A Joint European Military Force: Motives and Ambitions

Why Does the European Union Seek to Establish Unified Military Force?
Belgian army Special Forces are seen during the Black Blade military exercise involving several European Union countries and organised by the European Defence Agency at Florennes airbase, Belgium November 30, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Members of the EU-Battlegroup wait for Austrian Defence Minister Norbert Darabos as he visits their barracks in Mautern about 60 kilometres (38miles) west of Vienna May 11, 2012. Credit: Reuters

Voices come from within the countries of Europe. The European Union calls for the need to find a rapid-intervention military force that can intervene militarily in areas of regional and international conflict in order to support European policy decisions. The plan has the support of fourteen member states and aims to enhance the military capabilities of the European Union, as part of a review of its comprehensive strategy that will be agreed upon in 2022.

The demands for the formation of a united European army were increased as part of Europe’s national ambitions to secure its national security in the wake of Britain’s exit from the European Union, and in the wake of the Trump administration’s threats to reduce protection in the event that European countries did not escalate their military spending. 

The Idea of a European Army

The idea of a European army was first discussed in 1950. It was proposed by France and would have consisted of the "Inner Six" countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany at that time), in order to strengthen defense against the Soviet threat without directly rearming Germany in the wake of World War II. In 1952 the Treaty establishing the European Defense Community was signed but not ratified by the member states.

Europe was worried about President Joe Biden’s precipitous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and there were renewed calls for an EU military force. But while proponents of “strategic autonomy” say the fall of Kabul should serve as a wake-up call, others do not see it as an existential threat and are content to remain as junior partners to US military might.

European countries had no option but to pull out of Afghanistan along with the US – despite their desire for Western troops to stay and stop the country falling into the Taliban’s hands. Washington’s NATO allies depended on US logistics and aerial support for their military engagement in Afghanistan – and then for the safe evacuation of their citizens.  

Ministers from France, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Estonia, Spain and Portugal signed a letter of intent in Luxembourg on 25th June 2018. The initiative is backed by the UK which is allowed to participate after even after Brexit. Nine EU member states have agreed to establish a European military force for rapid deployment in times of crisis, an initiative which has won the backing of the UK as it seeks to maintain defense ties after Brexit. Spearheaded by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the joint enterprise will allow national armed forces across Europe to coordinate and react swiftly together. 

European Self-defense

Defense is a specific capability and is at the heart of Member States’ national sovereignty. For the majority of EU Member States, European defense mainly consists of two important layers: Member States’ own self-defense capability and the collective defense offered by NATO. The EU treaty highlights the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP)’s unique nature, enshrining the Member States’ leading role and containing several limitations on the EU’s action in this area.

EU foreign and defense ministers were debating the plan on 16th November 2021 in Brussels, aiming to settle on a final document by March next year for Joint Military Force. The European Union is considering a joint military force of up to 5,000 troops by 2025 to intervene in a range of crises without relying on the United States, according to a draft plan.  The "EU Rapid Deployment Capacity" would be made up of land, sea and air components that could be swapped in and out of any standing force, depending on the crisis, according to the confidential 28-page document dated Nov. 9.

The EU and NATO

The EU and NATO complement rather than compete with each other. In cases where NATO as a whole is not engaged, the EU is to be able to launch and conduct its own military operations.

The alliance's European members should work more closely together to coordinate a joint armaments, training and leadership policy. For the moment, the armies of NATO's EU members are still too inefficient, expensive and bureaucratic, as well as far too prone to working on their own instead of together.

The Force is to “respond to imminent threats or quickly react to a crisis situation, for example, a rescue and evacuation mission or a stabilization operation in a hostile environment.” Command and control would lie with pre-identified national operational headquarters or a body within the EU’s Military Staff (EUMS). 

The European army is the term for a hypothetical army of the European Union which would supersede the Common Security and Defense Policy and would go beyond the proposed European Defense Union. Currently, there is no such army, and defense is a matter for the member states.

Full Range of Military Crisis-management Tasks

Europe would commit to establishing an EU Intervention Force of about 5,000 troops by 2025 to respond to the full range of military crisis-management tasks, for example a rescue and evacuation mission or a stabilization operation in a hostile environment. Member states have been struggling to affirm their common security and defense capabilities, an objective made more pressing by the chaotic U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a new U.S.-led defense pact with Australia that saw France lose a massive submarine contract. Leaders are due to discuss the blueprint in December, and endorse a final version in March 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron has made developing the European Federation “bloc’s” strategic autonomy in defense a priority. 

Project Proposals

According to a BBC report, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on 15th September 2021, that the EU should seek to beef up its military capabilities to confront security threats and global crises. She told the European Parliament she believed EU military forces would be "part of the solution." The Commission President said the EU had to provide greater stability in its own neighbourhood and elsewhere, taking part in missions that did not include NATO and the UN. It also had to share intelligence and become a leader in cyber-security. What had held the EU back until now was "not just a shortfall of capacity - it is the lack of political will", she explained. You can have the most advanced forces in the world - but if you are never prepared to use them, of what use are they?" she told the Strasbourg parliament on 15th September 2021.

The project proposals for the Connecting Europe Facility are a concrete example, with a budget of EUR 330 million, as well as a decision to include a program for the development of a digital system for the secure and quick exchange of information related to military mobility. This is a part of the 2021 annual work agenda of the European Defense Fund and would cost EUR 50 million. 

EU Rapid Reaction after West's Failure in Afghanistan

The EU rapid reaction force would not have prevented the West's failure in Afghanistan, says DW's Bernd Riegert. He suggests that EU member states concentrate on strengthening their presence in NATO. In the wake of the Afghanistan disaster, various EU defense and foreign ministers are once again calling for more military autonomy and a common intervention force. For over 20 years, there has been talk of an EU force that would be able to act without US support, possibly around the world. But it still does not exist:  First, because there is a lack of political will; and secondly, because it would be expensive and complicated to set up in military terms. On paper, the bloc does have a common defense policy, but the European Defense Agency (EDA) is one that largely busies itself with niche projects and feasibility studies. 

EU Defense Autonomy

EU Council President Charles Michel said on 1st September 2021, that the European Union needs to pursue decision-making autonomy in the wake of the chaotic evacuations from Afghanistan that ended last week. "In my view, we do not need another such geopolitical event to grasp that the EU must strive for greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world," he told the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia. Looking to the future of the EU's role in the world, the EU Council President discussed the importance of maintaining the bloc's influence in an interdependent world. "European influence will be our greatest challenge in the coming years, and Afghanistan has offered a stark demonstration," he said.


The idea of establishing a European army may have come about because of the unwillingness and inability of European countries to meet Washington’s demands to increase funding for NATO bases and many of its units and foreign countries of Europe. It is likely that the German and French army will form the backbone of the European Union countries in the wake of Britain's exit.

There are several factors hindering the building of a European army, namely, the lack of unified military concepts as well as the lack of a military force for rapid intervention and a common command. Additionally, the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries do not want to replace the Atlantic umbrella with European protection.

The main problem, as explained by political scientist Jan Tekao of the German Marshall Fund, is a situation of mistrust: the French and Germans suffer from a complete distrust of each other, the Italians do not trust either of them, and the Germans lack confidence even in themselves.  Warsaw does not trust Berlin, Bucharest does not trust Budapest, the people of the Balkans do not trust anyone at all, and so on.

The European Union countries aspired to form a European army separate from NATO or even in parallel with it until the completion of the separation, but with the European Union losing one of the 10 most important militarily countries in the world, and only France coming within this classification, some suggest that these dreams are will be fading out. Some countries of the Union, such as Iceland and Luxembourg, have a limited or almost non-existent army.


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