European Army

An Ever Closer Military Union

Bundesverteidigungsministerin von der Leyen in Mali
A unifying force: Ursula von der Leyen. Source: DPA

What’s next for Europe? Only a few months ago, pessimists dominated the discussion. After the British had bid farewell to the European Union last year by voting for Brexit and Donald Trump won the US presidency, right-wing populists used anti-European tirades to try to win votes in several member states. But then, with the election of pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron, the mood changed. Now many are looking to Germany. No matter what Germany’s next federal government looks like, it has a great opportunity to join forces with France and make decisive strides forward for Europe. This is especially true when it comes to policies related to peace and security.

Already over the last few years, there has been a growing sense among Europeans that we need to become more capable and efficient when it comes to defense. Tensions in our neighborhood, the crises in Ukraine and in North Africa, the civil war in Syria and, most of all, the increase in Islamist terrorist attacks have clearly heightened the need for security in our countries.

We often waste resources in Europe because we duplicate operations. It usually takes a very long time for us until we act in concert or at least in agreement with one another. But speed is important, especially in crisis situations. What is often lacking is less a common will but rather a tried and tested framework. This became clear, for example, when Mali, driven by the chaos in Libya, was threatened by collapse due to an explosive mix of Islamist terror, violent separatism and crime. It took Europe several months to assemble a training mission for the new Malian army, and it was only thanks to the French that the worst was averted. In such situations, Europe needs to become faster.

It is a question of self-reliance, which does not distance us from the Americans, but makes us a more relevant partner.

Many member states were long skeptical about whether Europe, in addition to NATO, truly needs an independent defense policy and military options for action. This has changed fundamentally. It is not without a reason that the framework we are operating within today was established in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty in the form of the “Permanent Structured Cooperation,” or PESCO. But, as so often, the willingness to make the great leap and dare to change only emerged in response to internal and external pressure: an “America first” president in Washington, the pressure to consolidate in many European countries caused by the financial and euro crises, and instability stretching from North Africa across the Middle East to Ukraine. Now is the right time to establish a European defense union.

We presented the first concrete proposals together with France about a year ago, and Italy and Spain quickly voiced their support. In the spring, as a first milestone, we created the joint European command center for education and training missions. Now, the time has come to make decisions: In the coming weeks, EU countries will forge the rough framework of PESCO. We are writing the rules for access and participation. In doing so, we are for the first time making commitments in Europe to jointly equip ourselves, to invest smartly, to vote on the procurement of important weapons systems and, above all, to be available and ready for joint missions in case of a crisis.

In order to be concrete, we are also starting to define initial projects: joint troops that can be deployed quickly in times of crisis, better joint cyber defense, or a military logistics network that spans Europe. We are keeping the door open for all those who are truly serious about wanting to advance the European Defense Union. The number of supporters has grown rapidly since the German-French initiative was launched. In all likelihood, around 20 member states will participate in the end. They all want more than just loose, on-call cooperation, and are instead committing themselves to ambitious goals.

We can also make many aspects of the military sector in Europe much more efficient. Instead of paying for 20 types of fighter aircraft with 20 different training courses for pilots, 20 lines of production along with the associated repair and logistics chains throughout Europe, we will in the future be able to employ a uniform European combat aircraft of the next generation. When today, in a European mission to Africa, three different helicopters are deployed, this means three times the spare parts, as well as a specialized mechanics and maintenance infrastructure.

But a functioning European Defense Union, in which everyone has the same equipment, does not come at zero cost. Joint solutions require upfront investments – and from Germany, the willingness to move ahead in a European way. But we should not shy away from the investments, because in the long run they lead to enormous synergies and economies of scale as well as medium-term savings for each individual country.

Sharing costs for development and maintenance does not only increase opportunities for the large member states. Systems operating in a network also open doors for smaller partner countries. For example, nations that do not want to pay for their own helicopter units can provide engineers or rescue crews for a joint helicopter unit. It is also a matter of technological independence, since investing together in modern systems means securing knowledge for our continent.

All these objectives are served by a European Defense Fund, to which the individual countries and the European Commission contribute. We Europeans are gaining strategic autonomy. It is a question of self-reliance, which does not distance us from the Americans, but makes us a more relevant partner. The European voice is given more weight in matters of peace and security. The momentum for the big leap is now here: A new pro-European government in Germany, the clear, Europe-oriented course of French President Macron, but most of all, the citizens across Europe who want more security. Great politics means courageously taking advantage of the moment. Let’s make the Defense Union the next success story of our great continent.

This essay was originally published in Handlesblatt’s sister publication WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author:

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