EU Integration: The Military Dimension

By Lee Hill, J.D. Candidate, Columbia Law School

The project of European integration is facing a potential crossroads as sociopolitical developments within and without the European Union place strain on institutional capacity. While economic and fiscal coordination issues rightly attract significant attention, Europe’s leaders have turned to the concept of greater security integration as a possible avenue through which to revive collective support for the EU.  In particular, the concept of supra-national military coordination for its potential to address major security concerns while also recommitting the EU member states in the wake of Brexit. Whether military integration can act as the salve its proponents champion it to be, however, remains in doubt.

Since the end of the World War II, Europe has experienced an era of unprecedented political and economic integration, most notably manifested in the European Union itself. However, the project of European integration remains controversial. Recent events have called into question the efficacy of the EU to respond to modern problems facing its individual member states and the EU as an institution. While certainly not the only concern, maintenance of national and global security is among the foremost problems vexing Europe’s people and leaders. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, the continued instability in the Middle East, an ongoing refugee crisis, the potential threat of Russia, and the United States’ potential wavering commitment to NATO all present worrying and interrelated threats to European security.

While not new by any means, the concept of a supranational “European army” has periodically received support within Europe. Sir Winston Churchill made the first post-war proposal for a “European army subject to proper European democratic control” in 1950. His proposal for a “European Defense Community” was eventually rejected by the French Parliament and mostly forgotten. Nonetheless, the proposal’s failure seems to have been a motivating factor behind the creation of the EU’s predecessor, the European Common Market. In the absence of a supranational army, European integration occurred under the protective umbrella of collective security alliances, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which received practical relevance largely through the commitment of the United States.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, NATO’s original raison d’être vanished. While NATO continues to be an important force in international security and trans-Atlantic relations the lack of a clear threat on their borders, and a twin commitment to resolving conflict through non-military means and to economic development led many EU member states to reduce the size and funding of their militaries. In addition, the United States and United Kingdom consistently and strenuously opposed any movement towards creating of a European army that had the potential to undermine and rival the centrality of NATO to Europe’s security infrastructure. A truly supranational European army, therefore, lacked essential support and justification.

In response, leaders from Italy, Germany, France, and the EU itself have called for greater military integration, including the German Defense Minister and President of the European Commission. They cite benefits such as pooling resources to jointly develop assets, reduce redundancies, and bringing the militaries of smaller nations into a more effective army based with greater economy of scale. In addition, this force could prove a rapid-response function that could serve to build greater cohesion and trust amongst its contributors and that would complement NATO, rather than replace it. One legal benefit of this approach would be that because neutral EU members must be given an opt-out, these policies will be implemented by agreements among member states as “permanent structured cooperation,” without arduous treaty re-negations.

Military integration has several important advantages and drawbacks in the context of European integration. For one, some of the EU’s most influential members support military integration as a means of strengthening the bloc’s existing infrastructure. Further, the UK’s decision to leave the EU removes one of the primary opponents to EU military integration. The plan would help to pool resources of the remaining European Union member states, reducing redundancies and providing for greater flexibility in deployment, at the beginning of a potential upward trend in European defense spending. This strategy could provide significant support to stronger European security.

However, major obstacles still remain. The EU as originally envisioned is not a military alliance. Questions of domestic constitutional law in the EU member states, such various principles within the German Grundgesetz which place severe restrictions on military deployments, could prohibit the project altogether or require substantial revisions to the EU’s basic framework. This highlights the major obstacle in that the EU as presently constituted is not a political union with the ability to command and control a permanent military structure. Furthermore, creating an army could be counter-productive, by serving to antagonize Russia and eastern Baltic states as well as a key ally in the United States. If done improperly, the project could serve to undermine the EU further, rather than retrench its relevancy in the minds of Europe’s citizens. Given these grave possible consequences, the EU’s leaders must weigh their options carefully before embarking on such a perilous course.

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