Grand plan Slow progress on EU army as states protect sovereignty, national industry

Economic nationalism is trumping the European vision of military independence from the United States.
Quelle: AFP/Getty Images
Together but separate.
(Source: AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to military spending, European Union leaders talk Europe but think nationally. More than a year since its inception, the grand plan to coordinate and integrate national armies has made very little progress.

The Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, was agreed last year to eventually enable the EU to manage its own defense with integrated forces and weapons systems, but military experts say the bloc is still far from achieving that goal.

The German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recently reported that the EU at best has only a third of the resources needed for its ambitions to intervene in armed conflicts in Europe or neighboring regions, provide humanitarian aid in catastrophes, help in rebuilding programs, and to free hostages and evacuate civilians.

The EU does not have enough ships, planes, aircraft carriers or even reconnaissance equipment to accomplish these goals, especially after the UK leaves the EU.

“The dream of becoming independent from the US can be realized, at best, only over a very long timeframe, maybe 20 years,” said DGAP expert Christian Mölling. “And then only if one is willing to spend a lot of money.”

Industrial nationalism

EU countries, both prosperous and not-so-prosperous, have focused in recent years on cutting budgets, so that virtually none of them are keeping even to the minimal NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, let alone the levels required for their stated ambitions.

This budget-cutting exacerbates two other major stumbling blocks, according to Mölling: the illusion of national sovereignty when European countries depend on each other for defense and protectionist, nationalistic policies for arms industries.

One example of this industrial nationalism is the Italy, Greece and Slovakia's PESCO project to develop a new tank. The move is unnecessary since a European state-of-the-art tank already exists: the Puma, built by Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall, said Matthias Wachter, arms industry expert at the German industrial association BDI.

The US has one tank, Europe has 17. The US has four kinds of navy warships, Europe 29. The US has 30 main weapons systems while Europe has 178. The list goes on.

Another major stumbling block is the policy on arms exports. Germany, with its history, has very strict policies on these exports, which France does not want to be bound by. So France balks at joint projects like the Future Combat Air System and other cross-national projects that might tie its hands.

Agreeing to take action

Beyond weapons systems and procurement, the whole question of when and where to deploy an EU army is fraught with issues. “If we first have to get all member countries to agree on deployment of an EU army, including several who have to get authorization from their parliament, we would never get a decision,” said Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democrat who has headed the European Parliament’s foreign policy committee for 13 years.

Brok suggested an “army of the willing” be counted on to intervene militarily, rather than trying to get full agreement from all members. This is similar to German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen’s “army of Europeans,” an expression she prefers to use instead of EU army.

So far, PESCO has only agreed on projects for ancillary issues, like formation and cyber defense. There are currently six projects under German leadership in the areas of logistics and medical service. The PESCO budget for 25 of the 28 countries taking part is a pitiful €13 billion ($14.8 billion) – to be paid between now and 2027.

Eva Fischer is a Brussels correspondent for Handelsblatt. Donata Riedel covers government policy from Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].