"A Union or the sex of angels", Olivier Dupuis

On 15 November last, Die Welt reported on the initiative of SPD members of the Bundestag for the creation of a 28th European army: a Common European Army.

Contrary to others who believe that the “Europe of Defence, which we thought unthinkable, we have done it”, Fritz Felgentreu and his colleagues consider that Europe still has a lot to do, and they provide a concrete outline of a way forward. The first merit of their proposal is doubtless that it shows unambiguously how the Union might achieve a real sharing of sovereignty in a particularly sensitive area, that of the common security of the 27. Their scenario proposes that this army should be common and “community-based”, meaning that it should come under the authority of the Union’s institutions and comprise European soldiers and not contingents from national armies. Another undeniable merit of their proposal is that it is both compatible with, and complementary to, an approach to European defence based on national armies and NATO membership, an idea brilliantly restated by German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in her recent speech at the Bundeswehr University in Hamburg.

The proposal has drawn criticisms, including some particularly interesting ones from the influential Chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the Christian Democrat Norbert Röttgen.

According to him, “The EU is not a state, but its members are. This is where the SPD proposal fails fundamentally” 1.

While the question of the “nature of the European Union” is of great interest – and has occupied many academics for decades – it is worth recalling, in the light of the classic notion of sovereign powers, that defence has been largely delegated by most EU member states to a supranational authority, NATO. The same is true for a significant part of internal security, which is now managed jointly (in the Schengen area), while in matters of law and justice the member states recognise the primacy of the courts in Luxembourg and Strasbourg. As for monetary sovereignty, most member states have created a monetary union, entrusting its management to the European Central Bank. Only budgetary sovereignty remains, for the most part, a prerogative of the member states. But, unless one considers, as we do, that the Union deserves better than a quarrel like the one concerning the sex of angels that preoccupied the besieged Byzantines, one might legitimately ask Dr Röttgen whether he considers that the member states of the Union are still, to all intents and purposes, states.

The limits of the SPD’s proposed scenario

Dr Röttgen, who is a candidate for the CDU presidency, also asserts that “the EU will not survive for long a military operation by the European Commission against the will of certain states” 2. He is right, and in so doing he points out one of the weaknesses of the SPD proposal. The proposed institutional architecture involves only the Commission and the European Parliament. However, the SPD proposal is not unalterable. In addition, there are other proposals along the same lines. One, for example, by the former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, advocates the creation of a European Legion based on the French model. Another proposal, envisaging an Enhanced Cooperation with a view to creating a Common European Army, provides for an institutional architecture involving all four EU institutions. According to the draft, the European Parliament and the Council (of Ministers) would be involved in drawing up the broad outlines of security policy and would have a monitoring function; the Commission would define the priorities of security policy in consultation with the EP and the Council, and would implement the policy and oversee the management of the common army; and the European Council would authorise, on a proposal from the Commission, deployment of the European army.

Since these are “life and death” issues, it is the member states represented at the highest level which, as advocated in his time by the former Secretary-General of the Council, Ambassador Pierre de Boissieu, would have the last word on the mandate authorising the President of the Commission to launch a military operation. If, by hypothesis, we imagine an Enhanced Cooperation involving 19 member states 3 and a decision by the European Council taken by a two-thirds majority 4, we are very far from a scenario in which a state would be forced to accept a decision that runs counter to its vital interests. The Union’s institutional experience teaches us that majority voting does not encourage the abuse of power by a majority against a minority, but is an indispensable condition for reaching a meaningful consensus. Moreover, in the hypothesis under consideration, Germany and France, with more than a third of the population 5 or seven states 6 out of the 19 parties to the Enhanced Cooperation, could constitute a blocking minority.

But the Chancellery candidate’s assertion about the risks that a common army would pose to the survival of the European Union is not rhetorical. The question of the survival of the European Union is very real. However, unlike Dr Röttgen, we believe that it is the absence of a common European security policy that constitutes the main threat to the Union’s survival in the short and medium term.

How, if not by means of a forum for working together, for considering the interests of all and for taking common political decisions – including those needing to be based on a common military instrument – could the Union deal with issues that might concern all the member states but with varying levels of acuteness and on different terms? The Turkish question is emblematic. All the member states are victims of the policy of migration blackmail conducted by Ankara. But Greece is in the front line. Turkey’s maritime claims certainly concern Greece in the first place, but also the Union as a whole if one considers for example that the Turkish claims compromise the construction of gas pipelines between Cyprus and southern Europe. Various member states have received major influxes of immigration from Turkey, but some, Germany in particular, have taken in large numbers. And yet today, instead of a response that would articulate the interests of member states in a coherent manner and in line with the values promoted by the Union, we see repeated attempts to mix oil and water. These lead either to purely declamatory European responses or to radically different and even antagonistic positions taken by member states, as when one of them promotes appeasement, accompanied by hard cash, while another makes threats of encirclement. Or where one sells submarines to Ankara, and the other frigates and fighter planes to Athens.

The “European” approach to the Libyan question is in the same vein. The intervention promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron – inopportune or insufficient depending on opinion – was profoundly anti-European in that it was carried out against the wishes of an EU country which, for historical reasons, had close economic ties with Libya. Whatever one may think of it in Paris, this instance of steamrollering left deep scars in Rome. Indeed, it continues to fuel divisions among Europeans on this issue, some of whom support the Tripoli regime while others support Marshal Haftar.

The list of warning lights in EU security does not end there. Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova are also on it, even if, whether some people like it or not, the Union benefits in these cases from the diplomatic and implicit military support of NATO. To this can be added Georgia and, as current events have sadly reminded us, Nagorno Karabakh, where Europe has remained mute even as the Turkish government – successor to the regime that perpetrated the Armenian genocide in 1915 – has become involved, both directly and by sending Syrian jihadist mercenaries.

But this list would be incomplete without Syria, the interminable tragedy that some have also been working to turn into a monstrous machine for producing refugees. From the point of view that concerns us here, the Syrian question highlights another weakness of the SPD proposal: that of the size of the proposed army. In the event of a peacemaking operation in Syria, a common European army capable of deploying 2500 soldiers would have been, it is obvious, insufficient by an order of magnitude. An army of 100,000 soldiers capable of deploying 35,000 on a continuous basis would have been necessary, at an estimated cost of 25 or 30 billion euros per year, i.e. the equivalent of 0.3% of the GDP of the member states. Would it be “financially irresponsible” for the Union to devote such an amount to ensuring its security?

But a European security policy worthy of the name should not only protect the Union against external threats. Such threats exist within the Union itself. For example, there are certain territories that are not formally part of the Union but are to all intents and purposes part of a member state. We are thinking in particular of the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and, in particular, French Polynesia, whose maritime domain amounts to more than 240,000 km2 and the exclusive economic zone to more than 4.5 million km2, i.e. more than the surface area of all the member states of the European Union. It is hard to see how this immense archipelago, located more than 15,000 kilometres from Paris, could, as it stands, be defended against the possible claims of a major authoritarian power. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine how the cohesion of the Union might be put to the test by the occupation of all or part of this French territory.

Still from the point of view of the cohesion of the Union, it does not seem excessive to ask ourselves now about the consequences of the inevitable rise in power of the German army resulting from the mere fact of Berlin’s implementation of its NATO commitment to devote 2% of its GNP to defence spending. Already today, the German and French defence budgets are equivalent. If we exclude the part that France spends on nuclear deterrence, Germany’s conventional defence budget is already much higher than the French budget. Germany’s defence budget of 1.38% is much further from the 2% target for 2024 than France’s, already at 1.82% 7. One can therefore see the differential to come and the ephemeral nature of France’s undoubted qualitative advantage in defence today. Is it reasonable to think that such an upheaval in the existing balance can be managed “the old-fashioned way”, outside of a common, resolutely European approach?

No, the European army is not just a dream, it is an urgent necessity. A Union without a common army is a guarantee of nightmares to come.

Translation by Harry Bowden | Voxeurop


  1. “SPD für eigene EU-Armee”, Der Spiegel, 15 November 2020
  2. Op. Cit.
  3. Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain
  4. Two thirds of the participating states representing two thirds of the population of the participating states
  5. Voting rights: Belgium 12; Bulgaria 7; Croatia, 5; Spain 47; Estonia 2; France 68; Germany 84; Greece 11; Italy 61; Latvia 2; Lithuania 3; Luxembourg 1; Netherlands 18; Poland 38; Portugal 11; Czech Republic 11; Romania 20; Slovakia 6; Slovenia 3
  6. Two-thirds majority of states: 13; blocking minority: 7
  7. Nato estimates 2019

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