defence, and is the top military body in the Council’s political and military structures. EUMC advises the PSC in all military matters. It is supported by a working and advisory body, the European Union Military Staff (EUMS). The EEAS incorporates two support staffs for civilian and civilian-military crisis management: the Civil Planning and Conduct Capability, a kind of headquarters for civilian crisis management, and the Crisis Management and Planning Directorate, which is in charge of integrated civilian-military planning.10

The operational phase of the CSDP began in 2003 and to date comprises 34 civilian and military operations. At first, these were carried out on the basis of the first European Security Strategy (ESS), adopted in 2003, which identified five key threats: terrorism, state failure, regional conflicts, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and organized crime. Currently, six military and ten civilian operations or missions are running, with a total of around 5,000 deployed personnel. Most of these operations involve a small number of staff and are civilian in character. Eight are currently taking place in Africa, and six in Europe. Of the military operations, none are in the military high-end spectrum. The most demanding military operation in terms of size was the Bosnia and Herzegovina mission, with a deployment of 7,000 staff at times.11 The most demanding operation in terms of the theater of operations was EUFOR Chad/CAR, with a force of nearly 4,000. The most demanding civilian mission (EULEX) took place in Kosovo, with up to 2,000 troops.12

The third phase started with the new EU Global Strategy (EUGS) in 2016. This replaced the ESS and is guided by five priorities: security of the Union, state and societal resilience, an integrated civilian-military approach to conflicts and crisis, cooperative regional orders, and global governance.13 Other important milestones are the adoption of a roadmap for strengthening European defense capabilities (2016), the European Parliament’s call to develop a European Defence Union (2016), the adoption of a European Defence Action Plan by the European Commission in the same year, the decision to launch a European Defence Fund (2017), the adoption of a reflection paper on the future of European defense by the European Commission, the decision to establish a permanent military headquarters for non-executive military operations, the beginning of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), initially with 17 projects, a national implementation plan with an annual review as well as a strategic review in 2021 and 2025, and the agreement to set up a program for the development of the European defense industry (2018).

More of a chimera than a realistic goal 

The outlined steps to develop the CSDP show two things: It is developing in steps, and it is developing slowly. The hoped-for big breakthrough leading to a European army has not happened yet. How does this aim fit with the Lisbon Treaty? Firstly, article 4 of the Lisbon Treaty states that “national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.” On the other hand, the treaty is designed to be flexible. Its preamble specifies the goal of “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” As the goal of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), article 42 cites “the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy,” which could “lead to a common defence.” What this actually means in terms of integration remains unclear, since a common defense is conceivable with or without a European army. What political form the EU should assume is also an unanswered question. Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons against a European army.14

With its decision of June 30, 2009 on the Lisbon Treaty, the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) confirmed the powers granted by Article 23 of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) to take part in a European Union designed as an association of sovereign states. Conversely, it made it clear that the “Basic Law does not grant powers to bodies acting on behalf of Germany to abandon the right to self-determination of the German people in the form of Germany’s sovereignty under international law by joining a federal state.” This step is “reserved to the directly declared will of the German people alone.”15 The classic finality question of the European Union – should the EU lead to a federal state (including an integrated army) or should it remain a sui generis structure in the form of an association of states – is decided de facto in favor of the second objective. Although the Court’s decision does not block the possibility of German statehood being absorbed into a European federation, the judges have set an extremely high hurdle: It would require a new constitution that expressly contains a relinquishment of sovereignty, to which the German people would have to give their direct consent. 

There is another constitutional argument against a European army: back in 1994, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the Bundes­tag must give its consent before any overseas deployment of the German armed forces. The German army is a “parliamentary army” (Parlamentsheer) for good reason. Even if the EU were to develop into a regional system of reciprocal collective security, the Court found, any supranationalization of the decision concerning a specific deployment of the armed forces would be impermissible owing to the Basic Law’s precepts of peace and democracy. At the same time, the Court’s decision states that this “does not raise an insurmountable obstacle [...] to a technical integration of a European deployment of armed forces.”16 It gives the examples of joint general staffs and the formation of joint forces. 

A further counter-argument is that while the German political parties talk about the goal of a European army, this is not something that they ultimately want, at least not as an element of a European federal state. All parties have now removed this goal from their policy agendas. Notwithstanding the fact that any European army worthy of its name would really require the EU to be federal in nature, the desired military integration raises questions that German policy-makers prefer to avoid answering. Where is a more strongly communitarized CSDP supposed to lead? If a European federal state is no longer the goal, how then is the European army to be politically led? What are the consequences for the relationship with NATO? Faced with a lack of European consensus, would this army be deployable at all when it comes to the use of military force? The missing answers suggest that the call is just empty rhetoric. If it was truly meant seriously, the governing parties would have to give concrete answers to the questions raised above, and launch suitably ambitious initiatives.

Even if the German federal government were to seriously pursue the goal of a European army, the project would remain a chimera owing to resistance from allies. For the EU’s neutral members, this route is immediately barred on constitutional grounds. While it is not a problem for them to take part in the CSDP, they do not want to give up their neutral status. They certainly do not want to be absorbed into a European federal state. The United Kingdom and France do not want this either, any more than do the central European EU members. Moreover, none of the allies want to call NATO into question, because they know that NATO and a European army are in fact mutually exclusive. A properly functioning European army would make NATO obsolete.

The partners’ lack of will to build a European defense is not only a question of political voluntarism. Rather, it has its roots in the different security cultures. This is where President Macron’s European intervention initiative comes in, which is located outside the EU.17 Whereas the German public, based on historical experience, is highly skeptical of intervention, and the executive’s corresponding scope for action is restricted by the constitutionally enshrined requirement for parliamentary approval, things are different in France. The people of France are less skeptical of intervention, and the French president has greater scope for action in security policy. In addition, the foreign policy elites have a different self-image that derives from their former world power status, their relations with former colonies, their status as a victorious power in World War II and as a nuclear power, and their national desire for independence.18 

The corporative self-interest of many actors in the EU states is also opposed to the creation of a European army. Thus the national defense ministries would lose importance or even disappear entirely. This might save money, but it would generate political resistance. The same applies to significant sections of the armed forces. For many years, there has been an observable difficulty in changing the role of branches of the military in favor of overarching and integrated structures (“jointness”); this alone indicates that the obstacles are very large. Defense industry stakeholders have little desire to share the national cake with others, either, not to mention the defense sectors that have so far been protected by the employee representatives. This corporative resistance exists in all EU states that have corresponding structures. 

Even if the counter-arguments listed thus far were groundless, there are still substantial normative reasons against a European army. Wouldn’t an EU with common armed forces be a classical great power, only in European guise? Wouldn’t that increase the security dilemma? After all, the stronger the intervention capacities and the greater the will to intervene militarily as a world order power, the more likely it is that there will be opposing reactions. Even if there are no hegemonial intentions today, that could change over the course of time. 

In light of these possibilities, central importance attaches to parliamentary control of the armed forces. How would democratic control of the military by the European Parliament be guaranteed? Certainly the requirement for parliamentary approval could not be enforced as fully as it is currently in Germany and Sweden. But even then, the EU could decide to take military action that a majority in Germany opposed. This is already unacceptable on democratic grounds. What is ultimately at stake is a decision over life and death. Thus a democratic process is required which enables critical public debate and makes bad decisions from the top less likely.

For Europe as a force for peace

The call for a European army is unrealistic, misleading and provincial. What would really be its value in terms of peace? Yet effectiveness, efficiency and usefulness considerations are not without value. The counter-arguments set out above are not arguments against more European cooperation in security and defense policy. The EU needs its own foreign and security policy. Its members have weaknesses in their military structures, in certain capabilities, and in the coordination and consolidation of relevant areas. But these weaknesses can be addressed without a European army. Moreover, complaints about the lack of military capabilities seem somewhat overdone, considering that the member states’ combined military spending is more than three times that of Russia, and the EU as a whole is the world’s second biggest military power. Yet the crucial question is: What political purpose are the military capabilities supposed to serve? The call for a European Army is putting the cart before the horse. It describes more of a chimera than a vision. Better cooperation in foreign, security and defense policy should be aimed at developing not an integrated military and world power, but a Europe as a force for peace,19 which leaves the decision to take part in military operations to the member states and national parliaments. 

1 In 2012, eleven EU foreign ministers presented an initiative which set out, among other things, the case for a European defense policy. In addition, it noted: “For some members of the group, this could ultimately include a European army” (translated from German). Abschlussbericht der Gruppe zur Zukunft Europas, September 17, 2012. (accessed
July 18, 2018).

2 Strabenow, Michael: “Der europäische Pfeiler.” In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 9, 2018, p. 1.

3 Cf. German Federal Government (2016): White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr. Berlin, p. 139.

4 (Translated from German). Coalition agreement between CDU, CSU and SPD, 19th legislative term, p. 17. (accessed July 18, 2018).

5 European Parliament: Cost of Non-Europe Report. (CoNE 4/2013.) Brussels 2013, p. 75.

6 Bahr, Egon (2014): “Braucht die Europäische Union eine eigenständige Sicherheitspolitik?” In: Staack, Michael/Krause, Dan (eds.): Europa als sicherheitspolitischer Akteur. Opladen, p. 18.

7 (Translated from German). Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (1988): Die “deutsche Frage” aus französischer Sicht (1981–1987). Munich, p. 93. Ehrhart provides a detailed account of the process which is only outlined here.

8 (Translated from German). Solana, Javier (2000):
“Die Gemeinsame Europäische Sicherheits- und Außen­politik – Das Integrationsprojekt der nächsten Dekade.” In: Integration, no. 1, p. 1.

9 At this time, the Petersberg tasks consisted of hu­ma­n­itarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks, and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking. The Lisbon Treaty added joint disarmament operations, military advice tasks, and stabilization tasks.

10 Cf. Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (2010): “Die EU als inter­nationaler Akteur und ihr Beitrag zu einer euro­päischen Friedensordnung.” In: Staack, Michael (ed.): Gesamteuropäische Friedensordnung 1989-2009. Bremen, pp. 35ff.

11 EUFOR Althea currently still has 600 staff deployed.

12 EULEX is currently operating with a force of 500.

13 European Union Global Strategy. (accessed July 18, 2018).

14 This section is based on Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (2014): “Eine Europäische Armee: eher Chimäre als Vision!” In: Friedensgutachten 2014. Berlin, pp. 87–99.

15 Decision by the German Constitutional Court of June 30, 2009, paragraph 228.  (accessed October 17, 2018). 

16 Ibid., paragraph 255.

17 Macron, Emmanuel: Initiative pour l’Europe, December 26, 2017.­macron-pour-une-europe-souveraine-unie-democratique/ (accessed July 18, 2018).

18 Cf. Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (2017): Große Ambitionen und viele Fragen: zur nationalen Verteidigungs- und Sicherheitsstrategie Frankreichs und zur Zukunft der Europäischen Verteidigung, IFSH opinion of November 15, 2017. (accessed July 18, 2018). 


19 On this point, cf. Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (forthcoming): “Friedensmacht.” In: Gießmann, Hans J./Rinke, Bernhard (eds.): Handbuch Frieden. Wiesbaden; Ehrhart, Hans-Georg (2011): Quo vadis, EU? Force for Peace or Military Power? ZEUS Working Paper 1. (accessed July 18, 2018).



Hans-Georg Ehrhart, Dr. phil., M.A., was born in 1955 and studied political science, sociology and philosophy in Bonn. He completed several research residencies, and was a senior visiting fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris (2001). From 1987 to 1989, he worked as a researcher in the security and disarmament working group at the research institute of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). In 1989, he joined the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, where he was head of the Center for European Peace and Security Studies (ZEUS) from 2008 until 2018. In 2018, he became a Senior Research Fellow at IFSH.