For decades, Germany has supported the idea of a common European army. For various reasons, this target has not been accomplished. In the post–Cold War decades, the U.S. commitment to European security and the relatively stable security environment relegated more ambitious European defense efforts to second-rank status.
Today, however, the long-term commitment of the United States is increasingly questioned, and Europe’s security environment has seen fundamental changes in the recent past. In light of the U.S. turn toward the Asia-Pacific and the acceleration of instability in Europe’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods, Germany has taken the lead in reviving enhanced European security cooperation and integration. Cooperative efforts are necessary in times of economic turmoil and the West’s relative decline on the global stage.
The creation of a European army is a long way off, but it is a strategic necessity to implement important steps to pave the way toward it now. Greater European security capabilities would enable the EU to carry out tasks that the United States is unlikely to take on in the future. In contrast to the early 2000s, Washington is now actively encouraging this process. In addition, greater military capabilities would make the EU more attractive as a U.S. partner.
While the EU has not met the high expectations of the 1990s on foreign and defense policies, it has nevertheless conducted 37 missions since 2003. In its military and civilian operations, the EU has shown that it is well suited to the intricate challenges of comprehensively dealing with crises through diplomatic, developmental, and military means. The EU mission in Chad and the Central African Republic and the antipiracy mission Operation Atalanta prove the EU’s ability to address multiple security challenges by combining military and civil efforts for crisis prevention.
At the same time, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty offers various instruments to integrate European procurement strategies and encourage cooperation, in particular through permanent structured cooperation. This option has substantially lowered the barriers to the formation of defense cooperation. The instrument could greatly facilitate the procurement of military equipment, military training, the maintenance and advancement of military infrastructure and interoperability, as well as transnational research and development. Participating EU member states could also enhance the capabilities of NATO, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and various regional coalitions.
Institutionalized cooperation could help foster EU partnerships. EU membership candidates would benefit from joining permanent structured cooperation before their official EU accession by adapting to the EU’s institutional and strategic prerogatives. Likewise, the incorporation of close military partners such as Ukraine, Georgia, Jordan, and Tunisia could enhance interoperability as well as the readiness of European partners to participate in UN missions.
But in terms of substance, the EU’s use of military power and civilian instruments must follow a comprehensive approach that focuses on crisis prevention through the support of military training and the equipment of partners. Despite the focus on building civilian infrastructure and development aid, the military power component of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is equally important. To this end, the introduction of standing multinational units could support the overall integration of European defense policies. Likewise, the EU’s battle groups should be the first option in international crises.
A step toward a common defense policy has to aim at reducing transaction costs in the strategic planning process. Currently, planning and conducting EU missions depends on a fragmented decisionmaking process among EU and national institutions. This is time costly and impedes a coherent strategic framework of EU foreign policy missions.
This institutional dilemma has been brought into focus by the Federal Expert Committee on Foreign Policy of the German Christian Democratic Union, which calls for accelerated efforts in various fields of European defense policy.
First, the committee proposes the creation of a European military headquarters. A strategic headquarters could greatly enhance the coordination of civilian and military planning of EU missions. Accordingly, existing operational headquarters as well as command-and-control centers would integrate under a common strategic planning institution. A headquarters would tie together existing bottom-up initiatives like pooling and sharing, bilateral projects, and the European battle groups as well as the development of new military capabilities. A European headquarters would also help foster coherent strategic thinking, which is a pivotal prerequisite for the support of military, diplomatic, and economic contributions of EU member states. Advancing the EU’s strategic and practical ambitions requires a simultaneous harmonization of national decisionmaking processes.
The EU should also strengthen existing instruments and institutions to set incentives and build reliability among member states. The integration of the European defense market is currently challenged by national defense priorities and the rise of global defense markets. But strengthening cooperation between the European Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS), and the European Defense Agency (EDA) could raise the prospects for joint efforts in defense markets. EU financing of research and development is an important step in this regard.
In addition, it is necessary to advance a more ambitious EU decisionmaking process. Defensive tasks should primarily fall under the responsibility of the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. It is also essential to set up a committee for security and defense policies in the European Parliament as well as a permanent council for European defense ministers in the Council of Ministers. The high representative would have to engage in moderation efforts to coordinate permanent structured cooperation in harmonization with EEAS and EDA initiatives. Interested member states that do not participate in permanent structured cooperation could then cooperate in subareas.
Moreover, it does not suffice to introduce efficient decisionmaking structures if the visibility of the CSDP remains low. A white paper on EU security and defense policies would help align Europe’s capabilities with its strategic thinking on foreign policy and foster the CSDP’s visibility. The experience of preparing the German white paper on defense with the inclusion of multiple stakeholders has shown that the process of drafting such documents is as important as the substance. The cooperative efforts of various interest groups create mutual commitments and dependencies.
The EU and NATO are the foundation of security and prosperity in Europe. Preserving and strengthening both organizations is essential for maintaining Western influence in an increasingly multilateral world. As the emergence of new challenges calls for civilian and military counterstrategies, the two bodies must find ways to cooperate on challenges such as hybrid warfare and cyberwar. The aim of a European army is not to make the EU wholly independent of NATO. Instead, European efforts should contribute to more ambitious burden sharing between NATO and the EU.
Germany’s role in enhanced European cooperation is to foster leadership as part of a responsible multilateral framework that allows smaller EU member states to boost their security efforts. Germany has the responsibility to generate basic capabilities that both the EU and NATO can deploy. The process toward a European army that would focus primarily on the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods is not just another altruistic call for more Europe. It is a strategic necessity.
Roderich Kiesewetter is the foreign affairs representative of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union parliamentary group in the German Bundestag.