Myth: UK will be dragged into an EU army against its will
InFact: EU army is unlikely to emerge – but in any case the UK could veto the idea, as long as it remains in the EU.
That British soldiers might be forced to fight under an EU flag seems to worry Brexiteers. “In Brussels, they are hell-bent on building a European army, navy and air force,” said Nigel Farage at a March Guardian Live event. Meanwhile Vote Leave note that the Lisbon Treaty envisages the creation of a European army. They cite EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, his predecessor Romano Prodi, and Tony Blair as calling for one.
Such a move would indeed be a significant loss of sovereignty. But it is not going to happen. EU military efforts remain tentative and are largely intergovernmental rather than EU-based. And given the UK veto, the only way an EU armed force might emerge would be to vote to leave.
EU army legally possible but unlikely
To create a European army, you would probably have to invoke Article 42(2) of the Treaty on European Union relating to common defence. But that is unlikely. “Hell will freeze over before that happens,” says Nick Witney from the European Council on Foreign Relations. Any step towards common defence would have to be decided unanimously. Not only would the UK have to hold a referendum, but other EU nations would be hesitant to give Brussels such control.
Juncker supported an EU army both before and after taking office. But his comments come across more like a personal aspiration than a practical goal. Pursuing an EU army was not on the to-do list he sent Federica Mogherini, the commissioner for foreign affairs to whom the task would presumably fall. His political guidelines – a sort of manifesto for his mandate at the Commission – do not use the phrase.
A leaked document from Germany, seen by the Financial Times, apparently floats invoking the treaty measures on EU defence between those EU countries who are willing, as well as coordinating production of military equipment. Support from Berlin would be nothing new – the German coalition agreement commits to moving towards “a European army with parliamentary oversight”. But German support alone is not enough.
The German plans build on a provision in the treaty that would allow a subset of countries to press ahead with their own military projects – which Juncker refers to as “permanent structured cooperation”. But, as the Commission’s own internal think-tank has noted, that would have to be voluntary. “One could fantasise that that might happen… but there is no appetite currently,” Witney says. Notwithstanding Berlin’s positive noises, he reckons “Germany is not going to allow its troops to be deployed or its defence budget spent by anyone other than its own government and parliament”. Witney should know. He was the first boss of the intergovernmental and voluntary European Defence Agency.
Other EU defence policy modest and ad hoc
In the meantime, EU defence policy is more cadet than field marshal. Operations under the common security and defence policy, while worthy, are episodic and ad hoc. Current projects include training anti-jihadists in Mali and disrupting human traffickers in the Mediterranean. Witney says the policy entails few obligations. Member states can veto each operation and largely decide how much to contribute on a case-by-case basis. So stand at ease, Corporal Farage.
In fact, the UK has been remarkably pragmatic about military cooperation. Our NATO membership requires us to take part in collective defence should Turkey or Estonia be attacked, and the UK has also signed defence deals with France. If any of that represents a loss of sovereignty, few seem to find it controversial. Nonetheless, the prospect of the UK getting dragged into an EU army against its will are zero.
This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared on InFacts. It was amended on 4 May to add in references to the position of the German government, and Witney’s comments on Germany.
Edited by Alan Wheatley