Germany Doesn’t Really Want an EU Army

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For all the recent transatlantic debate about creating a joint European army, Germany — which has the second-biggest military in the European Union — has little interest in setting up any kind of supranational force under the EU’s command. This reluctance is key to understanding the ineffectiveness of all the bloc’s existing military projects.

In a recent op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen laid out her vision of “an army of the Europeans” — note the change of accent from “European army.” Von der Leyen sees it as “armed forces under national responsibility, closely interlinked, uniformly equipped, trained for joint operations and ready for action, such as the Franco-German Brigade and the German-Dutch Corps.” The key words here are “under national responsibility.” This means keeping in place the existing procedures for deploying troops — a decision that, in Europe, lies with each member state. 

“I consider smart the German institution of parliamentary scrutiny,” von der Leyen wrote. “Our troops need the broad support of the population for difficult and dangerous missions.” 

Of course, parliamentary procedures are slow, especially given the fractiousness of today’s German (and European) politics. Von der Leyen wants to speed things up by getting domestic legislators specializing in defense to work with European colleagues in a special grouping that would draw up guidelines for the sake of national decision-makers. But I’d be hard pushed to recall a situation in which an EU committee has ever made something faster rather than slower.

The need to decide everything by committee has already de-fanged the closest thing the EU has to a common army — the two EU Battlegroups, each comprised of as many as 2,000 soldiers. Since 2007, one of these multinational rapid response forces has been on permanent standby. They’ve never been deployed because EU members have never reached unanimous agreement to do so. The closest they came was in 2013, when an intervention in the Central African Republic was discussed, but France ended up leading a mission there that didn’t involve the Battlegroups.

The EU has an endless capacity for setting up lots of experimental mechanisms without completely dumping old, failed or unproven projects. This makes for an exceedingly complex defense cooperation landscape, in which much joint training and low-level coordination goes on, but no overarching structure is ever built. New proposals, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s European Intervention Initiative, or EI2, merely add to the jumble of acronyms and seem only to confirm the willingness of governments to cooperate on defense — until it’s time to send troops to some far-off place.

France, with the biggest military in the EU, has a simple system of making deployment decisions: The president has the last word. It’s also relatively easy in Italy, where the government decides, and in Poland, where it’s up to the president — but, for example, in the Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary and the Czech Republic the prior parliamentary authorization is necessary, as in Germany. A European army would require these different procedures to be harmonized. That looks next to impossible because it would involve constitutional amendments, and with many countries ruled by shaky coalitions, giving up any degree of sovereignty in a matter as sensitive as defense would be a non-starter.

Von der Leyen and other European politicians understand this perfectly well. Their comments are largely aimed at American ears. They are a response to U.S. demands for increased military spending, which President Donald Trump frames as contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Europe’s militarily strongest nations are keen to show Washington they are investing in their own defense rather than, as Trump has put it crudely, paying the U.S. to defend them.

The U.S. focuses on demanding more military spending from European countries, especially on equipment, while disregarding the inefficiency of the member states’ procurement systems, something NATO has tolerated for decades. It bears a share of the blame for the unnecessary variety of military equipment in the EU countries. They use 178 weapon systems compared with 30 for the U.S., 17 main battle tanks compared with just one, and 20 types of fighter planes compared with six.

More spending isn’t the answer. Instead, Europeans realize they need more cooperation in procurement to bring down costs and introduce more uniformity. If that’s not what NATO, or essentially the U.S., wants from them, they will attempt to do it outside NATO’s existing Defense Planning Process. So the coordination of budgeting through a relatively new process called the Common Annual Review on Defense, or CARD, is probably the most important part of Europe’s plans for an army.

The U.S. should encourage it in the hope it will work better than NATO in achieving efficiency. Europe isn’t trying to threaten the U.S.’s military dominance, but rather to fix problems that should bother the alliance, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.