The European Union (EU) wants peace, security, freedom, sustainable prosperity, solidarity, social justice and human rights for its citizens and member states.
It also aims to foster stability, security, prosperity, democracy, free trade, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law at international level. For the EU to meet its goals and be true to its values it has to be strong. Thus, the Union needs a unitary defense and security policy to implement a unitary foreign policy.
However, currently there is no such Union defense. Fragmented nation state defense policies and the fractious foreign policies guiding them ensure weakness, which is certainly not conducive to achieving the goals of the Union.
Even worse, this fragmentation will eventually give rise to forces that will tear the Union apart. ‘National’ and ‘going at it alone’ approaches — the antithesis of the Union — will fill the need for protection from various risks: loss of territorial sovereignty, terrorism, uncontrolled population movements, health insecurity, energy insecurity, economic crises, etc.
National approaches will also pit member states against each other as national governments prioritize their own short term national economic, commercial, public health and other gains. National approaches stepping in to solve real problems that affect the whole Union will weaken and eventually destroy the Union. The outcome will arguably be much worse for all member states of the Union.
The EU in its current state of fragmentation regarding defense presents a false sense of power and this is not lost on its adversaries. It is a mirage of power one sees from aggregating military equipment and personnel across the 27 members of the EU. They do not amount to the military might of the Union, because these resources cannot be brought to bear on most — if any — security situations that may challenge the Union’s borders.
The 1,500 fighter jets or the 7,000 battle tanks in the Union will not, under current political decision-making and military command arrangements, be brought to effectively confront a threat to the border of the Union by, say, Russia or even an ascending power such as Turkey. For example, would one expect any EU member state armies to decisively and effectively rally to the assistance of Cyprus if more of its territory and its jurisdiction is violated by Turkey?
As one of several examples, the renewed aggression since 2018 by Turkey towards Cyprus demonstrates with brutal transparency the limits of EU common defense. The sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Cyprus have been repeatedly breached by the hydrocarbon exploration and drilling ships of Turkey (led by the drillship “Fatih”— tellingly meaning “The Conqueror”) under the protection of the Turkish naval fleet. And at the same time, the Turkish navy has physically blocked some energy exploration by Cyprus itself, within its own jurisdiction.
The presence of a couple of French and Italian warships (notably linked to commercial interests of these countries in hydrocarbon exploration around Cyprus) in the area on some occasions over the past three years did not deter the above aggression by Turkey and its infringement of Cyprus’ — an EU member state’s — sovereign rights and jurisdiction. This is not what Union defense should look like.
At present, the military power of the EU is de facto only the power of a given member state facing a challenge on its national borders, i.e., in principle, the EU borders. Thus, for example, the military strength of the Union is only the strength of Greece to defend itself when Turkey violates its national airspace or territorial waters. If Greece is not up to it, the EU borders will be breached.
In the end, if Greece cannot deter or repel Turkey, EU territory will actually be annexed by Turkey. One might argue that the military strength of the Union is the military strength of its strongest state, France. This might be sensible if France’s ‘national’ interest aligns exactly with that of the member state or the EU facing aggression and asks for France’s help. But such an alignment would not always necessarily be the case.
Regional adversaries do not compare themselves with the aggregate power of the Union, which they see as ‘a table of fainthearted and self-serving bankers and merchants’, but with the power of their next victim within the Union ‘herd’. For example, Turkey compares itself with Cyprus, Greece or Bulgaria, and it feels and declares overwhelming confidence. President Erdogan of Turkey often threatens to resolve differences “in the field, with painful experiences”.
Even the relatively strong conventional military of France is not too much trouble for Turkey in terms of military personnel and equipment, and, if Turkey adds to that the unwillingness or incapability of France to fully commit its armed forces to a war in Turkey’s neighborhood, there is no restraint there for Turkey. And, of course, Turkey calculates that France would not use its nuclear capability in the case of a Turkish violation, or even annexation, of Greek or Cypriot territory.
Figures (sourced from globalfirepower.com) speak for themselves: Greece, living with an acute threat from Turkey for very long, has been forced to have a remarkable army of 200,000 active personnel, armed with inter alia 187 fighter jets, 116 naval ships, and 1344 tanks — a very costly endeavor for such a small country.
Most European countries have much smaller forces in comparison. Even much larger countries than Greece, such as Germany, Italy or Spain have basically comparable to Greece’s armed forces. Bulgaria — a country that has a border with Turkey and faces risks from Turkey’s Neo-Ottomanism especially in the context of its large Turkish minority — has very small armed forces compared with Greece — with an army of 30,000 active personnel, 13 fighter jets, 29 naval ships, and 210 tanks.
France, the biggest military power in the EU has an army of 270,000 active personnel, armed with 269 fighter jets, 180 naval ships and 406 tanks. Turkey on the other hand has an army of 355,000 active personnel, armed with 206 fighter jets, 149 naval ships, and 3,045 tanks.
It is clear that in a confrontation in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean (i.e., the neighborhood of Turkey and the reference point of its Neo-Ottoman doctrine), Turkey would naturally feel comfortable going toe-to-toe with any single one of these countries. That is, as long as they did not truly and fully unite their armed forces. But it is that unity that is missing and is necessary for the Union.
An observer might draw attention to the existence of “EU battlegroups” as an EU army under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) of the EU. There are supposed to be 18 of these battalion-sized units, each with 1,500 troops. Yet, this amounts to only 27,000 personnel. And even worse, only 2 such battlegroups are supposed to be readily deployable within 5-10 days — a maximum of 3,000 somewhat readily deployable troops!
Thus, as an answer to the above observer, one can recall George Washington’s response to a proposal at the US constitutional convention in 1787 by Elbridge Gerry to limit the envisaged standing army of the US to 3,000 men. Washington sarcastically agreed with that proposal as long as a stipulation was added to the constitution that no invading army could number more than 3,000 troops.
NATO not the solution
It is important here to note that NATO is not a solution the Union can rely on for regional or conventional (non-nuclear) conflicts with regional adversaries with hegemonic ambitions. This is especially true in the case where such an adversary is dealt with as a “key NATO ally” with the second largest standing army in NATO, as is the case of Turkey. Frankly, the NATO route is a complete spoiler for any Union defense and foreign policy when the adversary is a NATO member.
One of the main sources of opposition to an effective Union defense in the past was the United Kingdom, and with its exit from the EU there is naturally an opportunity to rapidly advance true Union defense. This is even more sensible in the context of the palpable risks, threats and challenges posed directly to the EU, by countries such as Russia and Turkey, as well as indirectly, in the context of the military and civil conflicts and terrorism challenges in the neighborhood of the EU, e.g., in Syria and the broader Levant, Libya, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.
Even the instability in recent years in US security commitments to Europe and its neighborhood points to a risk of withdrawal of adequate US support in the future that would need to be proactively addressed by proper Union defense.
There is, therefore, a need in the EU for a standing and ready to fight Union army as a matter of urgency, operating under unitary defense and foreign policy. Otherwise, various faits accomplis will materialize, with parts of the Union being ‘picked off’ by predatory neighbours and with other strategic interests of the Union being compromised.
The EU will not be taken seriously and will be humiliated diplomatically and militarily by the likes of Russia and Turkey. Moreover, instability and war will ravage the neighborhood around the EU, resulting in staggering human suffering there, as well as massive migration flows towards the EU and all sorts of economic and other costs for the member states.
Union defense is the only way to have a peaceful, respectful and mutually beneficial relationship over the long term with the countries in the region and in particular those, such as Turkey and Russia that have hegemonic ambitions. It is the only way to sustainably help the countries and peoples in Europe’s neighbourhood live in peace, stability, dignity and prosperity, with mutual benefits for them and the EU. Union defense is truly an essential ingredient for diplomacy to work and find peaceful and long-lasting solutions.
Defense makes the Union
Generally speaking, a strong union of states should invest its central government with powers in the area of military and foreign affairs, fiscal and monetary policy, as well as emergency powers. A union’s fiscal policy should provide union-level public goods, conduct countercyclical macroeconomic policy, provide for intra-union transfers, and support the financial/intermediation sector across the union, as well as do all this on the basis of its capacity to levy union-wide taxes and issue and repay union debt.
A union’s monetary authority should have its own currency, conduct independent monetary policy and supervise the entire union’s financial sector, which should be operating on the basis of a union-wide legal framework.
From these conditions that make a union, the EU has a significant, albeit incomplete, amount of the monetary aspects in place, but only a very modest amount regarding the fiscal aspects. Indicatively, the European Union’s budget expenditure was only 0.9% of EU GDP in 2020, compared to US Federal government spending at 31% of US GDP.
Moreover, the provision of union-level public goods by the EU is problematic in many areas (such as macroeconomic stabilization or dealing with pandemics) and effectively nonexistent in the area of actual defense. Unfortunately, the EU is failing to provide the public good of Union defense and to manifest one of the most — if not the most — fundamental aspect of a union.
A European Union defense policy and a standing Union army would be an important step toward strengthening the fiscal union, and thus the Union as a whole. Union defense would involve significant fiscal spending from the Union budget and underscore the need to levy Union taxes and issue Union debt. Moreover, Union defense would be a good candidate for building the EU budget as it would involve the provision of a union-level public good — in this case, arguably, the most basic public good that can be provided to the members of a Union by the Union. Thus, Union defense reinforces the project of the Union on that account too.
Union defense — if you can have it — would be an asset offered by the European Union to its member states and its individual citizens. By honoring the payment of the ‘dividends’ on this asset, i.e., the delivery of security and defense services to each holder of the asset, the Union would secure the allegiance of the member states and the citizens and bond the member states to the Union. There are similarities here to the effect of issuing Union debt (as the founding fathers of the US were keenly aware of already 235 years ago).
Union defense would also advance the ‘national’ sentiment among Union citizens for the Union and thus would strengthen the Union itself. In the words of George Washington from 1783, on the effect of the Armies of the United States: “the most violent local prejudices would cease so soon and … men who c[o]me from different parts of the continent, strongly disposed by the habits of education, to despise and quarrel with each other, would instantly become but one patriotic band of brothers.” This perspective should be particularly relevant given the centuries of armed conflict among Europeans, including two not-so-distant World Wars initiated within Europe.
A Union defense policy would be an important enabler of most of other major policies of the EU and for achieving EU policy goals. It is clear that Union defense would add the necessary weight for an effective Union foreign policy. However, it would also provide a subtle but important background to many other Union policy interests, even, for example, the fortunes of the Euro as one of the world’s main reserve currencies and all that goes with that.
Certainly, Union defense would boost stability in the regions around the EU, such as Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as well as further afield in Asia. Such stability is essential for economic prosperity in these regions as well as in the EU, for control of population movements out of these regions and into the Union, for social/political stability within the EU including avoidance of authoritarian, xenophobic, nationalist politics in parts of the Union, and, importantly, for the advancement of human rights and democracy around the world.
Union defense would be one of the essential elements of protecting — directly and indirectly — the Union against interference from foreign powers that have an interest in keeping the Union divided and each member state looking after its own short-term provincial gain.
In the absence of Union defense, individual member states with separate defense and foreign policies would more easily be approached by adversaries and the union could be pulled apart. Experience in the context of EU’s reaction to the recent flare up of Turkey’s aggression towards Greece highlights that adversaries are most eager to identify, amplify and exploit differences of approach among member states — approaches that appear to be influenced by short-term mercantile interests (e.g., related to arms sales), internal politics (e.g., that cater to ethnic constituencies) and parochialism.
Union defense would also both support and rationalize the production and commerce of military equipment and technologies, boosting Union industry. The latter would exploit positive externalities and economies of scale on the production side (that are now only partially captured in some projects). Most importantly, Union industry would satisfy to a large extent the Union’s own demand for armaments and related technologies, especially in the context of an appropriately global EU foreign and defense policy.
At the same time, Union defense would stop the potentially fratricidal sales of weapons to adversaries outside the Union. Such sales threaten the Union directly through the use of the sold weapons as tools in the loss of member state and thus Union territory and sovereignty. They also threaten the Union through their centrifugal effects on the unity of the member states: in the first instance when the sales occur despite pleas by the states that are weakened relative to the external adversaries receiving the weapons and later, down the road, when the consequences of such sales “in the field” (of military confrontation) dynamite Union cohesion.
In the end, the majority of Europeans want a common European security and defense policy and favour a European army (according to a 2017 Eurobarometer report). It should not be that national politicians act as modern day ‘feudal lords’ keeping the Union army from existence; even if they might become less important then.
Union defense and states’ defense
A fundamental issue for Union defense is that it must mean defense of all the territory of all member states from outside encroachment. Union and member states must have identical views regarding what constitutes the territory and jurisdiction of the member states that has to be defended.
Moreover, member states must be certain they can trust to be defended by the Union army and that Union decision makers will place the same value on the territorial integrity of a member state as the decision makers of that member state acting autonomously.
In addition, member states must be certain that no member state’s territory could potentially be ‘less valuable’ to the Union than another’s. These issues are particularly poignant for ‘frontline’ member states, i.e., states whose borders constitute also external borders of the Union, and would more readily be subject to violation by foreign powers than member states with no external Union borders. They are critical issues if Union defense is to take over from the national armed forces of member states the defense of the territories of member states.
At the same time, Union defense requires that external land borders, airspace, territorial waters, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) corresponding now to a member state have to unequivocally be Union land borders, airspace, waters, continental shelf and EEZ, with all that this implies in terms of institutions and legal framework. There has to be real substance behind the expression: member state external borders are EU borders.
Thus, undoubtedly, ceding control over member state national defense to the Union is something challenging and it has to be carefully prepared through appropriate institutions and explicit legal commitments. These steps would require a strengthening of the Union to a high level, and, in that sense, this is an additional way that Union defense would help make the Union.
Union defense and the world
Union defense for the EU would logically be welcomed (on balance) by the US, because a strong EU ally is the best — i.e., the most effective — partner of the US in providing a counterweight to the global challenges by Russia and by China.
The hard power of Union defense of the EU would effectively add to that of the US, complementing the soft power of humanitarian, economic, social and political actions of these two major allied powers. With increased hard power and hopefully improved soft power, these two democracies would manage to offer a potent alternative and effective counterweight to the authoritarian and state capitalist varieties of China and Russia.
They would thus be able to effectively address the serious economic, political, cultural and strategic challenges these regimes present to democratic and truly free market systems. The world community is watching carefully which way the balance will tilt and a strong Union in Europe would help tip the balance.
A strong Union would also be able to more effectively support high standards of human rights, including democratic rights, economic prosperity and social justice outside the Union and, in particular, in the regions adjacent to it. For example, the Union would be able to better help populations suffering under — and often fleeing — military conflict, political strife, political oppression, or economic crisis by projecting power along with deploying its significant economic resources to help preempt or solve root problems at their sources (e.g., in Africa, the Middle East, Southern Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus).
A strong European Union would be a model for human rights, democracy and social justice and, very importantly, have enough leverage to bring about proper solutions in these areas through not only economic and humanitarian assistance but also military strength. To aspire to the European — nay, universal — values of human rights, peace, democracy, prosperity and social justice for the entire world, there must be both a European vision to advance these values and the muscle to empower it, in particular a superior military under a unitary defense policy with the courage and the will to fight for the Union.