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The ‘European Army’ marches again

by Nick Witney | 21.07.2016

The old lies are often the best ones. The ‘European army’ scare worked a treat in the run-up to Ireland’s famous ‘No’ to the EU’s Lisbon treaty in 2008, so it was naturally redeployed in the Brexit campaign. Now, it seems, Europhobes can’t have enough of it: “Merkel to push ahead with EU army following Brexit vote, says German defence minister,” declared the Express website last Thursday.

Only, of course, Ursula von der Leyen, the minister in question, said no such thing. She neither uttered the words ‘EU army’ herself, nor ascribed any such ambition to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor is the mythical army to be found anywhere in the pages of the new German defence and security white paper, which von der Leyen was launching at the time.

And this for the very good reason that Germans are no readier for a meaningful European army than are the Brits or any other EU member state. True, the concept occasionally features in German political debate as a long-term aspiration – a more appealing rationale for spending more on defence than a stronger national army, for obvious historical reasons. But the idea that young men and women, British or German, could be sent into battle on the say-so of some supranational authority – the notion that makes a ‘European army’ such an effective scare story – is no more palatable in Berlin than in London, or indeed anywhere else in Europe.

What the German white paper does address is the need for Germany to contribute to a more effective European defence effort, within NATO and as part of the EU. But the proposals put forward are for closer defence cooperation between sovereign member states, undertaken on a voluntary basis. Elsewhere, I have argued that this is the sort of European defence that Britain would do well to stay involved with, even after Brexit: it is something that not only makes good economic and military sense, but is also actively supported by the US and NATO allies.

But we have some ground to make up.

The Express headline was a lie. But the story below it was accurate in reporting von der Leyen as observing that “Britain had ‘paralysed’ European efforts for closer integration in military coordination and ‘blocked everything that had Europe written on it’”. All our EU partners, without exception, have for years now wanted to strengthen the European Defence Agency, a sort of cooperation incubator. Britain has vetoed in isolation. All the others want a small, joint, HQ outfit established in Brussels to oversee EU peace-keeping operations. Again, the Brits have said ‘no’. And they have said ‘no’ not in an apologetic, ‘you must understand we’ve got a referendum coming up’, sort of way, but in the superior ‘none of you lot are proper military players like us’ manner to which the British defence establishment can be all too prone (see Chilcot passim).

No wonder von der Leyen sounds narked – and no wonder even our natural allies in Europe see some silver lining in Brexit.

Yes, Germany will now push for new efforts to deepen European defence cooperation. And if we have any sense we will aim to be a part of it, even after Brexit – ‘it’ being, as noted above, voluntary cooperation between sovereign states for mutual benefit, whether sharing the costs of research or putting together a multinational peace-keeping force. But to be welcome we will have to acquire a little humility; improve our ability to distinguish fact from fiction; and (one can dream) stop publishing mendacious headlines.

For now, just be aware that next time the ‘European army!’ cry goes up, this has all the substance of ‘£350m a week!’ and ‘the Turks are coming!’.

Nick Witney is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He previously served as the first chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels

Edited by Alan Wheatley

Tags: , Categories: Brexit, Post-Brexit, Security

One Response to “The ‘European Army’ marches again”

  • 1) Whatever is really wrong with a Federal European Army? The armies of Canada, the USA and Australia are just that and appear to work fine, good and effective.
    2) Whatever is left of the UK after Brexit will be in no way able to defend anything at all. So membership of one or more larger entity is a must anyway. Leaving the EU means that the UK is dealing with an EU army through NATO and not as a decision making member. What good does that?
    3) The EU members are brassed off with the UK because of the shoddy way Brexit suddenly was there and no one had a clue what to do about it, resulting in the leading politicians suddenly all doing something else or disappearing altogether. The fact that Brexit is costing the EU a lot of money doesn’t makethe Brits any more popular either. Hence the fact that the EU is ready for Brexit, the UK isn’t.