Calls for EU Army Branded 'Unnecessary and Unrealistic'

Jean-Claude Juncker reviews Bulgarian army honour guards during an official welcoming ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the capital Sofia. Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker's plans to establish an EU army "to protect European values", have been scrutinized by defence experts and branded "unrealistic" and unlikely to develop into more than a "symbolic" union.

Juncker said on Sunday he envisions a Brussels-led military would mean the EU would be taken more seriously as an international force, but military defence experts on the continent and in the U.S. disagree.

Martin Hurt, who has previously worked for Sweden and Estonia's ministries of defence and is currently serving as deputy director of Estonia's International Centre for Defence Studies, doubts Juncker's plans will materialise, calling them "unrealistic" and "unnecessary".

"We already have NATO and the alliance has, over many decades, proved to be relatively well functioning," Hurt says.

"From a military point of view, the EU is what you get if you start with NATO's membership but remove the most capable ally - the U.S. - and Canada, who is also a net contributor of security, but instead add countries that in terms of security and defence sometimes are classified as free riders - Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus," he adds.

"To me it seems that it would not be in Europe's interest to build up a degraded copy of something that already exists."

Juncker's proposal has already been rejected by the UK government on similar grounds, as a government spokesman told the Guardian "defence is a national, not an EU, priority."

Hurt believes a majority of EU states would also not be responsive to calls for a new, joint military unit. "Many EU member states lack the will to invest in security and are currently cutting their defence budgets as recently described in a report published by the European Leadership Network."

"If the political will to invest in defence will not increase in the near future, then there is little reason to believe that the same governments will commit to creating a new EU army that will require additional resources," he adds.

Hurt believes that from the perspective of the Baltic states "the only hard security guarantee comes from their membership in NATO." He points out that the U.S. accounts for 70% of NATO's total spending. "An EU army would by default be much weaker than anything that NATO can deploy," Hurt says.

General Chuck Wald, former deputy commander of United States European Command praises Juncker's project as "a good political message" for European unity but believes an EU army would be "more symbolic" than anything else, as he believes the U.S. remains crucial to European security.

"I always thought of the EU as the non-kinetic side of European politics. You don't need a European military, you already have NATO to protect Europe. I don't think there is a European leadership that would do the things NATO would do, especially with Article 5 - the mutual aggression pact," Wald says.

According to Wald, Canadian and U.S. military support in Europe is key to the continent's defence capabilities. "Whether people like it or not, we bring a lot to the fight to the table in terms of equipment and expertise," he says.

"There are always going to be Europeans who want to be independent and who don't want to allow the U.S. to be part of Europe's security apparatus. There has always been rhetoric there about: 'Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need the U.S.?'" Wald adds

"They can all talk about being independent of the U.S., but the reality is that the U.S. is instrumental to security in Europe," he says.

Julianne Smith, former principal director for European and NATO policy in the Pentagon and former deputy national security advisor to vice president Joe Biden, says that past attempts to establish an EU army have failed.

"This is a perennial debate we have been having with the EU and the EU has been having within itself for three decades," Smith says. "There have been many attempts at establishing some form of unified European force, but virtually all efforts have fallen short of developing real capabilities."

According to Smith, the U.S. would welcome Juncker's initiative but questions how successful an EU army would realistically be.

"The world is full of complex security challenges and the U.S. is in search of capable partners," he says. "Washington would react positively if EU partners felt more comfortable with establishing a strong military partnership out of NATO, but the question now would be how will this time be different from efforts in the past."

"I would support such an initiative. We do need a capable Europe," Smith continues, "[But] I remain sceptical that it will be more successful than previous efforts in this fiscal climate."