Eu flags by Christian Lue, Unsplash

The volatile role of the USA in the international political system has underlined the need for further EU defence integration to ensure effective and conventional deterrence. E&M author Jonas Fleega argues that for the EU to break free of its institutional deadlock, the focus must move away from reactive policy responding to the last crisis towards pre-emptive steps preparing for the next one. 

‘America is back’.

Joe Biden’s tweet on November 24th 2020 was meant to symbolise a return to the multilateral system,with the US in the driving seat, on issues ranging from climate change to defence cooperation. The sentiment was hammered home by his speech at the Munich Security Conference, touting the commitment of the US to the Western alliance system. His most recent actions, notably signalling a willingness to enter negotiations with Iran brokered by the EU, support the idea of a normalisation of the transatlantic relationship, not least through a diplomatic charm offensive coinciding with the G7 summit.

However, despite the defeat of Trump, the transatlantic military relationship is beset by the legacy of four years of tense relations, undermined by scepticism about the usefulness of NATO in the 21st century. Media narratives surrounding the willingness of the USA to go to war over the territorial integrity of far-flung countries like Latvia are symbolic of a loss of trust in the ability of NATO to deter military aggression. This is only amplified by long-standing demands for Europeans to shoulder the burden by spending 2% of GDP on defence and Macron’s comments about NATO’s ‘brain death’.

With a resurgent Russia and ascending China, navigating the current global order requires greater transatlantic cooperation – perhaps more than ever before. Yet, the West’s response to threats ranging from increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea to Russian aggression in Ukraine and disinformation campaigns throughout Europe risks being stunted by divisions stemming from a security architecture built for the Cold War.

An EU Army?

One way to strengthen European military capacity and potentially rekindle transatlantic cooperation is to create an EU army within NATO structures; a proposal spearheaded by (amongst others) the liberals in the European Parliament and echoed by the Commission’s calls for ‘Strategic Autonomy’.

On the one hand, it would be a way to ensure that the 162 billion euros spent by EU members on defence are invested in a more efficient way. Integrating R&D, procurement and command structures would augment operational capacity whilst lowering the cost per capita. Increased military effectiveness, in turn, enables greater engagement with the USA, lowering the tension surrounding the 2% target.

On the other hand, a European army would encourage the USA to come to the defence of all EU member states, no matter how small, much like other NATO members would come to the defence of an invasion of Alaska. The need for such concrete deterrence vis-à-vis Russia is augmented by the US ‘Pivot to Asia’, formulated by Barack Obama and continued by Biden. The focus on containing an increasingly aggressive China has reduced the importance of the European theatre from the US perspective as domestic political attention embraces the narrative of a second Cold War. Importantly, integrating European defence policy would enable greater power projection in contested Asian regions such as the Indo-Pacific.

Concrete progress remains a pipe dream held by European federalists in university classrooms

Despite a broad consensus on the need for a more integrated European defence policy, notably in France and Germany, concrete progress remains a pipe dream held by European federalists in university classrooms. So far, the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has a narrow mandate with a focus on joint humanitarian, peace-keeping and rescue missions. Meanwhile, the activation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in 2017, intended to develop combat-ready European task forces, has been stunted by an inability of Member States to agree on operation parameters due to different risk-appetites and concerns over deployment cost.

So far this may all sound reasonable enough. But why hasn’t it happened until now? What makes cooperation on defence policy so difficult?

Institutional Inertia

One reason for piecemeal EU defence integration is the unanimity requirement for any decision-making in the European Council on related matters. By endowing each of the 27 Member States with an effective veto, policy formulation becomes bogged down in a ‘Joint Decision Trap’ as formulated by Fritz Scharpf. If each decision requires unanimous agreement, the set of outcomes everyone can agree to become small and often non-existent. The result is a slow, fractured progress, with many of the benefits of defence integration being watered down by proposals for ‘two-speed’ integration.

Moving away from unanimity by instituting qualified majority voting, whereby at least 55% of Member States representing 66% of the EU’s population can make decisions on behalf of the EU, would be a way to overcome the gridlock. However, such a move would require treaty change which is itself subject to unanimity, enabling fears held by smaller member states about encroachments on national sovereignty to stall reform.

‘Never Waste a Crisis’

Yet despite being beset by institutional inertia, European integration has powered forward in other policy areas, notably monetary and fiscal. One explanation given by scholars highlights the role of crises in forcing decisive action.

An example is the Euro-zone sovereign debt crisis, which led to the creation of the European Banking Authority. The role of banks and the European financial system in the Euro crisis necessitated a watchdog that monitored financial institutions on a European level to identify systemic risks before they become critical. The threat of Spanish default forced the German chancellor Merkel to agree to the establishment of such an institution, despite long-standing opposition on the grounds of creating moral hazard.

Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic forced previously ‘hawkish’ northern EU Member States to u-turn and agree to the issuance of debt on an EU-level, a huge step towards the creation of a true fiscal union. Fears over a renewed sovereign debt crisis meant that the costs of inaction grew dramatically, shifting veto points and leading to consensus. The increased costs of inaction even led politicians to ignore hostile public opinion, as shown by Germany’s willingness to support Eurobonds despite 65% of the public being opposing the idea.

But is betting on a ‘Europe forged in crisis’, as prophesied by Jean Monnet, a feasible approach for defence integration?

A Defence Crisis

The kind of ‘reactive’ policy-making which may work in response to economic shocks – where an already-integrated EU can tweak existing institutions to soothe markets – would not work to react to the type of crisis severe enough to shift veto positions on defence policy.

Firstly, because crises in the defence field are often existential – picture a military invasion of Latvia – waiting for such a crisis to shift positions in favour of an EU army would be ineffective. The role of military force as a deterrent necessitates a forward-looking strategy that breaks free from the logic of legislating for the last crisis.

When compared to the furious reactions to Greek default during the Euro crisis, European responses to Russian activities in Ukraine or Estonia appear insignificant

Even if the nature of military confrontation has changed (as many argue), the type of hybrid warfare pursued by Russia does not shift veto positions sufficiently to inspire substantial reform. Incremental disinformation campaigns, political interference and false flag attacks wrapped up in plausible deniability make any decisive attribution of blame difficult. When compared to the furious reactions to Greek default during the Euro crisis, European responses to Russian activities in Ukraine or Estonia appear insignificant.

The nature of modern, hybrid military conflicts makes policymaking on the back of a sense of urgency difficult. The fact that the invasion of Ukraine, support of far-right parties throughout Europe and targeted disinformation campaigns seeking to undermine trust in democratic institutions has not led to substantial progress on defence integration speaks for itself.

Member States have an obligation to look beyond the political business cycle to kick-start the long process towards European military integration. A starting point could be developing an ERASMUS scheme for soldiers during training, whilst lowering barriers to joint battle group deployment. The French-led operation ‘Barkhani’, aiming to support the government of Mali in fighting Islamist militants, is a promising first step. The time for pre-emptive policymaking is now – by the time the costs of inaction become high enough, it could already be too late.

Cover Photo: by Unsplash – Christian Lue.




  • Jonas Fleega is half Iraqi and half German, grew up in Southern Spain and has lived in London for the past 5 years. Having started off with an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Jonas is now studying for an MSc in Political Economy of Europe. His interests lie in the intersection between culture, politics and economics applied to a European context. He is particularly interested in populist threats to the EU and how to navigate the increasingly uncertain political landscape of Europe. In his free time, Jonas likes to travel, eat and visit his 9 dogs in Spain.

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