The question of a joint european military force

Defense and Security Policy Expert

During the Cold War, the Western European NATO members possessed significant military strength and devoted considerable resources to the armed forces in anticipation of a potential armed conflict with the Eastern Bloc. With the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision of most of the former communist countries to orientate themselves toward the West and signal their intentions to join NATO and the European Union, the security situation became dramatically more favorable. The Yugoslav Wars then provided clear evidence that Western Europe had neither the materials nor the will to intervene in humanitarian crises, with the United States once again intervening to resolve the situation. At the same time, though the domestic political situation in Russia was chaotic – primarily due to economic difficulties – there was no desire for retaliation in Moscow. And despite old wounds and ethnic disputes, Central and Eastern European countries were not seeking confrontation of any kind.

Europe, in other words, faced no real threat, and there began a marked reduction in military expenditure, combined with a rising sentiment within European societies that, generally speaking, normal citizens have little part to play in national defense – beyond, of course, contributing taxes to help maintain military infrastructure – and that defense can be carried out by entirely professional military forces. If, however, we take a closer look at the issue, we can see even more dramatic changes have taken place. With the onset of globalization, it has been possible to detect a concurrent decline of the importance of nation states in various societies, with national identity holding reduced significance for most people compared to the previous century. The gradual move of Western Europe toward multiculturalism has contributed to this process. It is also important to note that European pacifism is fueled both by the terrible memory of the two World Wars and the belief that the continent has learned from these wars and is capable of achieving ‘everlasting peace’. The transformative process of these social trends and the decline of patriotism is also evident in the Századvég Foundation’s public opinion poll of EU countries. According to the 2018 Project 28 survey, a relative majority – 48% – of European respondents would fight for their country, while 34% would not, and 18% did not know. Germany, while one of the continent’s most influential powers, is even less willing than the European average, with a majority of respondents stating they would not fight for their country, though, with regard to Germany, negative historical experiences may explain the people’s  opposition to military service. Conversely, the survey shows that in Central and Eastern European countries – including the Visegrád Four – a significantly larger proportion of citizens would choose to fight for their homeland. Hungary, for instance, stands in second place with 72%. It is also telling that the number of people who do not have a clear opinion is lower than both in Europe as a whole and the Western European average, with Hungary holding the lowest proportion – along with Malta – of the 28 countries. Of course, once again historical precedents go a long way toward explaining these figures, if we consider that, in contrast to Western Europe, the independence of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe only goes back a matter of decades, meaning that citizens tend to hold an even greater regard for self-determination.

* Please note that some percentages published here may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Overall, as a result of social transformation and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, a view has emerged that Western states need to focus more on their expeditionary capabilities, building a military where most of its forces can be deployed swiftly in regions where the interests of Western countries are under threat, or in the event of humanitarian disasters. This has made war an even more distant consideration for the general population, as it appears only likely to occur in less developed regions of the world. However, the war in Georgia and the Crimean conflict have made it clear Russia is prepared to use armed force against those of its neighbors which fail to align themselves with Russia’s own interests, regardless of whether these countries have aligned themselves with the West. These considerations also go some way toward explaining Polish patriotism. According to the Project 28 survey, two thirds of Polish respondents would be willing to fight for their country, while Poland is also developing its defense industry.

The idea of a potential joint European military goes back a long way, to the start of the Cold War, though at that time it would have been a joint Western European military force. In the 1990s and 2000s, instead of a Europe-wide organization there was an emphasis on producing joint forces which could be implemented quickly and deployed both within and outside of European borders as necessary. Notwithstanding individual partnerships, this idea largely fell by the wayside, especially after European economies encountered difficulties as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, and during the several years when existence of the Euro was threatened by the sovereign debt crisis.

The formation of independent EU armed capabilities and a joint military force would be less costly for European tax payers and would also create scope for individual countries to specialize. This would improve overall efficiency, as countries would be able to allocate more resources to other more pressing, non-military issues. The 2015 migration crisis clearly demonstrated that if the EU is not capable of directly intervening in geographical neighboring areas and cannot defend its own borders, then it is also incapable of preventing humanitarian disasters and will have to face the consequences. At the same time, the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU means that it will lose a member state with one of the best and strongest military forces. This is a serious blow to the prestige and credibility of the EU in relation to the other global powers.

It is worth noting that while Russia is continually developing its military capabilities and increasing military spending, the EU member states only began enlarging their territorial defense capacities again in the mid-2010s. The new Donald Trump-led American administration may have passed measures to guarantee the security of its European allies, yet it is also placing greater pressure on European states to pay for their own defense and rely less heavily on the United States. This may be the beginning of a tendency for Washington to gradually turn inwards, while Europe could become increasingly isolated and will need to adapt to the new state of affairs. The EU also has a moral duty not to leave its defense to others. If European states are willing to place greater emphasis on their own defense, they can also demonstrate to the United States that it is still worth maintaining NATO and that the EU is not a burden, but a loyal ally.

With all this in mind, the question of how much support there is among the population of Europe for a joint European defense force inevitably arises. According to the results of the 2018 Project 28 research, 59% of the EU population would support the creation of a joint EU defense force, and only 25% would reject it. Even in the military neutral Austria, more than half the population supports the idea. It is notable that support in Central and Eastern Europe is once again higher than the EU average, while Hungary is in second place of the 28 countries: 76% would support the setting up of a joint EU defense force, while the proportion of undecided people is very low. From the survey, it is clear that there is strong support on this issue from people in the V4 countries, with two thirds of respondents – much higher than the EU average – supporting its implementation. This not only aids the potential creation of a joint defense force, but could also help foster cooperation among the V4 nations. Finally, it is also worth noting that the agreement of EU citizens in this issue – as demonstrated by the Project 28 research – offers an opportunity for member states to begin a new cooperation which – in contrast, for example, with the mandatory migration quotas – would not endanger but instead relieve the tensions that have developed between the Eastern and Western sides of the EU.

Meanwhile, the biggest group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party – including the representatives of Fidesz-KDNP has apparently adopted this idea. A draft of the EPP foresees the  development of a joint EU military force by 2030, starting with setting up a cyber brigade to fight disinformation, terrorism and cyber attacks, because these are exigent threats to EU security. In line with the standpoint of the Hungarian government, the EPP emphasizes how important it is to protect the European borders, even if it means constructing fences. It is clear that the EPP aims to focus on issues that are less divisive and have a higher support among European nations.

* Please note that some percentages published here may not add up to 100% due to rounding.