Will the EU finally tend its own garden?

Why the talk of a new ‘European awakening’ in the defence sphere is just rhetorical window-dressing.

‘We will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army.’ Ever since Emmanuel Macron uttered these words in November 2018, the idea of a European Army is back in vogue. A year and a half later, it might appear like the stars are aligning to create the perfect conditions for a ‘golden Era’ of European defence cooperation.

This is a tempting thought. Firstly, in the age of Donald Trump, the international political environment appears more unstable than ever before. His tweets are the subject of much anxiety over the durability of the NATO alliance, which has been the provider of Europe’s security umbrella for the last 70 years. Moreover, with her background as German defence minister, new European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen is expected to put the issue high up on the agenda in order to create a more assertive and independent EU. This point is illustrated by the recent formation of a new Directorate-General (DG) for Defence issues

However, claims that these developments mark the beginning of the long-awaited ‘European awakening’ in the area of security and defence are chimerical. Upon closer investigation, it becomes evident that all the noise around European defence is mere rhetorical window-dressing with little substance behind it.

When it comes to NATO, it is no secret that President Trump is highly sceptical of the alliance. Throughout his presidential campaign, he referred to NATO as ‘obsolete’, protesting that ‘we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing’. According to US officials, he has reiterated these sentiments repeatedly since taking office. In response, Angela Merkel has concluded that ‘the times when we could rely unreservedly on others are over.’ 

However, this will not be the year, or even the decade, that we eulogise NATO. If anything, Trump’s stance has actually served to strengthen the military alliance. While certainly undiplomatic, his public criticism of the low defence spending by alliance members has nonetheless prompted a wide-ranging European improvement. At over €47 billion, Germany recently approved its highest defence budget rise since the end of the Cold War. In other words, Trump’s criticism is working in NATO’s favour: the more Europeans spend on defence, the more likely it is that they will be the US’ partner of choice in matters of security and defence.  The trans-Atlantic alliance will thereby be strengthened.

Furthermore, Trump’s open and heavy criticism has spurred NATO supporters to come out of the woodwork and defend the alliance, especially within the US Congress. In January 2019, the House passed a vote of 357 to 22 in favour of barring the use of federal funds to pull the US out of the alliance. According to a 2018 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, there is also strong public support among Americans for NATO. Additionally, and in light of the 2020 presidential race, Democratic frontrunners clearly reaffirmed their support for NATO. Elizabeth Warren has stated that ‘America is strongest when we work together with our allies – including the 28 NATO members,’ and Joe Biden, now essentially the Democratic nominee, is a stout defender of traditional US foreign policy and upholding the liberal international order.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a new buzz around recent institutional developments within the EU. At the centre of this lies von der Leyen’s recent creation of a new ‘DG Defence Industry and Space’ in her new Commission, headed by French Commissioner Thierry Breton. The new DG is set to spend €13 billion from 2021-27 from the ‘European Defence Fund’ (EDF), with the main objective of speeding up work on creating a joint military-industrial complex by investing in R&D into military hardware and software. 

However, the significance of this new DG should not be overestimated; it will only add to the existing institutional muddle that characterizes the EU’s defence sphere. Within the bloc, there are  a plethora of bodies already dealing with defence, such as the European Defence Agency (EDA), EUMC, EUMS, OCCAR, COARM, COPS, NSPA, EEAS – to name a few. This will create institutional tensions and hamper effectiveness. The EDA, for instance, is an official EU agency charged with facilitating pan-European cooperation in armament and defence matters – just like the EDF. The creation of yet another body dealing with this will only add strategic ambiguity, not clarity.

If the new Commission was intent on making a significant step towards a true European military alliance, it would have to start solving some important conundrums. Issues such as Member States’ political willingness on a national level or the difficulty of interweaving contrasting national defence cultures into one would have to be resolved. DG Defence will not provide answers to these pressing problems.

Instead, it raises questions about political lobbying and the influence of the arms industry. For example, the Commission’s defence advisory body, called the ‘Group of Personalities’, is dominated by aerospace and defence industry officials, including figures such as the CEOs of Airbus and MBDA, a company specialised in missiles. We are therefore left wondering whether the move to create the EDF is more influenced by the lobbying of the defence industry, than having to do with creating a viable European defence project. This once again demonstrates the lack of real substance in the Commission’s proposals.  

It might appear beneficial to certain stakeholders to stir up fears around a crumbling NATO, and politically advantageous for European officials to ramp up their rhetoric around Europe finally tending its own garden. But when it comes to the prospects of creating a ‘true European army’ anytime soon, one should not overestimate the EU’s firepower.

Isabel Völker-Albert Villar

Isabel Völker-Albert Villar is a third-year undergraduate student studying International Relations at King’s College London.


The featured image (top), ‘Vonderleyen 2014 bundesverteidigungsministerin’, is by Dirk Vorderstraße and is licensed under Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0). It shows President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.


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