Ceci n'est pas une EU army
EU states in November agreed to create a new military headquarters inside Federica Mogherini’s foreign service and to make joint “battlegroups” ready for action. The European Commission also unveiled proposals for a joint military research and procurement fund.
The plan so far is a modest one.
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The headquarters is to command only non-combat military missions, such as training missions. The battlegroups, forces of some 1,000 men made by coalitions of EU countries, are designed to be parachuted into action in Africa or in the Middle East to prevent conflicts.
The proposed fund would spend €500 million a year on research into areas such as robotics and satellites. It would spend €5 billion a year on buying items such as drones and helicopters, but these would be owned by individual member states.
The military plan comes amid a mounting sense of insecurity both among Nato generals and the European public.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, where it continues to wage war in the Donbas region, and in Syria, where it is bombing Western-backed rebels and civilians, prompted Nato to deploy a deterrent force of more than 5,000 men in the Baltic and Black Sea areas this year.
Terrorist attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France over the past 12 months have also heightened tension in Europe.
The attacks by the Islamic State jihadist group led to a loss of trust in EU governments' abilities to protect their nationals and aggravated the debate on the refugee crisis.
Britain’s decision in June to leave the EU also spurred on the military project. The UK, the EU’s largest military power, had previously opposed it on grounds that it would compete with Nato.
The election of Donald Trump in the US added a sense of urgency. The president-elect said in his campaign that the US might not defend Nato allies and that he might make a deal with Russia on Ukraine over Europe’s head.
Announcing the military scheme in November, Mogherini said she had lost count of how many times she had said the project was “not … an EU army”.
France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, the core group in the EU that wanted to press ahead, also said in a joint paper in October: “To be clear: an ‘EU army’ is not our objective”.
The words were meant to allay anti-federalist sentiment in EU states, but on other occasions the rhetoric was more strident.
Mogherini, in November, said the EU had the “potential of a superpower”. Italy has said the EU military headquarters and battlegroups should be the nucleus of a future “European Integrated Force”.
A French minister also said: “This is something that is very close to the Germans’ heart - they would like to create a European army”.
The semantics of what is taking shape in Brussels recalled the 20th century Belgian artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the caption "Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” meaning “This is not a pipe.”
The next step could be for France, Germany, Italy, and Spain to seek allies to trigger a clause on accelerated military cooperation in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
Upcoming steps could also include EU institutions leasing military assets, such as field hospitals or air-lift helicopters, from member states to be used in new EU medical and logistics headquarters.
'The best possible approach'
Germany's defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said military integration was as badly needed as EU freedom of movement in the Schengen zone in order to maintain European unity. France's finance minister, Michel Sapin, said a joint military was needed to restore faith in the euro and to pave the way for deeper monetary union.
However, it remains to be seen if the project will win back trust in EU governments and institutions, as France and Germany hope.
It also remains to be seen how the security environment will change after Trump takes power in January.
If Europe wants to make sure that the US keeps on protecting its old friends, the "not ... an EU army" project could be counterproductive, the UK warned.
“Instead of planning expensive new headquarters or dreaming of a European army, what Europe needs to do now is spend more on its own defence," the British defence minister, Michael Fallon, said in November, referring to the national military budgets of Nato allies. "That’s the best possible approach to the Trump presidency," he said.
This story was first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.