September 23, 2016
By Niall Lane
This isn’t a pro-NATO/pro-EU army head-to-head; it’s a three-way fight between Atlanticists, Continentalists, and those that don’t want to be fighting in the first place.
The sun appears to be setting on the UK-EU partnership (although when the light will finally be extinguished is anybody’s guess), and the union is trying to move on with its life as best it can. Yet although the UK did the dumping, it’s the EU that has pushed ahead with redefining itself, unshackled by the stagnant relationship it had found itself in. Or so it thought. For while the UK can, and is, being viewed retrospectively as a huge concrete block in the way of the EU’s hopes and dreams, it must be stated that there was never just one dissenting voice in this community of nations. And on no point has this sentiment been most salient than the matter of defence policy.
Portrayed as the perennial outsider, the UK’s own belief in this false designation no doubt had a hand in its throwing in of the EU towel. But loud as her opposing opinions were, the UK was never alone in voicing objections to the EU army project, put forward by France and Germany. Indeed, the UK was just one member of the Atlanticist camp, with Denmark, Romania and traditionally Poland also very much in Team NATO. But, with the UK seemingly stepping out the door, the debate for an EU army has been revitalised with surprising (and to some extent worrying) vigour. The Atlanticists may have just lost their MVP, but that does not make null and void the opinions of these member states. Yet even more surprising is that this policy battle has been framed as a “to NATO or not to NATO” argument to the point of exclusivity. This line of thinking completely ignores a core facet of the defence debate; a number of states simply don’t want one at all.
Since gaining its independence in the early 20th century, Ireland has largely maintained a robust image of neutrality to the international community. It was the fear of an EU army that led to the Lisbon treaty losing at the polls – for the first time at least. And Ireland is joined by Austria, Finland, Malta, and Sweden in a collective desire to remain out of the global theatre of international conflict. So you can bet that an army flying the twelve gold stars is in no way conducive to maintaining their military impartiality. And while all five countries boast some sort of defensive capability, that capacity has been constrained to defence alone. Granted, they all contribute to the EU’s 1500-strong battle-groups, but the limited range and sustainability of these forces precludes them from any long-term offensive action (i.e. starting a war). Battle-groups require very specific situations and time-frames to be deployed, but a large and comprehensive army could be adapted and used for a host of different functions, and make intervening in key areas such as Syria more feasible, and strategically more attractive. Thus, neutral states would be more likely to see their troops marching under the blue and gold if the EU pursues a single military body.
It is always these neutral states that have had to fend off the advances of international partiality, but what about the EU adopting a neutral stance itself? This course of action is never motioned, but the EU’s foundational ideology promotes peace to point where the EU, on paper, couldn’t be anything but neutral. This idea would surely be met with clamouring about defence against ISIS and Russia, and would inevitably become a very heated discussion indeed. But then at least the discussion of EU neutrality would be taking place, and the reality might set in that the security debate is not just a linear spectrum framed by military necessity, but a multidimensional field where defence is not just a euphemism.
The omission of the neutrality argument is a dangerous approach to be taking in such a period of flux for the Union. This risks further undermining the veneer of equality that has been a cornerstone of the EU project, as well as colouring the Union’s image to the rest of the world. It is a fact that the big three hold a greater share of political clout in Brussels, but the nuance of this arrangement was in their use of this power, and appreciating the views and opinions of their smaller neighbours. The public will at times settle for a good performance over the truth, and the EU had been good at playing the part of a forum of equal partners. But the Franco-German attempts to steam through with this new military policy in the wake of the UK’s departure announcement flies in the face of what the EU stands for; a respect for the opinions of partners large and small, and the pursuit of sustainable peace in Europe.
To be clear, this article is not arguing either way for a European army. But what it does want to see is a greater degree of respect and attention afforded to other arguments in this defence debate, and the acknowledgement that the problems and criticism raised by the UK won’t disappear with its own departure. Given the political salience regarding the issue of military cooperation, Juncker needs to be seen to at least be engaging with resistant members, rather than unilaterally championing the proposal for a dedicated EU military base in his state of the union. For the sake of posterity, the decision on the EU’s military future needs to be a united one.