This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Following Emmanuel Macron’s recent call for the creation of a European army, defence specialists and commentators were swift in their derision of the idea as a political provocation and pipe dream. It was the first time a French leader had endorsed the idea, which is usually promoted by die-hard European federalists.

The French president is known to like a bold vision, but he is seldom naïve or ideological. Moreover, as the commander-in-chief of the European armed forces most deployed abroad, and soon the sole nuclear power in the European Union, his words cannot be taken lightly. It was equally significant that Macron’s call was later echoed – with some caveats – by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech at the European Parliament.

Peace project

A century on from the 1918 armistice, how can Europe remain a successful peace project when its traditional ally the United States is retrenching, the likes of China, Iran and Russia are on the offensive, and when even the most capable of European armed forces cannot defend Europe alone?

One obvious way to go, according to Macron, is to pull European forces together to form a truly European military capacity, the same as Europe has done on the trade and competition policy front to become a global trade player.

The upcoming European elections are also likely to have weighted on Macron’s thinking. To entice the electorate to vote for Europe rather than against his government, Macron needs to present it with some positive emotional totems, or issues that make voters feel more strongly and intuitively bound to the European project.

Macron’s vision of a European army may be far from concrete, but it resonates strongly with voters of all stripes. A poll conducted by Le Point news magazine found that 81% of respondents were in favour of a European army. The demand for a Europe that can better protect its citizens is widely shared among voters in France and beyond.

Image: European Defence Agency

Defence transformation

It would be easy to dismiss the idea as just a political gimmick, if it were not for the fact that European defence has gone through some significant transformation over the last few years.

Largely thanks to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, European governments have realized that defence budgets can no longer be expendable lines in national budgets. In 2015–16, for the first time in decades, European defence budgets stopped their post-Cold War decline, and most are now on the increase. Even if Europe still falls short of the 2% defence-spending target – the average among European NATO members is 1.44% – it is now closing the US$102 billion gap. (In 2014, the gap was US$138bn.)

Added to this recovery in defence spending, European countries have strengthened their armed forces’ readiness and in some cases deployed them under the NATO banner on the eastern flank of Europe, something seldom seen since the end of the Cold War.

The European Union has started mobilising significant resources as well. Launched in early 2017, the European Defence Fund is set to reach €1.5bn in 2021, and the Commission hopes to leverage an additional €4bn in investments from member states, for a total of €5.5bn (around US$6.2bn). Equivalent to the entire Swedish defence budget in 2018, this will bring much-needed cash to some of the weakest areas of the European defence sector: research and development, and new equipment acquisition.

In addition, in June last year EU High Representative Federica Mogherini proposed the establishment of a European Peace Facility, a fund of potentially €10.5bn annually, which, if agreed, could be used as early as 2021 to cover some of the costs of the military operations led by European armed forces and even regional partners. Despite its name, this would be the first time that the EU has freed up funds to support military operations. This has long been France’s wish after years of opposition by Germany, which has argued that the EU treaties forbid providing support to military activities and even capabilities, and a systematic veto from the UK, which perceived it to be in direct competition with NATO.

Of course, there is a difference between new funds and institutional measures on the one hand, and a combat-ready army of European soldiers on the other. But the EU is fast becoming a real actor in defence where it used to be a marginal one: between 2021 and 2027, the EU aims to invest €13bn in defence research and development, and equipment, and €6.5bn for military mobility, to which one may add the off-budget €10.5bn fund for the European Peace Facility.

Revolution or evolution

Macron’s call will be put to the test after the European elections. Will EU member states and institutions be capable of taking a leap forward to build a true European defence capability or will they maintain the same pace of progress as in recent years? If the EU is to realize its ambitions, decisions in three areas will be critical.

Firstly, European defence will need to gain in political importance. Pulling together EU money is the easy part compared to the task of ensuring member states are willing to pull together their decision-making powers on defence-related matters. This does not mean that they should abandon their national priorities, something many in France, but also Germany, will be opposed to. But it does mean that to be real, European defence must involve a stronger collective decision-making process.

Today, defence is a sub-component of the EU’s foreign affairs responsibilities – EU defence ministers don’t have a decision-making format of their own. Added to that, foreign policy still falls under the unanimity rule in the European Council, which leads to weak or lowest common denominator decisions.

A double qualitative leap will need to be taken: qualified majority voting for most, if not all, foreign and security policy matters should be introduced, and a European Defence and Security Council should be created to discuss and decide on these matters. This new council should be able to draw on the services of a new Directorate-General for Defence, something that is already under discussion. The European Parliament should also increase its powers of scrutiny, with the upgrading of the subcommittee on defence into a fully fledged committee.

The key is to find a new balance between EU institutions’ growing competencies and resources on defence, and stronger political buy-in from the member states. Strengthening the former without the latter will lead to an over-institutionalisation of European defence, and is unlikely to compel member states to hand elements of their jealously guarded sovereignty over to Brussels.

Integration across multiple domains

Secondly, the integration of European defence should not just be vertical. Its strength will also lie in how horizontally integrated it is with other domains of European power, ranging from economic sanctions policy and cyber measures, to internal security policy. If European defence cannot match the deterrence might of NATO anytime soon, the fact that it is an integral part of a wider range of tools and responses could give it a unique power.

Twenty-first century power will be largely determined by the capacity of a state or a group of states to control critical technologies and resources such as space, artificial intelligence or energy

Indeed, in an age when warfare can often take place below the threshold of a conventional attack, such as targeting civilian cyber networks as well as critical infrastructure, the EU has an inherent advantage providing it can fully leverage the broad range of tools and responses at its disposal. By contrast, even if NATO has strengthened its conventional deterrent capability, it remains largely unqualified to respond to hybrid, diffuse threats.

Thirdly, European defence integration should go beyond pure security responses. Twenty-first century power will be largely determined by the capacity of a state or a group of states to control critical technologies and resources such as space, artificial intelligence or energy. Without some level of autonomy in these domains, Europe’s dependence will become its strategic Achilles heel.

The next European Commission should prepare an EU-wide approach on strategic autonomy, by identifying what capacity and investment it needs to make in critical industries and domains to stay competitive globally. Without such a concerted strategy, European defence will be autonomous in word alone.

Autonomy not isolation

Autonomy should not be confused with isolation, however. European defence will only be as strong as its capacity to bring in like-minded partners. The most obvious one is the United Kingdom, without which, according to a study by a group of UK and German experts, European defence will only be able to fulfil a minimum range of tasks.

Once the fog of Brexit has cleared, it will be important to establish how the second-most able military power in Europe will be associated with European efforts. Emmanuel Macron’s European Intervention Initiative – which was launched in 2017 outside the existing institutional frameworks and includes ten European military powers, including the United Kingdom – already anticipates this reality.

Bringing this mini-lateral initiative inside the new European defence construct will matter. So will finding ways to associate European partners such as Norway or Israel, which for reasons of their location or capabilities, can add real value to European defence efforts.

US partnership

Finally, greater European autonomy should not mean greater animosity towards the United States, which will remain the partner of choice and necessity for a long time to come. But if done well, the EU’s growing defence capabilities could result in a dynamic based on cooperation rather than dependence. This would be greeted as a welcome development on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Europeans still have a long way to go before Macron’s call becomes reality. NATO, and with it the United States, is still the prime provider of European security. But it lacks the agility to allow the Europeans to address the full range of threats, and its political health is unlikely to recover anytime soon.

For the first time in decades, a window exists for Europe to take care of its own defence. But for that to happen, European leaders will need to avoid the twin traps of over-institutionalisation and too little collective political engagement. Hard decisions lie ahead.

A European army: can the dream become a reality? Fabrice Pothier, the International Institute for Strategic Studies