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Actually a European Army Could Be in the UK’s Post-Brexit Interest

Parliament welcomes Croatia to the EU with a special flag ceremony at the entrance of the EP in Strasbourg.
Image Courtesy of flickr, © European Union 2013 – European Parliament

Back in 2016, during the campaign leading up to the United Kingdom’s referendum on EU membership, The Guardian published an article entitled “Is there a secret plan to create an EU army?” The article addressed Eurosceptic claims that the European Union was en route to the creation of unified armed forces, and that these plans had been kept from the European public. Dismissing the claims, the article concluded that the plans were fictitious propositions existing only in the minds of hardcore European federalists and British Eurosceptics seeking means to their own political ends.

Mounting uncertainties surrounding international security and transatlantic cooperation since the referendum have now made commitments to the idea of a European army more factual than fictional. French President Emmanuel Macron recently called for a European Army that could ensure Europe does not become the “plaything” of great powers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel later echoed Marcon’s commitment to the idea, as did Germany’s Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, who suggested that a European Army would allow the European Union to act more autonomously in dealing with specifically European security challenges.

In the United Kingdom, these statements might have sent alarm bells ringing. The prospect of a European Army is frightening for many Brits for two principle reasons. First, such an army signals a drastic move towards deeper integration in an area that has, in modern times, been organized almost exclusively along nation-state lines. Second, concerns exist about German domination of a European Army that could be used to both subvert British influence and compromise its own defense. This fear has its roots in the events of the Second World War and finds expression in (mostly English) popular culture.

Unsurprisingly, UK Secretary of State Gavin Williamson was swift to dismiss any suggestions that his country would join a European Army, stating instead that “the cornerstone of our defence in the United Kingdom on continental Europe and the North Atlantic is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and not the European Union.” While the UK will not be joining a European Army anytime soon, the creation of one is not wholly against its interests and may facilitate UK-EU defense and security cooperation after Brexit occurs.

Several recent initiatives have begun to lay the institutional foundation for the development of a European Army. The biggest step in this direction has been Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a cooperative framework, permitted since the last major EU treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), that coordinates structural defense integration among EU member states. Twenty-five member states opted in to PESCO, leaving Denmark, Malta, and the United Kingdom as the three non-participants. The most recent component of this revamped defense package is the European Defence Fund (EDF), which seeks to increase investment and coordination in both research and development of defense technologies.

Should the United Kingdom—and perhaps the United States—worry, as so much coverage related to a looming European Army seems intended to induce? From a UK perspective, this deeper European integration should not be viewed as a challenge to NATO. On the contrary, these initiatives are welcome compliments to NATO’s existing institutional structures, and its existing division of labor and operational capabilities. Indeed, Brussels has already demonstrated commitment to making sure any European structure is clearly defined and complementary to NATO. Perhaps most importantly, however, the creation of a European Army presupposes increased European investment in defense—a move that both the UK and the US would welcome greatly after years bemoaning continental complacency.

The key to ensuring that deepening EU defense integration does not undermine NATO efforts is the creation and establishment of structures external to the EU, designed to allow participation by other European, but non-EU, partners. Macron’s Intervention Initiative presents one such example, and the idea of a European Defence Initiative—a highly exclusive group signaling serious European commitment to defense—is a more radical alternative. The establishment of external structures is likely to facilitate UK-EU cooperation on defense while also quelling British, as well as American, anxieties about the purpose, validity, and effectiveness of a European Army. In exchange, through this accommodation, the EU would continue to benefit from UK defense research and capabilities after Brexit.

The creation of a European Army is a radical idea. It supplants the most basic function of a nation-state—to provide its citizens with security and defense—and moves it to a transnational level. While a European Army is not necessarily around the corner, initiatives such as PESCO and the EDF are embarking on its construction. As Brexit proceeds, the United Kingdom should see this not as a security challenge in and of itself, but an opportunity to create new, more effective structures for cooperation—structures which buttress the UK’s reliability and importance as a security and defense partner and transatlantic link. But capitalizing on this opportunity demands that the UK government better demonstrate and promote its value as a security actor to both British and European publics. If the future European Union now involves some version of a European Army, then the United Kingdom can push to define it into the security component of the future UK-EU relationship.


Conor Hannigan

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