Last November’s historic EU resolution to establish a European Defence Union (EDU) will see a new headquarters set up to command non-combatant missions such as training and humanitarian response, and the provision of 1,000-strong ‘joint battlegroups’ from mixed member states for conflict prevention and peacekeeping duties. There will also be an associated joint military research and procurement fund, with a budget of around €500m a year, intended to help develop high-tech areas such as satellites and robotics.

In many respects it seems a very small step, but it is one which has, prompted a number of questions over Europe’s future defence strategy. For some, such as vice president Federica Mogherini, the European Commission’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, within whose remit the new HQ is to be created, the path is clear.

Speaking at the opening of the 2016 European Defence Agency conference less than a fortnight before the bill was passed, she said: “There is and there will be a growing request for a principled global security provider. For a super-power that believes in multilateralism and in cooperation. For a reliable, predictable partner for peace, for growth and for democracy. And there will be, I believe, a rising call for a stronger European Union.”

While Mogherini’s frequent statements that the EDU “is not a European army” are clearly true – of itself, it is not – many less committed to the federalist cause have seen it as at least a substantive move along that route.

At 369 votes in favour, 255 against and with 70 abstentions, support for the resolution was far from unanimous, but unlike every previous attempt since the very first plan was proposed in 1950 by then French Prime Minister René Pleven this time it did carry the day.

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Perhaps the tide is on the turn, and as Estonian MEP and EU defence rapporteur Urmas Paet said during the debate ahead of November’s vote, “the momentum to move towards a working European Defence Policy has come”.

Building momentum

The  move has been in the making for a while. Back in 2015, EU President Junker, leveraging the widespread concern over the annexation of Crimea, told the German magazine Welt am Sonntag that “a common European army would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union. Such an army would help us design a common foreign and security policy.” In a speech the same year, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told her audience that a “European army is our long-term goal”.

That same message was reinforced in June 2016 by Mogherini in her foreword to the strategy paper Global Strategy for European Foreign and Security Policy.. “The idea that Europe is an exclusively ’civilian power‘ does not do justice to an evolving reality,” she wrote.

"Perhaps the clearest indication of the real strength of the drive towards a pan-European army came in the form of a leaked German white paper."

However, perhaps the clearest indication of the real strength of the drive towards a pan-European army came in the form of a leaked German white paper which emerged shortly before Mogherini’s document was presented to the European Commission.

The only way to counter the problems faced by Europe, it argued, was to set aside the current nationally organised and fragmented defence sector, and unify into a single force, with its own operational headquarters, its own council of defence ministers, and a new centralised, co-ordinated approach to materiel procurement.

There does seem to be more than the hint of this plan in the new EDU, but is it really the beginning of a bone-fide EU army, and what does any of it mean for NATO?

The force is with us

Whether the fledgling defence union represents the seeds of a ‘United States of Europe’ style military is possibly something of a moot point; you could argue that they have been sown for some time.

The signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 provided the fundamental framework for such a force politically, and in practical terms, there have already been a number of moves that have blurred the traditional lines between the militaries of some member states. Germany and the Netherlands in particular are moving apace towards a significant level of mergence, with far-reaching agreements in place to integrate their naval units, and some Dutch brigades effectively having become part of the German army.

At the wider level too, the EU has already undertaken a number of operations abroad, by land and sea, such as EUFOR and EUNAVFOR. As Mogherini delivered her strategy document to the commission, she noted that the EU was “currently deploying seventeen military and civilian operations, with thousands of men and women serving under the European flag”.

That sounds like a bit of a fait accompli; it seems the EU force is already with us.

Implications for NATO

Countless column inches have been devoted in the last year alone to speculation over how a European army might affect NATO, not least in terms of funding, and it is not hard to see why.

According to NATO figures, apart from the US, only four members currently meet the required defence spending of at least 2% of GDP, and of those, only Greece and the UK have consistently done so since 1995.

"Apart from the US, only four members currently meet the required defence spending of at least 2% of GDP."

It has been seven years since any other NATO members hit the target – and even then, only one of the two, France, was an EU state. As new US President Trump has made perfectly clear, although the US remains committed to NATO, the days of European security paid for by American tax dollars are over.

Defence spending in the EU as a whole averages just 1.3%. If the words of Mogherini and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about Europe needing to take responsibility for its own defence are to be anything more than rhetoric, European states will need to reach for their respective cheque-books – and even more so if the EU really wishes to push ahead with the idea of its own armed forces.

Another agenda in play

However, it’s not simply about competition for funding, resources and personnel, or the potential pitfalls of overlap and duplication. These are issues that any EU military initiative will have to address. While stressing the desire for ‘full synergy’ with the trans-Atlantic alliance in creating the new EDU, the European Parliament specifically spoke of enabling the EU to “be prepared to act autonomously in cases where NATO is not willing to take the lead”.

From a military perspective it is hard to see just where that might be. Certainly the history books would suggest that the EU is more likely to stand by and do nothing – if not suffer from an outright paralysis of indecision, as it shamefully did as the Balkans conflict unfolded – than NATO.

Perhaps, as Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott (retired), Commanding Officer of HMS Splendid during the Falklands Conflict and later NATO Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic, suggested in a speech at Portsmouth in June 2016, there is another agenda in play.

“The danger here” he said, “is that motivation behind EU defence is integration, not defence, and this challenges the primacy of NATO, which has kept the peace in Europe since the war.”

If he is right, and Europe’s new non-combatant army is just one more step in the process of ever closer union towards a full-blown European super-state, ultimately the military of each individual state will have to be subsumed into the emerging greater EU army.

That might find favour in the European Parliament, but support amongst the wider public of those states may be much less certain. Against a background of looming elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands, a resurgence of nationalism around the globe, and a rising wave of populist politics that propelled Trump into the White House and Britain out of the European fold, it could be a very hard sell.

Mogherini has described the EU as being at a “turning point” after the “shocking result in the UK” and sees the defence union as the best chance for a reboot. How successful that may be remains to be seen.