Press play to listen to this article
Afghanistan had fallen. A rushed extraction effort was hurtling toward an impossible deadline. Many Europeans wanted some more time, but had no choice — the U.S. was leaving.
Inevitably, the questions arose among officials and analysts: Why doesn’t the EU have its own troops to deploy? Why is it relying on the Americans?
It’s a good point, European Council President Charles Michel said last week after an emergency G7 leaders’ videoconference on Afghanistan. Developing the EU’s military capabilities, he argued, is “of the utmost importance for the future of Europe.”
But standing next to him, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seemed perplexed when, a few minutes later, a journalist asked: What about the top EU diplomat’s proposal to develop a rapid response force of 50,000 European soldiers?
“We have understood you, but I’m not aware of this comment,” she said. She looked over to Michel: “Are you?” There was no reply.
The exchange was emblematic of the confusion and muddled rhetoric that perpetually dominates the recurring EU debate over whether the bloc should increase its military muscle. Each time it becomes apparent that Europe relies on the U.S. militarily, the debate revives across the Continent. And each time, it devolves into a morass of opaque and noncommittal comments that often paper over the practical and political realities.
There are numerous skeptical EU countries — mainly the Baltic and eastern nations. Many officials are also worried about duplicating efforts within the NATO military alliance. Others fear a more assertive EU military plan would simply erode the already-strained EU-U.S. relationship. Additionally, there’s a fractious history within Europe of trying to jointly build military equipment.
Thus far, this moment has been no different.
“The EU is not a credible substitute for what NATO represents,” said Kristjan Mäe, head of the Estonian Defense Ministry’s NATO and EU Department. “You will not see any appetite for the European army amongst member states.”
Even if the EU did boost its own military capabilities, one diplomat said, “it will be hard to find the consensus to use it.”
Yet the conversations are happening in the corridors of some EU institutions, particularly within the bloc’s diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, a senior official said. That organization’s head, Josep Borrell, has been pushing the idea of an EU rapid response brigade. More broadly, EU powers like Germany and France are supportive of heading in that direction. And some senior defense officials, including those in Portugal and Italy, are urging their colleagues to seriously consider the idea.
On Wednesday and Thursday, EU defense ministers will do just that, as they meet in Slovenia to discuss the fallout from their Afghanistan departure. But don’t expect quick action.
“It’s going to take some time for member states to digest what happened,” said a senior diplomat.
Building an EU army?
Despite the frequent dissension, the EU has actually taken a number of steps in recent years to strengthen its military posture.
In 2017, the EU officially launched a military pact known as Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, aimed at bringing together European countries on everything from drone defense to maritime surveillance. The pact is formally made up of 46 projects, yet many face significant delays, raising questions about its effectiveness.
The EU is also setting aside an increasing amount of money for collaborative military efforts. For 2021 to 2027, the bloc has earmarked €8 billion to support joint defense research and development.
And when the EU’s defense ministers meet in Slovenia this week, they’ll be discussing a “strategic compass” document that will outline the bloc’s military threats and ambitions for the coming years. The goal is to have a first draft by November and unveil the final version at the start of 2022. The strategy document is expected to include some language on the rapid entry force proposal. And part of the discussion is about whether the force can turn into a “European army.”
It’s a phrase that remains taboo in many capitals.
“I don’t think it’s time after Afghanistan to start opening discussions on the future of the European army,” said Jan Havránek, the Czech Republic’s deputy minister of defense. “I mean these are buzzwords.”
The EU already has so-called battlegroups, units of roughly 1,500 people on standby that EU countries provide.
But these groups have never been used. The reasons are varied, ranging from the cost to countries’ reluctance to put their soldiers’ lives at risk. That reticence has many arguing any larger EU force — let alone a 50,000-strong unit that could rapidly deploy — is pollyannaish.
Give it time, counter those pushing for a robust EU military force. They insist the battlegroups are the beginning of an evolution that will lead to larger forces. And, they note that thanks to a new €5 billion budget fund for military operations, a true cross-EU force can defray costs better than the individual battlegroups, which so far have been mainly funded by individual countries.
The EU army is “a thing that must happen” said Giorgio Mulè, the Italian defense undersecretary. For him, “a group of nations” composed of the EU’s founding countries — Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg — should take the first steps.
A coalition of the willing?
Proponents of a joint EU defense insist the turbulent end to the Afghan campaign will be a game-changer.
“We cannot remain adolescents forever,” said Portuguese Defense Minister João Gomes Cravinho in a recent POLITICO interview. “We have to, at a certain point, stand up and say we assume responsibilities. That time has come.”
But, absent a unified desire for a true EU army, diplomats say a smaller group of European countries may instead decide to just create their own joint force.
For some European countries, it has long been a dream to establish a more pan-European defense system. In fact, in 1999, EU leaders actually agreed to develop the 50,000-person rapid response team by 2003.
It never happened.
Earlier this year, 14 EU countries, including Germany and France, teamed up to revive the idea, now suggesting 5,000-person brigades.
Borrell predicted these countries would eventually move ahead on their own if the EU didn’t get on board.
“The EU must be able to intervene to protect our interests when the Americans don’t want to be involved,” he said in a recent interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “If there is no unanimity, sooner or later a group of countries will decide to go ahead on their own as they won’t accept to be stopped.”
Achieving EU unanimity on foreign policy issues — a requirement — has often proven difficult on even small decisions like joint statements.
But while the EU may eventually lower the bar on some foreign policy issues, diplomats are skeptical the EU will strip the unanimity requirement for sending in troops. So if the EU wants to act unanimously, it might remain stuck.
Can Europe jointly build an army?
An interesting test case of Europe’s ability to work together militarily is a Franco-German effort to jointly build fighter jets.
Announced in 2017, the project has become viewed as a weathervane for how some European countries feel about such ambitions — and also the challenges they represent. Spain, for instance, later joined the project. Cravinho called the construction an “enormously significant flagship project.”
Now, one EU official said, “the others will have to decide whether they want to stay with the core of defense integration or not.”
But the project is clouded with uncertainty — from determining who would benefit from the sales to whether it will actually survive political opposition in Germany.
“It’s not sure it will be constructed in the way it was proposed,” said Hannah Neumann, a German MEP with the left-leaning Greens. “We had a big debate in Germany, there’s a lot of frustration.”
Essentially, Neumann argued, the project encapsulates the inevitable challenges of any pan-European initiative.
“It’s the poster child to study the problems that are being created if you want to build a European project — but everyone tries to safeguard their national authority over things,” she said.