The EU army is taking shape, despite Remain claims that it was a “fantasy”

The EU army is taking shape, despite Remain claims that it was a “fantasy”

Earlier this week, 23 out of 28 EU states signed up to deeper EU military integration at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

This latest measure to develop common EU defence structures contradicts assertions made by the Remain campaign during the referendum that an EU army was “nothing more than fantasy”.

Britain, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal and Malta have chosen not to participate in the initiative — called the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement —  which allows for ‘coalitions of the willing’ to create joint rapid reaction forces or buy high-end military technology together.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the pact marked a “historic moment” that showed “the taboo concerning EU defence could be broken” and that “23 member states engaging both on capabilities and on operational steps is something big.”

This latest development follows quickly on the heels of the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF) which was approved by EU member states in December 2016 and formally launched in June this year.

The EDF provides the EU with a budget to spend on defence research and the acquisition of military equipment but stopped short of the operational power granted by the PESCO agreement. Seen by the Italian government as the “the initial nucleus of a future European integrated force”, the PESCO agreement was designed to complement NATO and UN missions.

However, the case against creating an EU military structure has always been that any such move could threaten European security by marginalising NATO.  NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, who was also present at this week’s meeting in Brussels, welcomed the PESCO agreement, but also stressed the need for complementarity between NATO and EU efforts.

This was also a particular point of contention for the Polish government, and they sought to calm those fears by stating last week that the new agreement “should in no way be competitive” with NATO.

The danger stems from the fact that there exists a real thirst for defence independence within the EU among those who would like to see the EU become a veritable United States of Europe. Commenting on the European Defence Fund in September 2016, EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said:

“Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others.”

In a further statement made in August this year, he added:

“It becomes clear that we cannot, in the long-term, rely on American defence support.”

However EU integration of defence capabilities develops in the years to come, what is clear is that an EU army of sorts is now taking shape. The Remain campaign’s repeated efforts to pour cold water on such assertions during the UK’s EU referendum campaign now looks misguided, or dishonest.

“This is a dangerous fantasy” said Nick Clegg in a televised debate in April 2016 when referring to an EU army. And in seeking to belittle the protestations that have now turned out to be true, the Guardian’s EU correspondent, Jennifer Rankin, wrote:

“Claims from the leave side about moves to unify Europe’s armed forces are nothing more than fantasy.”

Meanwhile, at the Centre for European Reform, Sophia Besch had articles published in Politico and The Independent where she attacked claims that an EU army was a distinct possibility. In the Independent piece, she wrote:

“It is disingenuous for Eurosceptics to present something that only ultra-federalists dream about in very vague terms as something plausible, let alone imminent and inevitable.”

The problem is that this line of defence — that the EU could never have its own army as we generally understand it — wears thinner and thinner with every additional trapping of a veritable defence structure that the EU seizes.

Remain’s tactics were not surprising. The textbook on how to defend deeper EU integration in any sector in well rehearsed: exaggerate the claims of sceptics so that their concerns appear irrational. Then, simultaneously, gloss over every incremental increase in the EU’s powers, labelling them as insignificant or unavoidable in the battle for greater budgetary or legislative efficiency at the European level.

Jean-Claude Juncker was even clearer:

“We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”

It is clear that an EU army could never come into existence from one day to the next. Its development was always going to be incremental.

It was also clear that young British men and women could never be forcefully enlisted into this army as it marched into conflicts in Ukraine, Libya or Catalonia. National vetoes would always remain.

The argument was that national vetoes would be powerless to stop EU defence integration by those willing to go further. That with enough support, the process would creep forward, step by step, until finally, it would come into existence.

This week’s agreement in Brussels was the latest of these big steps forward.