Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced leaders of the European Union to confront an uncomfortable reality: Europeans have neglected their own security for far too long. Europe has for decades been content to be a soft-power superpower — focusing on peacekeeping, democracy and prosperity within the union. It has been all too comfortable delegating its security concerns to the United States, which provides military cover through its NATO commitment.
Now, in response to the war to its east, the E.U. has shifted gears — unanimously approving crippling sanctions on Russia, providing weapons and humanitarian support to Ukraine, and in several cases announcing significant expansions of national defense budgets. It is unclear, however, whether this welcome taking-up of responsibilities will extend to larger reforms of Europe’s notoriously fragmented and uncoordinated military structures, which contribute to the continent’s lack of military potency.
In March, for instance, the E.U. announced that it was authorizing the creation of a 5,000-person “rapid deployment” force, independent of NATO (a move in the works well before the Ukraine conflict). But in discussing that development, the E.U.’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, was quick to rule out any bolder moves: “We do not want to create a European army,” he said. “It is not about creating a European army.” But the gravity of the situation in Eastern Europe makes it clearer than ever that is precisely what should happen. Establishing an E.U. armed forces would not only provide important protection from aggression of the sort on display in Ukraine; it would also be a logical next step in European integration.
First, and most important, establishing an E.U. armed forces would provide a degree of security independence from the United States — all the more important, given recent political trends in America. Overreliance on American protection has had catastrophic effects on E.U. security. IRIS, a French think tank, put the point with brutal honesty in a 2020 study: “The European Union is incapable of protecting its citizens or protecting itself as a political unit,” it said, “and even less able to defend itself as a geopolitical actor.” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then Germany’s defense minister, made a similar argument the same year: “Without America’s nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. Those are the plain facts.” And those assessments remain true two years later. When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the move into Ukraine, he did not seem impressed or concerned with the military forces of the E.U. nations, many strategists noted; he was concerned mostly about American might. Even full-fledged EU members like Finland and Sweden are now upending decades of military non-alignment and seeking to join NATO, recognizing that E.U. membership alone does not provide enough protection from Russian aggression.
President Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO was clear: He even reportedly discussed with aides withdrawing from the alliance. Under President Biden, the United States has reassured partners in Europe and beyond of its commitment to them. But Trump’s example demonstrated to Europe — or ought to have — that the ability to rely on the United States may now vary from presidential election to presidential election. And not all of America’s inattention toward Europe can be blamed on Trump. Before Ukraine erupted, the Biden administration had made clear its desire to shift U.S. focus to China and the Indo-Pacific. Given this state of affairs, the E.U.’s union of liberal democracies would be wise to dramatically increase its military effectiveness as it contends with an imperial Russia, an expanding Chinese superpower, and destabilized African and Middle Eastern neighbors.
The second argument concerns efficiency. Currently, the 27 member states of the E.U. can field an impressive 1.3 million active-duty military personnel, roughly on par with the size of the U.S. armed forces (approximately 1.4 million) and significantly bigger than Russia’s military (850,000). The combined military expenditure of the E.U. states is an impressive $225 billion, more than twice the size of Russia’s military budget of a little over $100 billion and roughly three-quarters of China’s $290 billion. Yet these numbers do not translate to effectiveness. In fact, the planning, development and procurement of defense technology by 27 sovereign countries has produced an enormous amount of inefficiency. While the U.S. military uses just 30 weapons systems, the E.U.’s militaries use some 180, six times as many. While the U.S. Armed Forces uses just one main battle tank, the E.U. fields — depending how you count — 11 to 17 different models. Pointing to facts like these, then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested, “We are spending half of the American budget when it comes to defense, so we should be efficient at 50 percent of the U.S. We are only 15 percent as efficient.” Integrating European militaries — and centralizing the procurement and development of technology — would doubtlessly increase E.U. military, budgetary and personnel efficiency.
The third argument concerns responsiveness. When the Afghan government collapsed last summer, NATO states scrambled to get their citizens and Afghan allies out of the country. Only the quick and determined deployment of some 6,000 U.S. troops prevented an already catastrophic situation from becoming even worse. And while some European countries sent their own small troop contingents to evacuate citizens, Europeans largely acknowledged their inability to run such an operation on their own. This assessment was shared by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who remarked, “Only the United States could organize and execute a mission of this scale and this complexity.” Such emergencies are sadly likely to recur, so the E.U. would do well to increase its own capabilities for rapid response on a large scale. While the 5,000-member rapid-response force should help, its modest size will immediately limit its potential use. Only a larger E.U. armed forces under a centralized command could provide both the numbers to react to a variety of threats and the logistics for quick deployment and resupply on the ground.
The last argument concerns the development of a European identity. The E.U. prides itself on its diversity of languages, cultures and histories. This heterogeneity does come at a price, though. Most E.U. citizens define themselves by their country of birth first; few consider themselves Europeans primarily. What’s more, roughly 40 percent of E.U. citizens have never left their home country. The E.U. armed forces could foster the formation of a European consciousness, a necessary condition for a more confident European stance in geopolitics. This would especially be true if there were a period of mandatory service — perhaps six to nine months — for citizens ages 17 to 26. (Many E.U. countries had mandatory military service of some kind during the Cold War.) Such service could take a decidedly European approach: Women and men, after their schooling is complete, could choose to perform their service either as civilians — for example in hospitals, kindergartens or nongovernmental organizations — or as soldiers in the E.U. armed forces. Either way, deployment (civilian or military) beyond one’s native country should be encouraged.
How would such a force be administered? It would be a challenge, but we propose that the E.U. armed forces be overseen by a new E.U. foreign and security council (composed of members of the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, and headed by a new commissioner for defense). This body would have to unanimously agree to any deployment of E.U. soldiers abroad.
However, an attack on any one or multiple E.U. member states should automatically activate the armed forces for defensive operations. To further assure its members, the E.U. could enshrine this automatic mechanism by updating the E.U. Treaty’s Article 42.7, which currently calls somewhat vaguely for a mutual “obligation of aid and assistance” in case of an attack. The E.U. armed forces would thus become the bloc’s first line of defense.
Initially the armed forces could be a separate, 28th military in the E.U. (as others have proposed), supplementing the 27 national armed forces. Over time, it could take on more and more of the duties of those forces (in the long run, perhaps all of them). In the early stages, the force would focus primarily on securing the bloc’s eastern border and on crisis interventions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the cruel and inhumane way it is waging this war of aggression — has laid bare the shortcomings of E.U. foreign and security policy. The E.U. response to this crisis must match its gravity. While the first chapter of European integration centered on securing peace and prosperity internally, the next chapter should build up the capability to defend against external threats. An E.U. armed forces could transform the union from a dependent soft power into a sovereign superpower of global relevance. In the words of E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen back in 2018, when she was Germany’s minister of defense: “The time is ripe for an army of Europeans committed to peace on our continent and in the world. Deeds must now follow words.”