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Thursday 24 January 2019

Tortoise Take

EU and whose army?

Europe needs to start integrating its defence forces, if the continent is to pull its weight in the world

Top brass in London and Washington like to sneer at the idea of a European army. They should get used to it instead. A joint European defence force would remind democracy’s enemies that democracies can fight back. It would end the duplication and confusion that can weaken joint Nato-led deployments. Above all it would answer the entirely reasonable US complaint that Europe has been a freeloader under the American security umbrella since the end of the Second World War.

This week France and Germany signed a treaty in Aachen. Some critics called it symbolic, and it was. Both countries’ leaders intended it as an antidote to the populism and nationalism tearing at the fabric of the EU. But it was detailed, too, nudging forward military cooperation with new undertakings for a joint Franco-German council of commanders, joint deployments and a mutual aid pact in case Nato’s assistance is ever needed but not forthcoming.

President Macron of France has said his goal is “a Europe that defends itself… without depending solely on the US”. This makes perfect strategic sense. Europe’s most immediate security threats, from Syria to eastern Ukraine, are in Europe’s strategic “neighbourhood”, not America’s. Washington’s appetite for riding to Europe’s rescue was waning long before the Trump presidency, and Trump now misses no opportunity to hint that he might not feel bound by Nato’s mutual defence guarantees if they were ever tested.

Let us hope it never comes to that. Some say that if it did, a European army would weaken Nato even further by becoming its rival. The reverse is surely true. It would consolidate Europe’s contribution to Nato, making Nato more efficient.

In Afghanistan, in its role as command structure for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), Nato was weakened by between 50 and 80 formal “caveats” imposed on members’ forces by their respective governments. Some couldn’t stray from tightly defined areas. Others couldn’t use heavy ammunition, or help with medevac operations. What Nato commander trying to suppress an insurgency would not opt for an alliance of a few big armies over a smorgasbord of small ones, given the choice?

Europe’s armies currently use 178 major weapons systems compared with the US army’s 30. They field 17 different main battle tanks. The Pentagon uses one. Experts say streamlining such complexity and creating a unified command structure could take a generation. Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong strategy. It means there’s no time to lose.