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Towards a European Army ?

While the Russian advance into Ukraine has become stuck in the mud the European diplomatic response has been something of a blitzkrieg, stunning in its speed and power. Even the EU’s biggest fans have to admit it usually creeps, sloth like, towards inadequate compromise. In these early days of crisis, it has demonstrated resolve and unity on sanctions and military aid.

The EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell, basically its Foreign Secretary, declares we have ‘witnessed the belated birth of a geopolitical Europe’. He sounds slightly surprised himself, continuing “We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past week than we did in the previous decade”.

This week (Thursday 10th March), in the awe-inspiring setting of Versailles, President Macrons will urge the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the European Union to take a step or two further down that route, towards becoming a mightier power in the world. The man who a couple of years ago pronounced NATO “brain dead” wants Europe to beef up its own defence – ‘strategic autonomy’ in the jargon.

Brexit helps him enormously.

The European Union, never really the potential Super State demanded by a few and dreaded by some, is not even a Superpower. It has not only spoken so softly and with such discord that it often can’t be heard, but also carried a stick of such minuscule proportions as to invite ribald mockery.

One Belgian foreign minister put it well : the EU is an “an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm.” Perhaps the worm is about to turn, prompted by the invasion and without the UK there to block its way.

Headline writers in the Express or Telegraph have long known conjuring the spectre of a “European Army”, built on some vague suggestion of a trivial increase in European defence cooperation, could always be relied on to make British Eurosceptics choke on their breakfast marmalade. Their choler was often about sovereignty, but the politician’s concerns were mainly about NATO.

The fears of the EU’s two post imperial nuclear powers were mirror opposites. The French, from De Gaulle to Macron, fretted over American domination of continental defence and attendant Anglo Saxon perfidy. The Brits worried about undermining the special relationship, the transatlantic alliance, and generally offending Uncle Sam.

Now, with us out of the way, Macron feels free to go back to the ambitions before the Common Market ever existed for a Common European Defence Force, ironically scuppered by the French who seventy years ago refused to sign the Treaty of Paris. (you can read more on this history, and a more detailed account generally, in my piece in the New European – I’ll put a link up when it’s published.)

The EU may now employ some of the existing exotic instruments at its disposal to build up its military muscle. It has already retooled one such project : the obscure sounding European Peace Facility, designed with Africa in mind, will be used to buy 500 million euros worth of arms to help Ukraine. .

Then there’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – a defence initiative which includes all EU countries bar Malta and Denmark. Under its umbrella, there are currently more than 60 different military projects on the go, mostly plans to develop tougher instruments of modern warfare: micro and macro drones, new ships, cyber and space defence. Already the EU has hastily ordered the rewriting of its “Strategic Compass” document, adding seven pages, so it now talks about a “more hostile security environment” demanding a “quantum leap forward” to “increase our capacity and willingness to act”.

Two factors in particular allow this sea change.

The Eastern Europeans, often opponents of more integration, now find themselves in the front line and want all the practical help they can get. The untried and untested new German Government has ditched years of guilt fuelled hesitation about lethal force and pumped 100 billion Euros into a special fund for new ships, aircraft and better trained soldiers. The impoverished and undervalued Bundeswher is to be transformed into something like a modern fighting machine. This is not all. The Danes, also increasing military spending, are to hold a referendum in June on joining the Common EU defence policy. In Ireland there’s a newly impassioned debate on the tradition of neutrality.

None of this means these steps are necessarily wise. But nor should they be seen in the faded old light of a challenge to NATO. . The Americans will welcome Europe doing more, if it doesn’t threaten the basic purpose. The Alliance has been immeasurably strengthened by the fact of war in Europe. It’s original Cold War purpose of deterring Soviet aggression has been underscored, the worth of Article Five ( ‘an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’ ) underlined. Neutral Sweden and Finland are talking about joining – and for the first time ever opinion polls indicate a majority of Finns want to be in NATO.

Never the less the EU is going to change with debates not only about defence but its extent and purpose.

As one of the European project’s architects, Jean Monnet,

said “Europe will be forged in crises and it will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises’. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how those new sums will add up.

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