Common European army – possibilities and obstacles to implementation

  • Redakce ESJ
  • 21.4.2017 18:03

The proposal for a common European army has been recently often mentioned in media and political circles. However, the idea lacks any detailed information concerning its specifics, solutions and potential impacts. Is the idea feasible at all? What the realised vision of a common European army should look like and how it fits into the overall context of the security and political situation?

Under the pressure of events, which affects essentially the whole European Union, such as the migration crisis, terrorist attacks on European territory, and the growing tensions between the West and Russia, there have been stronger calls for deeper and broader EU defence integration in recent years. Recent EU defence integration efforts include, for example, European force units (EU Battlegroups) that are subordinated directly to the Council of the European Union. Currently, there are 18 of them and they are based on the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). They are multinational battalion-sized units (1 500 men) operating on a rotating basis, every six months two combat units are chosen that have to be ready for immediate deployment to defend the interests and territories of the European Union. We also have to mention the European Union Military Staff (EUMS), which is a part of the office of the High Representative of the Union and has more of a consultative nature in general. Another function is to oversee operations based on the CSDP and to coordinate the deployed forces of the individual EU states within the given mission. The EUMS supervised, for example, EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina and EUFOR Concordia in Macedonia. However, the EU Military Staff does not directly issue orders to military missions under the auspices of the EU that is the concern of the Operation Headquarters (OHQ), which also establishes command bases for a given mission in the competence of a particular member country and is subjected to the approval of the EU Council. However, on the foreign missions, we can observe the good functioning of both the Military Staff and operational headquarters and their first-rate cooperation. However, this option has never been used to address a serious crisis situation within the EU territory that required a military intervention.

Despite ambitious plans to create a common European army, there is currently no unified concept that would be at least partially introduced to the public. Therefore, it is not quite clear what form the deepening of the European defence integration should take, although there are several indications of the possible direction this issue might take.

All-EU level

On 14 September 2016, President of the European Commission (EC) Jean-Claude Juncker spoke during a meeting of the European Parliament about the need to establish a common European military headquarters. According to him, the absence of a similar permanent structure results in unnecessary waste of funds on duplicate missions. He also stated that this step should lead to the creation of a joint military force between individual member states that in some cases could be directed by the European Union as such. He also denied an often repeated argument that these efforts would undermine the functioning and effectiveness of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). In addition, the head of the European diplomacy, Federica Mogherini, emphasised that the EU now has a policy space on this issue for decisions that would be unfeasible in the past. She very likely hinted at the Great Britain's decision to leave the EU, which eliminated one of the major obstacles to deeper European defence integration.

The President of the European Commission mentioned that the establishment of common headquarters should lead to the institutionalisation and integration of the European defence forces in order to create a unified combat force. Combat groups are clearly inadequate to fend off a big attack by a state actor like Russia in the context of hybrid war. This initiative should lead to both better efficiency and cost reductions, especially in the long-term. It would also increase the ability to respond more quickly to serious threats of aggression, particularly from state actors.

These are, to some extent, legitimate arguments. However, it is not entirely clear what form in particular these common headquarters or common military force should have. Some sources speak of a vision that the commanding structure should be comprising of forces of France, Germany, Italy and Poland, not even mentioning an involvement of other states. There are also issued like where the headquarters should be located and what would be its competencies? Another problematic question is fragmentation of forces and conflict of interest with NATO. While this issue has been denied by the President of the European Commission, there is no specific information available that would adequately rebut possible negative impacts on the functioning of NATO.

On the other hand, it is a fact that capabilities of the individual European armed forces of the EU countries are very limited since they lack deeper cooperation and closer connection and are almost pitiful in comparison with the most often repeated threat represented by the aggressive policy of the Russian Federation. Looking at it more closely, we find that the estimates that the Russian troops could take control of the Baltics in a matter of days are not only realistic but rather a sad fact. This to some extent resulted from the fact that the EU countries has long relied on military forces of the United States military force as their main ally and neglected their investment in their own armed forces and the defence sector in general. This is especially clear in the case of the North Atlantic Alliance. Only 5 out of the 28 NATO members spend 2% GDP on defence, one of which is logically the United States. However, the main supporters of a common European army, like Germany or France, are not among them.

The conflict in Ukraine and the increasing tensions between Russia and the West have shown that not even the United States can always act as a deterrent element. Europe is starting to realise that if it wants to secure its safety in the future, it will have to do more for it itself, and not rely on a strong overseas ally. Also, according to research and expert surveys, in the scenario of mass military aggression from another state, the current integration solution like the EU combat force would be extensively inadequate.

State level

If consider the level of individual member states, the idea of a common European army is being particularly promoted by France and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Hollande have expressed their support for the proposal of the President of the European Commission. Some V4 countries, such as the Czech Republic or Hungary, have also supported the idea of the European army, but their argument for its support is more specific. The reason for their support of the proposal is most importantly the migration crisis, as they see the benefits of a common army in the possibility of a better control of the EU's common borders. As for Poland and Slovakia, their view is somewhat soberer, and their comments express their fear of undermining the efforts built within NATO. Specifically, these concerns regard a possible duplication of NATO structures and functioning, fragmentation of forces and finances that smaller states have insufficient means for and they are unlikely to have them in the future. Like the Baltic states, Poland is far more concerned with Russian aggression, and their so-far strong focus on co-operation within the aforementioned NATO is also resulting in this more sober and cautious approach. Representatives of the Baltic states also mention the issue of sovereignty regarding the control of armed forces and concerns for its disruption caused by inadequately established institutionalisation.

These states also point out the fact that guaranteeing a common approach and military help against the aggressor is somewhat problematic in NATO already, since the Article 5 does not explicitly state an obligation to provide military assistance. Basically, any kind of help can be acceptable, even non-military help. How this matter would be dealt with in the context of a deeper integration of the European armed forces, who would decide that the states should militarily assist another member and whether there would be a mechanism to enforce this decision: these are key issues that cannot be answered due to the lack of information.


As for the actual implementation of the plans, outlined by European politicians, the establishment of a common headquarters and, subsequently, a unified combat force larger than the current combat groups, is theoretically feasible. It would probably be a process that would take years to become operational and applicable, but it could take inspiration from how NATO operates.

The problem could be the dislocation of units that would either have to move all the time so that bases and facilities specifically for these units would have to be established because the reaction time in the case of preserving home bases located across Europe would most likely be insufficient. The composition of a common headquarters could theoretically function again on a rotating basis, as is the case of combat groups. Another option would be to create integrated military formations of geographically close units to avoid moving around and to shorten the reaction time. It would be necessary to increase the number of joint exercises and to focus more on the standardisation process, which could again take inspiration from the NATO and STANAG standards.

The proposal for a joint EU defence budget, which is promoted by, among others, by German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, is also very likely to be a feasible matter. The budget could be then divided into specific chapters contributed to by individual member countries. This would include, for example, a chapter on joint investment, a chapter on the headquarters's operation and organisation, or a chapter to support the funding of operations themselves. However, the question remains how the economies of the individual states would react and whether they would be able to cover these contributions without suffering from the inability to finance their own armed forces and maintain and enhance their capabilities.

Last but not least, there is an issue of who would make the decision regarding the deployment of a common European army. As has already been stated by the head of the European Commission, in certain cases of immediate need, the EU itself should decide that. However, how the decision-making process should be legally anchored, which specific EU institution should have the authority to approve and manage this deployment, and how the consensus mechanism should work in this matter can only be the subject of discussion at this point.

Summary and recommendations

The primary effort of the EU member states should be to increase the funding of the armed forces and to supply capabilities in areas that are the most lacking, in as short a time as possible. Furthermore, the integration could slowly continue by intensifying joint exercises and organising larger multinational combat units than are the current battalion forces. Reliance on the United States should be slowly but carefully shifted to the shoulders of European armies. Here, it would be necessary to ensure synergy with NATO structures, to draw on knowledge and experience of their functioning, and to reduce duplication and unnecessary fragmentation of forces and resources. There could be also a space for the already mentioned establishment of a common command structure that could incorporate the EU Military Staff and thus have more competencies depending on the ongoing integration.

In the current situation, it is very problematic to predict future developments due to the lack of information regarding a specific plan of a common European defence, which the top EU leaders still keep to themselves. Events such as Brexit and the US presidential election, together with the growing tensions between the West and the Russian Federation suggest that the will to speed up the implementation of this plan is going to be more often and more prominent within the Union. Underdeveloped military capabilities, low spending on the defence in the most EU states, and the issue of meeting commitments of providing military help will, however, not solve the establishment of the unified army. Specific plans for the creation of a European army must, therefore, be preceded by a change in the approach of the European states to defence as such.

About author: Redakce ESJ


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