While acknowledging that clout, some of its most prominent politicians have argued for years that to become a true global power, the E.U. needs its own defense force, one that is independent of the U.S.-European NATO alliance and does not rely on the United States.
The subject is controversial, and the geopolitics are fraught. Many experts say the prospect of rolling out a free-standing E.U. military anytime soon is unrealistic. But the clamoring, which subsided somewhat after President Biden’s election, has intensified once more, after Biden rebuffed calls to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the Aug. 31 deadline. European leaders say that left them no choice but to cut short their evacuations, leaving thousands of their citizens and Afghan allies behind.
E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell asserted that a proposed joint rapid-deployment force of 5,000 troops could have helped to secure the Kabul airport and that a coordinated European security strategy would have allowed the bloc more influence over the “timing and nature of the withdrawal.”
“The only way forward is to combine our forces and strengthen not only our capacity, but also our will to act,” Borrell said after a meeting of E.U. defense ministers in Slovenia on Thursday.
Other leaders have argued for “strategic autonomy,” an ill-
defined E.U. buzz phrase that refers to the need for the bloc to become more self-sufficient on a range of issues, especially security. French President Emmanuel Macron is one of the concept’s biggest boosters and has been calling for a “true European army” since he took office — while at one point criticizing NATO as brain dead.
Some nations, especially the Baltic states, remain wary of duplicating NATO’s efforts and would be unlikely to support a new joint force.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once endorsed Macron’s suggestion for an army, has nonetheless been a staunch supporter of NATO as well as the U.S. military bases in her country. But Armin Laschet, who is vying to succeed her, said recently that Europe must be strengthened “such that we never have to leave it up to Americans.”
On Thursday, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-
Karrenbauer argued for another approach. The E.U. should have a coordinated security strategy that puts it on “equal footing” with the United States, she said, but that shouldn’t require an extra E.U. force.
“The military capabilities in the E.U. countries are available,” she wrote on Twitter, suggesting that a “coalition of the willing” could mobilize after a blocwide vote.
Some critics say European leaders are attempting to distance themselves from the Afghanistan fiasco despite generally supporting the decision to leave. Germany, for instance, declined to send troops back to help stabilize the country last month as the Taliban made sweeping territorial gains. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said shortly after Kabul fell that while the United States pushed for the withdrawal, the alliance ultimately agreed. “We left together,” he said.
But the renewed debate among European leaders also reflects a growing frustration with Biden, who told the world that “America is back” but has pursued foreign policies that echo some of his predecessor’s positions.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a defining moment,” said Nathalie Loiseau, who chairs the European Parliament’s subcommittee on security and defense. When the United States decided to pull out of the country, there was scant coordination with allies, she said. Biden dismissed European calls for a “conditions-based withdrawal,” and he refused to extend the deadline for pulling out.
“The U.S. does not want to be the world’s policeman,” said Loiseau, a member of Macron’s political party. “Now, Europeans must stop focusing on what the U.S. does or does not do.”
Despite the vigorous recent rhetoric, the idea of a European military remains in some corners of the continent a fantasy and in others a punchline. (One satirical Twitter account is devoted to asking, “Is there an E.U. army yet?”) Analysts say that at the very least, there are significant obstacles.
Nathalie Tocci, who pushed for the inclusion of strategic autonomy in a 2016 document laying out the E.U.’s defense doctrine, said the political will to create and deploy such a force no longer exists.
“There is not enough oomph behind all this politically to translate it into something practical,” said Tocci, the director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a global affairs think tank. “We are just not prepared to see body bags coming home, and Afghanistan is not going to change that. It’s a political question that Europeans keep on ducking.”
Germany, France and Italy were among the top contributors of troops in Afghanistan. While they suffered far fewer fatalities than the United States or Britain, European allies altogether saw hundreds of their service members die, and there is little public appetite on the continent for a continued presence.
One major roadblock to a joint force — or even a coordinated security strategy — is the E.U. requirement that member states make foreign policy decisions unanimously, said Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. The unanimity rule has long stalled the bloc’s decision-making process.
“European foreign policy is completely dysfunctional,” Ibrahim said. “The European Union does not sing with the same voice in the fashion that it used to. Even if you could physically create it, the probability of all the countries unanimously agreeing on a particular course of action is practically impossible.”
Another thorny question about a joint force: Who would pay for it? The E.U. has earmarked more than $9 billion for the European Defense Fund through 2027, but experts say individual countries would also need to boost their own spending. This could be a challenge, considering that only nine European countries are on track to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense this year, fulfilling a NATO agreement.
NATO, now a 30-country alliance, has been the primary military force in Europe since the aftermath of World War II, but the United States has long set its agenda. In the weeks since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, European leaders have called the mission a “failure” and a “debacle,” saying it’s further evidence that the E.U. should be able to act on its own.
Advocates of that notion have been careful to stress that a stronger Europe would improve the transatlantic alliance, not fray it further.
“If you want to go all the way to strategic autonomy, you do have to have a European command — you can’t keep pretending you can follow the NATO command structure,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former NATO policy chief. “That will indeed create some friction with NATO and possibly with the U.S. and the U.K. But on the other hand, it’s up to the European Union to explain, ‘This is for us to use when you don’t want to step in and do something.’ ”
An E.U. force could support France’s dwindling military presence in Africa’s Sahel region, for example, which Pothier called “our other Afghanistan.”
Some steps have already been taken to strengthen cooperation between European militaries. France, Germany and Spain are working together on Europe’s largest defense project, developing a new fighter jet. But four years after the plan’s announcement, the countries have only recently finalized the details.
The E.U. has set lofty targets before. In 1999, member states pledged to build a military force of up to 60,000, but it never materialized. Instead, the bloc has had multinational “battle groups” of about 1,500 troops since 2007, but they’ve never been deployed because of a lack of funding and political will.
The battle groups are “a paper tiger,” Pothier said, and they underscore the challenge of developing a blocwide military.
“I think what’s missing is: What do you want an army for?” Pothier said. “To do what? To deter the Russians? To ensure access to European seas? To go after the bad guys, the terrorists?”
In theory, these are questions the E.U. defense ministers discussed this past week at back-to-back meetings, where they debated a forthcoming “strategic compass” document that will outline the bloc’s security risks and policy goals.
The document, to be published next year, will be the first test of how serious E.U. leaders are about strengthening their defense strategy, said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe program at Institut Montaigne. Officials will use it to assess their military capabilities and discuss how best to pool their resources, she said, and it’s likely to include an array of proposals, from cybersecurity to space operations. An E.U. army, however, is probably “a long way off.”
“As with many European Union foreign policy decisions, there is lots of ambition, but when you look at the practical outcome, it’s often the lowest common denominator,” Wright said. “It will be interesting to see here if the reality actually matches the initial ambition.”