Brexit and the case against a ‘European army’ Daniël Turk is a scientific analyst at the TeldersStichting (Telders Foundation), the Dutch liberal think tank In 1954 an initiative from six European nations to establish a European Defence Community (EDC) failed in the French Parliament. France had no desire for military integration with ‘two defeated nations and three small states’. Britain’s sovereign wish to leave the European Union that became clear on 23 June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump on 8 November 2016, unfortunately opened the door again for far-reaching European military integration. Defence and sovereignty Between the EDC failing in 1954 and the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016, various steps were taken for further European military collaboration. In 1999, the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was established – which after Lisbon in 2009 was extended to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)1. There is a European Defence Agency (EDA), tasked with supporting the member states with more efficient spending of the defence budget. The EU Battlegroups (multinational rapid response units, consisting of 1,500 troops) established in 2005 may well exist on paper, but they have never been actually deployed and the 1999 Helsinki objective that the EU should be capable of deploying a response force of 60,000 troops proved nothing but a pipe dream. However, during all these steps taken and all these discussions on further European military collaboration, defence always remained separated from the concept ‘supranationality’. This is no coincidence. ‘War made the state and the state made war’2, wrote American historian and sociologist Charles Tilly about the process of state-building. The formation of states and the armed forces have been inextricably linked with each other through the course of the past centuries. Not having an army does not entail that the sovereign status is automatically lost, but the armed forces are an ultimate means to defend the sovereignty of the state. An army, more so than the currency, is an attribute of sovereign power. This fact by no means excludes military collaboration, but it does imply that the sovereign power to dispose of the deployment of the armed forces may not be transferred to a supranational body. The national parliament should always be able to exercise democratic control over troop deployment3. Eurofederalists in the European Parliament, or here in the Netherlands in the form of the political party D66, who aim for a European army, have always been around, only such delusions were never a serious option in the European capitals. The year 2016 is a significant watershed in this regard; starting with the Brexit referendum on 23 June. The British obstacle The military consequences of the Brexit are not entirely clear-cut yet. However, from a Dutch perspective it would be highly unfortunate if the further elaboration of the Brexit would result in obstacles to intensify the long-lasting military collaboration with the United Kingdom, or, for example, to deploy the UK/NL Amphibious Force for EU missions as was done up to now. What is certain is that many European leaders believe (or perhaps even hope) that the Brexit will cause the British to turn their backs on Europe. As Derk Jan Eppink wrote in Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant earlier this year: ‘When the EU suffers a setback, it instinctively reacts with ‘more Europe’ and the flight into symbolism.’4 For Eurofederalists, the outcome of the British referendum was therefore an opportune moment to realise a long-harboured wish: the formation of a European army. Jean-Claude Juncker advocated the formation of a European army back in 2015. The spokesman of then British Prime Minister David Cameron said about this that ‘our position is crystal clear that defence is a national, not an EU responsibility and that there is no prospect of that position changing and no prospect of a European army’. Prime Minister Theresa May’s current Cabinet of Ministers, which was installed after the Brexit referendum, shares this point of view. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also informed London that as long as it is a member of the European Union, it will block any attempt to set up ‘a rival to NATO’. The country has the support of the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania on this issue. The United Kingdom withdrawing from this block, which further consists of smaller EU member states, would be a great loss for the Netherlands. This is especially more so, now that since 23 June there is an increasingly loud call from the continent for further European military integration. That started with a joint statement from France and Germany, immediately after the outcome of the British referendum, in which the relevant foreign ministers reconfirmed their dedication to the Union, but also called for a ‘European Security Compact’ in order to increase the European contribution to international security. This includes military means. The white paper published by the German defence this past summer also stated that Germany is aiming for the ‘long-term goal of a common European Security and Defence Union’ and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, advocated ‘Schengen for Defence’ after the Brexit – a proposal which does not yet include a European army, but which does lay the groundwork for one. It was Jean-Claude Juncker, who during his ‘State of the Union’, came up with specific proposals, including a European military headquarters and joint investments in military hardware. In all this, the United Kingdom up to now is the main obstacle for the realisation of these plans, causing great annoyance among some politicians in Europe. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen informed that the United Kingdom has been thwarting steps towards further European military collaboration long enough now. Her compatriot Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, is sorry to see the EU losing an important member state in the field of defence, but argued that the Brexit ‘could give the necessary impulse for a closer integration of the remaining member states’. The French-German proposals in the field of European security and defence are ‘a clear sign of things to come’5. Trump and the European flight forward The Brexit was one of the catalysts causing the concepts ‘defence’ and ‘supranationality’ to no longer be separated from each other by definition in the discussion about military collaboration. Now that not only European federalists like Juncker, Verhofstadt and Schulz have expressed their opinions on this, but reports about far-reaching military collaboration are also heard out of Berlin, Paris and Rome, it appears that a momentum is establishing itself; something the Netherlands and other like-minded countries should be concerned about. This momentum was also strengthened when Donald Trump was elected as the new American President on 8 November 2016. The fact that for the first time since the Second World War, an American President takes office who openly has doubts about a United States-led world order – including the credibility and validity of the NATO alliance – is reason for concern and for many in and outside of Brussels increases the urgency for further military integration in a European context. ‘It was always obvious Americans would not always be there to protect the European Continent’, Jean Claude-Juncker stated shortly after Trump was elected6. For a change, Juncker is right. The economic, military and demographic power shift towards Asia prompts the United States to reroute its strategic focus to the East. This policy was already set in motion under President Obama and will only be reinforced under Trump – in any case the military dimension will be (the free trade agreement TPP, which was also part of Obama’s strategy in Asia was buried by Trump during his first week in office). The fact that defence is back on the political agenda – be it with or without Trump – is no more than logical and even necessary. However, the question is whether the concerns due to Trump (and the Brexit) are reason for further military integration in a European context, with its threat of overstepping the bounds into symbolism, or that each country in itself should separately be willing to invest in the armed forces. After Trump’s election, Juncker stated in that same speech that ‘that is why we need a new start in the field of European defence, up to the goal of setting up a European army’7. The problem is he is no longer a voice crying in the wilderness, but he has the support of a number of large EU nations, Germany and France among them. Steps towards a European Defence Union ‘So the ambition is there, now it’s time to suit the action to the word’8. Not entirely surprising, these words from D66 members Salima Belhaj (member of the Dutch Lower House) and Marietje Schaake (Euro MP) in a recently published op-ed article in Dutch newspaper Trouw, where they called for a European army. The cause for this was the implementation of the new EU security strategy, presented on the day of the Brexit referendum. This EU Global Strategy was discussed shortly after Trump’s election and was embraced by the European defence ministers, including the Dutch Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. She underlines the importance of European military collaboration, but also points out that to her this does not mean ‘a single set of European armed forces. This, I think, is a pipedream’9. Belhaj and Schaake, however, hope for this dream to become a reality. The implementation of the Global Strategy is a first step towards this. The announced measures should provide the EU with more striking power to enable autonomous action in military and civil missions, where and when required. In the past, European security policy was strictly focused externally, but now also lays emphasis on the protection of the ‘Union and its citizens’. Moreover, a centre is set up for the coordination of missions in weak states, which will make it much easier to coordinate civil and military missions. There will also be more collaboration in the purchase of equipment and to promote this, the European Committee wishes to release funds on an annual basis. ‘A quantum leap forward to a European security and defence policy’, said Mogherini after the summit and according to the German Minister of Defence Von der Leyen, the member states expressed ‘their political desire’ to expand the EU to a European Defence Union10. The implementation plan does not mention the formation of the European army so fiercely coveted by Juncker (his wish to set up a European military headquarters has also been put on ice), but nevertheless, parts of the plan indeed encroach on the territory of the power of the sword of the sovereign European member states, a disturbing development that the Netherlands should be wary of. London fortunately is the main voice, as yet, against these EU initiatives, which may in due course undermine NATO, and therefore the main Transatlantic connection. The United Kingdom and the transatlantic connection More important than this European institutionalism, which should create the appearance that there is such a thing as a European foreign and security policy, is the fact that the European member states should themselves invest more in the instruments of hard power11. Part of this is that politicians are in favour of new investments in the armed forces, in order to prove to our most important ally, the United States, that we are serious about our own security (again). The words expressed by Trump with regard to NATO may have been reckless, but they are also justified. In the past year the United States paid for 72% of the defence expenses within NATO and, while the defence ministers of the EU-27 were discussing the implementation of the Global Strategy in Brussels, British Defence Secretary Fallon was the one to point out to his European allies they should spend their ‘fair share’ on defence. This is the only way to prevent the American security umbrella from being folded shut under Trump. Bilateral and multilateral forms of military collaborations with like-minded partners, such as the Netherlands currently has with neighbouring countries are very important to strengthen the European branch of the Transatlantic allegiance, but they may not create the illusion that it may one day replace NATO. After all, NATO remains the corner stone of Dutch and European security and the departure of the British from the EU also means the disappearance of the most important European link in the Transatlantic connection. The answer to this is not the creation of a European military headquarters, or joining together the European defence budgets as an alternative for serious investments in the armed forces. The will to invest in this is a responsibility of each nation separately. Let us therefore harbour the British presence in the EU and their resistance against a ‘European army’ as long as possible. Endnotes 1. The CDSP is one of few policy domains within the EU where each member state has the power of veto. 2. Charles Tilly, The formation of national states in Western Europe, Princeton, 1975. 3. More on this in the document Soevereiniteit (Sovereignty) published in Dutch in 2016 by the TeldersStichting. 4. Derk Jan Eppink, ‘Europa, stop het gejammer’, (Europe stop complaining) Volkskrant. 5. Charlie Cooper, ‘Martin Schulz hits back at UK over EU army’, Politico EU, 23 September 2016. 6. David M Herszenhorn, Maïa de la Bauma and Jacopo Barigazzi, ‘Trump gives EU defense plans new sense of urgency’, Politico EU, 11 November 2016. 7. Steven Swinford and Harriet Alexander, ‘Britain to warn NATO allies to pay ‘fair share’ amid fears Donald Trump will withdraw US support’, The Telegraph, 11 November 2016. 8. Salima Belhaj and Marietje Schaake, ‘Na Trumps verkiezing hoogste tijd voor eigen Europese krijgsmacht’ (After Trump’s election it is high-time for an own European army), Trouw, 16 November 2016. 9. ‘Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert shares her vision on the security situation in the world with German military leaders, politicians and corporate world’, Speech given on 17 October 2016. 10. Natalie Righton, ‘Het Europese leger staat nog ver voorbij de horizon’ (The European army is still far beyond the horizon), Volkskrant, 25 November 2016. 11. Julian Lindley-French, ‘Trumxit’, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast: Speaking truth unto Power, 9 November 2016, consulted on 6 December 2016
For Eurofederalists, the outcome of the British referendum was therefore an opportune moment to realise a long-harboured wish: the formation of a European army