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Written by Ben Tonra, Professor of International Relations at UCD


At a time when Europe faces serious security threats, grapples with the departure of the United Kingdom and deals with innumerable internal political challenges, it is noteworthy that more than 75 percent of Europeans demand that the European Union does more to strengthen the defence of its Member States. Those in favour of “a common defence and security policy among EU Member States” range from a high of 87% of those polled in Lithuania and Luxembourg to a low of 59% and 57% in Sweden and Austria respectively.[1] The Irish level of support for an EU common defence policy stands at 66 percent according to the same poll. All of this has been put into stark relief over the last couple of years by statements from senior political leaders in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere that have spoken about the need for a ‘European army’ or ‘an army of Europeans’. What’s going on? What does this rather loose talk about armies suggest?

There is little doubt that Europe’s security environment has worsened over the last fifteen years. The Russian Federation’s invasion, occupation and annexation of parts of Ukraine violated multiple treaties and undermined European security. The Union and its Member States face arcs of instability and conflict to both the East and to the South. At a time of such threats, it is noteworthy too that faith in Europe’s traditional anchor for security and defence – the United States – is at an especially low ebb. As a result, while some European NATO members prioritise reinforcing NATO, others talk about the need to focus on reducing Europe’s dependence on the US. All are agreed that ‘Europe’ must do more.

What has this meant for the EU? Since the 2016 publication of her Global Strategy, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has pursued an ambitious programme to strengthen EU defence cooperation.  This has meant a new EU-based review process for defence planning and budgeting, a reinforced agenda for the small European Defence Agency, new military planning structures, a review of the existing EU Battlegroups and the funding of EU military operations overseas, and, of course, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

Launched in December 2017 with 25 participating EU Member States including Ireland, PESCO is a patchwork of some 34 individual projects on issues such as cyber security, maritime surveillance and military training. Ireland is a full participant in two projects: the EU Training Mission Competence Centre and the Upgrade of Maritime Surveillance. The projects are designed to deliver tangible and practical benefits which can then be shared to build up defence capacities among all EU Member States.

Reinforcing these new levels of ambition has been the European Commission’s long-standing interest in the development of Europe’s advanced industrial base. A new European Defence Fund (EDF) is to be set up which includes both scientific and technological research as well as the development and acquisition of specific defence systems. In total, the proposed EDF could account for over €41 billion in new and redirected defence spending over the next eight years.


The agenda presented above is an ambitious one but what are the policy options and how do these relate to the creation of a ‘European army’?

One option of course is to reject the very concept of defence for the EU. This may begin from the idea that the very purpose of European integration was to make the possibility of war in Europe impossible and then argue that – either in principle or in practice – efforts to strengthen defence in the EU are objectionable. It might also suggest that the resources dedicated to EU defence cooperation are either disproportionate to the actual threats posed or feed an already rapacious defence and arms industry at the cost of more urgent human needs both in Europe and globally.

A second option is to leave defence largely in the hands of the EU Member States but to allow for EU-level structures which would at most facilitate cooperation on a voluntary and case-by-case basis. This could allow Member States – or subsets thereof – to pursue strengthened cooperation among themselves but would minimise the engagement of the EU itself.

A third possibility would see the Union take on the role of catalyst and promotor of defence integration. It would set out to incentivise cooperation and to leverage the Union’s own resources to that end – including the promotion of ‘pooling and sharing’ initiatives among the Member States and shared financing of research and defence. This would appear to be the track that the European Commission and most Member States are now pursuing and wish to see further developed.

A fourth option is essentially full defence integration at the EU level – up to and including the creation of a ‘common defence policy’ for those Member States which choose to participate. The defence of Europe would thus become a responsibility of both the EU and NATO. This would be underpinned by a substantial integration of Member States’ national defence capacities. In contemporary political terms, this might encompass the notion of a ‘European army.’ While you cannot, strictly speaking, have an ‘army’ without a single ‘state’ – and the EU is very far away from that – it does suggest a much deeper level of defence integration than exists today. While the idea has been promoted by senior political figures in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, it is not at all clear that their political shorthand of ‘European army’ for deeper defence cooperation commands enough political support among national capitals.


We must remember that while the European Commission and other European actors may propose or may lobby, decision-making on defence relies on unanimity and hence each Member State has its veto. Left to its own devices, the Union would probably continue on a path of slow incremental evolution on defence cooperation. However, the Union most certainly will not have that luxury. The threats that the EU’s Member States face are complex and sometimes contradictory. They are also increasing in scale and scope. A broad debate on the shape, cost and implications of the EU’s development in defence has not yet taken place. Certainly, one is also needed at the national level so that the options and implications for members such as Ireland can be fully assessed.

Ireland’s distance; geographic, strategic and psychological from many of Europe’s security threats generates a widespread ambivalence towards European defence.  By and large EU security and defence cooperation is seen as a cost – even a penalty of our EU membership. It is a bill we only reluctantly pay and only rarely, if ever, see its value. However, the last two to three years has seen something of a turning point in Europe. While a ‘European army’ may not be on the horizon, ambivalence towards security and defence may no longer be sustainable. Hard choices are coming into view. It may be useful to discuss whether we think security and defence matters – and if it does – what we prefer to do about it.

This blog is also available in explainer format here.

[1] Special Eurobarometer 461, April 2017