E.U. Integration

Time for a European Defense Union

Soldiers of a Eurocorps detachment carry the European Union flag in Brussels in 2014. Photo: Patrick Hertzog /AFP/Getty Images
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The course of European integration is moving forward despite Brexit, argues Handelsblatt’s Brussels correspondent, who says that creating an E.U. defense union is the logical next step.

  • Facts


    • European and domestic security have increasingly occupied public debate as nearby conflicts flare up and the refugee crisis continues.
    • In Germany, the government is revising its defense policy to suit these concerns.
    • The United Kingdom opposed creating a European defense union, but with Brexit, the idea may once again come to the fore.
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Meeting 15 E.U. government leaders in six days – that’s a tall order, even by Angela Merkel’s standards. This week, the German Chancellor meets with her counterparts from Italy, France, Estonia, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria and Croatia. And there was precious little time to organize her “European week.” The chancellery had to act quickly after June 23, the day a majority of the United Kingdom’s population voted to leave the European Union – a shock of epic proportions for both sides.

Following the Brexit decision, both the United Kingdom and continental Europeans are obliged to create completely new political structures. The remaining 27 European Union member states need to come up with a common policy for the Brexit negotiations, which are about to begin. And they have to consider what kind of joint future they should have without the United Kingdom.

Last year’s wave of refugees showed clearly that Europeans have to ensure better protection of their external borders, and that is not just a police matter, but also a military one.

Ms. Merkel is getting this process started with her diplomatic offensive this week. As the most populous member state with the strongest economy, Germany has no choice but to take a leading role. It’s one Ms. Merkel has become accustomed to in the many crises of recent years – whether it was Greece, the ailing banks or the refugee crisis. It is interesting to note that these all wound up becoming European solutions: the European rescue fund, the European Banking Union and most recently the E. U. refugee agreement with Turkey and fortified protection of the E.U.’s external borders.

From this point of view, the European Union is perhaps better than the image it has of itself.  It is true that nationalistic populists from the extreme right and left of the political spectrum have done their level best to disparage the European Union’s image. But they have been unable to halt the movement toward European integration. And it is likely that this will remain the case in future.

Of course, no government leader talks anymore about his or her vision of a united Europe for fear of E.U. opponents in their own country. But despite this, Brexit – like all crises before it – is likely to give another boost to integration and in an area that up to now has been seen as an untouchable national domain:  foreign and security policy. Of all states, the Czech Republic, up to now a country with no noticeable ambitions on the European policy stage, has articulated a possible objective.  This week, the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, said that in the long-term, the European Union needs a joint army.

As yet there is no sign of the most important military powers in continental Europe going that far, especially France. Still, the European Union is likely to see new opportunities for increased military co-operation in the European Union now that Great Britain is on its way out.

In fact, the United Kingdom was initially the main advocate of the European Security and Defense Policy, or ESVP, created at the end of the 1990s, but soon became its most vociferous opponent. For years, the government in London prevented the establishment of an independent E.U. military headquarters, squashing any idea of an E.U. defense union. Brexit now opens the way for this to come about – providing the two biggest member states, Germany and France, are prepared to assume joint leadership.

Brexit also makes it possible to have a European joint single market for armaments. Unhindered by the British, the European defense agency founded in 2004 could finally be equipped with sufficient funds to coordinate the supply of armaments throughout the European Union. In other words, Great Britain leaving the bloc could still turn out to be a blessing in disguise in some respects. Because external pressure is bound to grow on the peaceful and affluent European Union.

Last year’s wave of refugees showed clearly that Europeans have to ensure better protection of their external borders, and that is not just a police matter, but also a military one. Moreover, the number of armed conflicts in close proximity to Europe has increased alarmingly, and Europeans can no longer rely unconditionally on protection from the United States, which appears ever less disposed to get involved in foreign wars.

The time has come for a European defense union – not least of which because it can also serve to reconcile skeptical citizens with the European Union while handicapping nationalistic populists. An effective protection against external foes is a good way to promote internal togetherness. That applies to any state – or in this case, a community of states.


To contact the author: berschens@handelsblatt.com

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