Europe’s dream army
Amid the debates over whether the Feb. 12, 2015, cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russian-supported rebels in the eastern part of the country will hold, and whether the rebels’ next target would be to connect with Russian-occupied Crimea, NATO members including the U.S., Canada, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Romania are holding joint military exercises near the Bulgarian port of Varna, across the Crimean peninsula. The U.S.-led maneuvers will continue until the end of March, and will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare, as well as small boat attacks. The exercises of six vessels, assigned to Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG2), is planned to increase coordination among member countries, to show their commitment to collective defense and to deter possible Russian aggression towards Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, Russia is likewise holding large-scale military exercises in southern Russia and the northern Caucasus, which will last until April 10. This reciprocal power play comes at a time when relations between the West and Russia have been strained as a result of Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis and Western sanctions against Russia.
In light of the changing security environment, NATO has been trying to enhance its capabilities and the member states decided to create a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) at the Wales Summit on Sept. 4-5, 2014. More recently, NATO defense ministers agreed on the size and scope of the Spearhead Force within the VJTF on Feb. 5, though nothing has been implemented yet.
While this discussion continues, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonnta on March 8, sparked a new debate by arguing Europe needs a joint EU military force. During the interview, Juncker advocated that a joint military force would improve the EU’s international prestige and send a warning to Russia that the EU is serious about defending its values and borders. While the U.K. and France argued it might undermine NATO’s role in Europe, German officials supported it.
Creating some sort of a joint military force in Europe is not new. The debate regarding establishing a common security and defense policy/structure in Europe dates back to the post-World War II era. The Brussels Pact, the Western European Union, the European Defense Community and the Fouchet Plan were among the early examples of such an idea.
Since the foundation of the EU, the efforts to create a common security and defense policy in Europe have followed different paths. The developments from 1999 onwards finally enabled the creation of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), formerly the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), in the EU. Even though the EU is not a full-fledged military actor today, both completed and on-going missions and operations attest to the fact that the EU has covered a lot of ground on this.
The prospect of a joint EU military force is still rather weak at the moment. First of all, member states are not willing to spend more on security. Especially after seeing that most of the member states have failed to meet NATO’s decision to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, this obstacle looms larger than life. The U.S. military presence in Europe, almost 66,000 troops as of December 2014, still provides hard security for most of the members. As long as the effects of the Euro crisis are felt, the EU members would not be willing to discuss the idea, even in abstract.
Varying political interests, divergent priorities and habit of free-riding will continue to hamper the realization of such a dream. Thus, it would be a better idea at the moment to focus on NATO and its headline goal of defense spending in order to at least keep it relevant.