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Defense Integration in the European Union

October 19, 2017

The European Union is at a cross-roads in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Eurosceptic populism. Do European leaders push for renewed political and economic union, or allow the existing trend of disengagement to continue or even spiral into the EU’s dissolution? For many who favor greater cooperation among EU member states, the next step is to pursue defense integration. For EU leaders, defense integration effectively revolves around two ideas: increased military cooperation and the creation of a common EU nuclear program. The former posits the necessity of a “Schengen of defense” premised on the sharing of military capabilities while the latter would see the European Union seek its own nuclear deterrent with France’s arsenal.


The European Union already enjoys a robust precedent for military cooperation. Enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union, the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) provides the framework for EU military structures and operations on the continent and abroad. The Lisbon Treaty in 2009 amended the existing constitutional basis of the EU, and with it, the CSDP. Article 42.7 requires EU member states to provide aid and assistance to a member state subject to armed aggression on its territory; however, the clause does exclude countries like Austria or Sweden from the mutual defense requirement, considering their historical traditions of neutrality [1].  Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42.7 was a step toward increased defense integration as the mutual defense clause of the Treaty of the European Union. EU member states, particularly Greece, hoped to ensure an additional level of protection against Turkey, a member of NATO but not the European Union. On November 17, 2015, France became the first EU member state to invoke Article 42.7 in the wake of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. France’s invocation was unanimously approved in a council of EU defense ministers, paving the way for the French government to seek European solidarity and military assistance in its conflicts in Mali, Syria, and the Central African Republic [2]. Since 2007, the European Union has deployed eighteen “Battlegroups,” military forces of approximately 1,500 troops hailing from a coalition of member states. Under the direct control of the Council of the European Union, Battlegroups were conceived as a military instrument for the EU to intervene rapidly in the event of any developing crisis. While Battlegroups have yet to see military action, the system remains operational. Germany, for example, will be leading an EU battlegroup operating air defenses in Lithuania. The Battlegroups also provide a formalized opportunity for EU member states to partake in joint military operations and gain necessary experience working together on defense matters [3].

With these mechanisms in mind, calls for greater defense integration have become more urgent in light of both perceived American withdrawal from foreign affairs and the specter of Russian aggression. Concerns that an isolationist United States under President Trump may be unwilling to honor its military and nuclear obligations to Europe have highlighted the potential vulnerability of a European Union without American military support. Trump’s campaign rhetoric dismissed the relevance of NATO, declaring the treaty organization to be “obsolete.” His refusal to endorse Article 5 of the NATO charter – the mutual defense provision – until several months into his administration did little to reassure European defense leaders of American commitment to European security [4]. Indeed, as Russia becomes more emboldened to assert its clout, from the 2014 annexation of Crimea to Russia’s election interference in the United States and Europe, the need to counter Russian geopolitical influence with a strong European Union is imperative. Additionally, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU has further imperiled EU security efforts, as the nation represented 24% of total EU defense spending and provided an additional voice on the UN Security Council. Ironically, with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, one of the greatest opponents to military cooperation has been eliminated. As an EU member state, the United Kingdom frequently worked to quash defense integration efforts, but now, defense integration efforts can be discussed or implemented without UK obstructionism [5].

Overview Of Defense Integration Proposals

Plans for further defense integration are centered around the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s “Schengen of defense” proposal. A “Schengen of defense” would follow the precedent of the original Schengen Agreement, a 1985 treaty which led to the establishment of the Schengen Area, a zone of 26 European countries which have abolished all forms of passport and border control at their shared borders, creating an area of free movement across much of Europe. In the same way, a Schengen of defense would break down the barriers impeding military cooperation, allowing for the sharing of military resources and capabilities. One of the pillars of this Schengen of defense would be the foundation of a permanent military-civilian headquarters to centralize EU defense strategy and operations [6]>. In July 2017, EU officials approved a Military Planning and Conduct Capability facility to be established within the EU Military Staff. The facility will house around thirty EU military personnel who will oversee missions, conduct operational planning, and coordinate with their civilian counterparts at the Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability in Brussels [7]. Additionally, Gentiloni believes that a joint permanent military force, the European Multinational Force, is necessary if the EU is to realize a new Schengen of defense. The European Multinational Force would build upon the existing Battlegroup framework, possessing a unified strategic command, permanent forces, and an operational budget.

Additionally, focusing on a precedent of the free movement of people, a military Schengen, not be confused with the “Schengen of defense”, would allow for the free movement of European and allied American military forces across the continent. As NATO General Ben Hodges explains, a military Schengen would provide greater flexibility for political leaders to respond rapidly to potential aggressors, allowing them to quickly  move military forces to a belligerent country’s borders [8]

Moreover, Member of European Parliament Urmas Paet, former Foreign Minister of Estonia, believes that the EU is in dire need of a European Commissioner for Defense and Security to coordinate and centralize defense-related decision making. As of now, much of the responsibility for defense and security is placed in the hands of the High Representative and Commission Vice-President, a position already endowed with “a full world of responsibilities” [9]. Lastly, both Gentiloni and Paet assert that financial incentives are necessary if European defense integration is to be realized, such as excluding defense spending from budget deficit calculations [10]. One step being taken on this front is the Cooperative Financial Mechanism (CFM), an inter-governmental fund being created to promote defense R&D spending. Members of the European Defense Agency will contribute a small portion of their national budget to the CFM, which will provide temporary financing to countries who wish to participate in European defense research. The CFM poses two potentially serious implications for European defense integration. The Cooperative Financial Mechanism, as a step toward synchronizing European defense R&D budgets, could be a trial for the future coordination of national defense spending among all EU member states. It is also possible that the CFM could be a transitory step toward funding a larger EU defense program for 2021 - 2027, an ambitious defense R&D plan that will require several billion Euros [11].

(Image: Defense spending as a share of GDP for NATO members. Source: The Wall Street Journal)

(Image: Defense spending as a share of GDP for NATO members. Source: The Wall Street Journal)

Along with closer military cooperation, EU defense integration is also being discussed along nuclear lines: the creation of a common EU nuclear program. This idea, in contrast to the steps being taken toward military coordination, is certainly more rhetorical; the European Union itself has not taken concrete steps toward creating its own nuclear deterrent. However, significant power players in Europe, such as former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have begun talking about the idea, meriting a cursory discussion of what a possible EU nuclear program would look like for European security. As outlined, the formation of a common European nuclear deterrent would involve repurposing France’s arsenal to protect the continent. In order to accomplish this, the nuclear arsenal would be placed either under a joint European command, funding plan, or defense doctrine. Roderich Kiesewetter, a lawmaker and foreign policy spokesman from the German ruling party, expressed measured support for the idea, believing that a European nuclear force may be necessary as a parallel or replacement program to the American nuclear weapons housed in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. According to Kiesewetter, a European program would even acknowledge a shift in doctrine similar to Israeli nuclear policy. Israel expresses its willingness to deploy nuclear weapons in response to an overwhelming conventional attack, an idea favorable to European strategists fearful of Russia’s military superiority. Recognizing the inherent challenges of placing France’s arsenal under joint European control, another proposal calls for France to place its warheads in strategic locations across Europe, but to retain final control over the weapons. This security model closely follows the existing American one, with missiles based in Europe for a continental deterrent but tightly controlled by the United States. Such a plan avoids the challenges of implementing a common EU nuclear program while increasing the credibility of European deployment against Russian aggression. Indeed, housing the weapons outside France could make it probable that conflict would be waged far from French soil, a win for French foreign policy strategists [12].

(Image: Nuclear Proliferation in Europe. Source: British Broadcasting Corporation)

(Image: Nuclear Proliferation in Europe. Source: British Broadcasting Corporation)


European defense integration, whether in terms of military cooperation or a common nuclear deterrent, has been met with a great deal of opposition and skepticism. It’s hard to blame European leaders; defense integration efforts have failed before. In 1954, the French National Assembly refused to engage in debate on the proposal of a European Defense Community. This refusal doomed the EDC, an attempt to create a six-nation integrated European army consisting of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the Federal Republic of Germany. The effort to create the EDC arose from the need to integrate the Federal Republic of Germany into the American-European security alliance. With the EDC struck down by France, Western European Union was created, an international organization and military alliance which was later absorbed by the European Union [13]. Outside of this historical failure, supporters of European Defense integration face the great democratic obstacle of political will. In the wake of Brexit and the electoral success of the far-right in recent European elections like the Alternative for Germany in the 2017 German national elections, EU leaders and domestic politicians must tread carefully if they wish to realize a more integrated Europe [14]. Popular sentiment against nuclear weapons is also an obstacle to a European nuclear deterrent. In Germany, antinuclear agitation has been widespread since the 1970s, particularly after the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union. For example, Germany’s Green Party, which advocates for anti-nuclear policies, enjoyed resurgent polling in 2010 after Angela Merkel’s ruling conservative party ruled to extend the life of the country’s nuclear plants by 12 years [15]. Considering the potential political landmine that is nuclear weapons technology, Merkel and other European Union leaders face a voting public uneasy with furthering nuclear proliferation of any kind on the continent. Additionally, some European leaders fear that defense integration will ultimately undermine the continent’s NATO obligations. Before Brexit (and Great Britain’s neutralized influence in the EU), U.K. Defense Minister Michael Fallon was entirely opposed to any attempts at building “an E.U.” army for fears of undermining NATO. Fallon has pledged to veto European defense integration efforts while the U.K. remains in the EU. Contrary to Fallon’s assertions, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stated that the alliance has no fears that closer European integration poses a threat to NATO, stating that: “There is no contradiction between a strong European defense and a strong NATO; actually it reinforces each other” [16]. As such, European defense integration has explicit support from both NATO and the United States, with the President advocating for Europe and NATO to better uphold their own defense interests on the continent. The final challenge facing European integration is one of fiscal skepticism: will EU leaders actually provide the necessary funding to create and support closer defense ties? As of now, only the U.K., Poland, Greece, and Estonia spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a benchmark provided for in the NATO alliance [17].

What’s next?

It appears that European defense integration has enjoyed a resurgence as fears of an American withdrawal and geopolitical tensions with Russia have highlighted the importance of a robust European security alliance. Foreign policy makers have already pushed forward tighter integration measures, with the announcement of the Cooperative Financial Mechanism and the Military Planning and Conduct Capability facility, increasing the ability of the EU to fund defense research and coordinate joint military actions, respectively. It remains to be seen if the European Union will continue pursuing defense integration, particularly in light of upcoming parliamentary elections and negotiations over the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc. Fears of a waning United States commitment to European security have abated slightly, with President Trump’s commitment to the mutual defense clause in NATO Article 5 in June 2017, tempering fears of an immediate American withdrawal [18]. Regardless, European defense integration is clearly in America’s strategic interest. A robust security partner in Europe enabled by European Defense Integration is crucial to the US’ ability to curb Russian influence from the other side of the world, mitigate terrorism threats, and address the President’s concerns on the economic fairness of shared defense in the Western world. [19] Considering the failure of the European Defense Community and the recent struggles to tighten military cooperation, the question remains: Is Europe finally ready to push for concerted defense integration? The future of the continent’s security hinges on the answer.

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