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Enough words have been exchanged ...

Close your eyes and picture the following scenario: We have another six years of Donald Trump ahead of us – and then a really conservative president comes to power in the United States. Anyone who hasn’t woken up yet may as well stay in bed. Our problem in Europe today is not the United States – we are the problem. Across the Atlantic in North America, there resides a people with whom we are and will remain closely linked on all possible levels. Except now they are led by an administration whose intentions and rhetoric are as opaque as they are disconcerting. Over here, we have the world’s largest single internal market, which has now pompously decided to “take its fate into its own hands,” if Chancellor Merkel is to be believed. Her words reflect the consensus of the 2014 Munich Security Conference, that Germany should assume more responsibility for foreign policy.

To well-informed Europeans, it is clear that aside from dealing with all the current transatlantic challenges, we have a duty to take a new look at ourselves. We must part with old images of who “we” are – even if, for decades, our societies have successfully hung these pictures on the walls and given them a weekly dusting. The old Europe of the Treaties of Rome no longer exists, any more than we are still a “coal and steel community.” Today we are living through and shaping an agglomeration of nations. Over a period of decades, it has grown to 28 states, and is committed to further enlargement. Through deeply interwoven values, rules and the benefits of cooperation based on them, it has become – internally and externally – the world’s most successful region. For the large majority of its populations, despite all their differences, peace and prosperity have become facts of everyday life. Arch enemies have become, if not friends, then dependable partners. Whether and to what extent we are also a community depends not only on the respective political points of view, but also on the specific policy area under consideration. We can however say that the military is one of Europe’s most successful processes of cooperation and integration to date. The list of functioning joint projects is long. It ranges from Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and German-Dutch units to the Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD) and the European Defence Fund (EDF).

But what will be the strengths tomorrow of a European Union which the British (in all likelihood) will have left, and in whose next parliament 30 to 40 percent of deputies will belong to parties either of the extreme right or the extreme left? What is the attraction of a group in which at least one member is facing proceedings due to apparent breaches of democratic and constitutional principles, and a second is already causing concern because of its judicial reforms? What values and attitudes will carry us forward in the face of Asian models of social systems and organizational structures which are evidently highly attractive, but incompatible with our principles of enlightenment, individuality and universal human rights?

It is still irritating that critics of the design and reality of the European Union often cannot avoid taking trivial details as a pretext for asserting their view that fundamentally undesirable developments are taking place. For the older generation, whose parents were wartime children, peace and prosperity are outstanding brands and outcomes of European integration. Yet for younger contemporaries, these achievements alone are quite clearly not enough to carry the Union into the future.

Anyone today who campaigns for the continuing integration process in Europe can point to the fact that the history of the Union has always been based on a complex process of developing, observing and monitoring complex sets of rules. Europe is moderation: between smaller and larger states, between richer and poorer nations, between extremely diverse regions and often divergent interests. But Europe always seeks to find solutions so that our divergent societies do not have to face urgent challenges on a sectoral, regional or national level, according to their gross national product or even individually.

The Union is small on the global scale, and it is fragmented to a high degree. The much-discussed sovereignty of individual states is a chimera. In many areas it is nothing more than a pious hope by increasingly unstable governments that emphasizing sovereignty will divert attention from their own weaknesses. Raging nationalism is just as great a danger as individual showmen in some states, who link policy agendas with their own person so directly that institutional anchors and parliamentary foundations threaten to be swept away, or have already been lost.

In Europe, we all depend on each other. A strategy of beneficial cooperation is the only choice; there is not even the ostensible alternative of exiting the Union. The mix of negotiations and wrangling with the British government is essentially aimed at leaving the old institutional framework, only to renegotiate thousands of new institutional framings. Even such a radical step does nothing to change the dependencies.

Europe as a whole loses because of Brexit. Its reputation included. In all corners and quarters. From the security point of view, it loses almost one quarter of its military capabilities and nearly 40 percent of the military-industrial base, as Christian Mölling recently noted at a conference in Washington between the German Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS) and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

The Union has arrived at a historic point. For its own motives and needs, it must now increasingly provide its own external protection. This is at least as wise for its external strategy as it is existential for its inner structure, and for conveying its meaning to its citizens. Europe has to regain control over itself. To do so, it should place a few visible, plausible strategic goals at the forefront. Among these, security is of prime importance. The current Commission is active in this area like no other before it.

The EU’s Global Strategy states: “The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned. [...] Our wider region has become more unstable and more insecure. The crises within and beyond our borders are affecting directly our citizens’ lives.” Anyone who wishes to preserve and strengthen the Union, and make it fit for the future, must ensure that its projects visibly and directly impact on its citizens’ lives, just as external crises do. Only in this way can we maintain the capacity for governance, and regain it where it has already slipped away from us.

The project to create a European Army is older than the current Union. It is worth reading the German Bundestag’s records of proceedings from 1950, which deal with the plan by the French prime minister René Pleven to create an army under the command of a European defense minister that would also include German units. The German chancellor Adenauer agreed with the idea in principle, and called its failure the “bitterest disappointment”1 of his time in office. The SDP were much more skeptical about the whole matter. The then member of parliament Lütkens stated: “[...] Europe should be a work of peace and peaceful values, if it is to be created at all, and under no circumstances can it be created as a work of military organization.”2

Sixty years later, Europe has become a work of peace, and even after the failure of the European Defence Community project in 1954, it has achieved closer military integration than anyone could have imagined at that time. For us to continue to work on the basis of this idea is as much the right thing now as it was back then. There are many well-known European military and security initiatives: from the European Defence Fund (EDF) to the European Defence Agency, from the EU Battlegroups to the Union’s military headquarters (though we are not allowed to call it that yet), from the Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD) process to the closest cooperation between Germany and, for example, Belgium, Norway, the Czech Republic and Romania. All are aimed, broadly speaking, in the direction of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) by EU members, under the umbrella of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This should gradually lead to greater interoperability, compelled not only by our common values and basic attitudes, but also by a simple lack of resources among all European partners. Most NATO states are experiencing similar needs. With its initiatives, the EU is not concerned only with itself, since it is also responding to the same challenges within the transatlantic alliance.

PESCO currently comprises 17 projects by 25 partners. These no longer represent a small and somewhat fragmentary beginning. Topics covered by the projects include medical command, logistic hubs, military mobility and European training certification. As PESCO is implemented, the question of fulfilling commitments becomes important: Opting out is no longer possible, otherwise the entire project is at risk. France wanted less but deeper cooperation under this framework – the debate will stay with us. As will Macron’s proposal to establish a European intervention force, which Chancellor Merkel has initially endorsed.

We are still a long way from a true military union, but it must come. It should consist not only of more exercises, better coordinated cyber defense, and more spending on armaments and common equipment. The next bold and prudent steps should now be taken: a common command structure, a growing common budget, a European defense commissioner, a European defense committee and the establishment of parliamentary oversight by the European Parliament (EP). There is a long list of politicians and parties whose proposals point in this direction: Kohl, Juppé, Blair, Hollande, Schäuble, Lamers, Steinmeier, Merkel, von der Leyen, Macron, Kauder, Juncker, SPD, CDU, the Greens.

There are also powerful arguments against such a move: the loss of sovereignty, different (military) constitutions, varying degrees of parliamentary control, other values and standards of professional ethics, different democratic rights for military personnel, language barriers, industrial nationalism, national identifications, the question of nuclear equipment – and this list is still not complete. Yet what Steffen Dobbert wrote is true: “EU soldiers observe, monitor, train and defend themselves in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Congo, in Georgia, in Iraq, in Moldova, in Niger, in Palestine, in Somalia and in South Sudan. […] That’s quite something for an idea that once failed.”3

The German requirement for parliamentary approval cannot be transferred directly to the European Parliament. It is a German control mechanism that has proven very effective for us, and never delayed a planned deployment. Whether Europe will develop modified parliamentary oversight mechanisms will only be seen during the course of specific projects. Our European neighbors are just as much democrats as we are. They also care about the rights of the individual, which are enshrined in their constitutions too. We should not be swayed by exaggerated concerns.

We have several projects and institutions of a military nature with European involvement and also leadership: the German/Netherlands Corps, the Franco-German Brigade, the European contribution to NATO’s presence in the Baltic countries, and the navy missions in the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa. The same is true of our experiences with the Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS), with AWACS, in the Multinational Corps Northeast and in the Eurocorps, in airspace monitoring and in joint mine countermeasures. Not all experiences have been encouraging, but overall they are steps in the right direction, toward a Europeanization of armed forces.

But what should a new defense commissioner decide on, and what should the European Parliament oversee? We do not have any pan-European troops yet, and being a king without a country is not a particularly attractive job. Let us start with a “European Peace Corps,” which women and men from all European countries can enlist in directly. With the active help of the Franco-German Brigade in Müllheim, it will grow, take part in UN blue helmet missions under the mandate of the UN and EP, and demonstrate our common ideas of diplomacy, peacekeeping, prevention and international solidarity. An establishment team for the European Staff and Command College will be located there, and produce learning plans for the corps and its tasks as part of the “military Erasmus program.”

Today, under the umbrella of the EU, ten civilian and six military actions are in progress, and more than 3,000 experts are available across the full spectrum of stabilization, peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities. Around 1,400 of these experts are based in Germany, at the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) in Berlin. Broad civilian and also to a large extent military expertise exists in all EU states. It makes sense to bring this expertise into a new project at operational, tactical and strategic levels.

The EU’s strategy takes a 360-degree approach to human security. It is oriented to political, military, economic, social, infrastructure and information categories. That makes it unique in the world. In this strategy, diplomacy, comprehensive security, defense, development cooperation, humanitarian aid and economic development play equal roles. A common “Peace Corps” can help to make these goals visible. A courageous step is urgently needed to establish common armed forces, following intense Europeanization of all possible areas and structures. The outlined proposal may be naive – the EU cannot currently provide any troops of its own, since their status under international law is controversial, many other hurdles may be declared impossible to overcome, and not all states want to participate. Nevertheless, words should not be followed by still more words and projects. Let us see some deeds at last.

1 (Translated from German).

2 (Translated from German). (accessed November 7, 2018).

3 (Translated from German).­nato-russland (accessed November 7, 2018).



Jörn Thießen is a Protestant theologian and pastor, and works as a director of the German Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff College (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr) in Hamburg. He previously served as a personal aide to the Minister-President of Schleswig-­Holstein, Björn Engholm, and as head of the minister’s office under German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping. From 2002 until 2005, he was director of the Bundes­wehr Institute of Social Sciences (SOWI) in Strausberg. Thießen is a member of the SPD and served as a member of the German Bundestag from 2005 to 2009, on the Defense Committee.