The strong drive for further cohesion within the EU is undeniable. What started out as an economic union is gradually consolidating itself as a European political union. And as part of this political unity, European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen has revived talks for a common defence system through the setting up of a European army. The message is clear – if the EU wants to consolidate its position in the international community, it must exercise a credible degree of military power.
But let’s face it, the EU is not a USA 2.0. Despite EU bureaucrats’ best efforts to present the EU as a solid political bloc, the great diversity in culture and mentality of its members still leaves visible cracks. Brexit and the unsurprising scepticism of former Soviet republics towards stronger centralised powers are clear examples. Nevertheless, France and Germany have been at the forefront of pushing for the idea of a European Army. But why does the EU need an army in the first place?
The military aggressions on the eastern border of Europe by Russia remain one concern. Despite the trend towards closer ties, when push came to shove, Ukraine received no support from Europe when Russian forces took over Crimea unopposed. How can the EU present itself as a reliable partner if it cannot step up in aid of its allies in times of need? One may argue that Ukraine is not an EU member, and therefore, the EU was in no way obliged to intervene. But a similar issue can be seen closer to home. Turkey is increasingly flexing its muscles at the heart of the continent, frequently applying bullying tactics on neighbouring Greece, and it still militarily controls half of Cyprus.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen numerous terror attacks in France, Germany, Belgium and the like. Like it or not, the international landscape is becoming increasingly more dangerous for Europeans due to issues with Russia and Belarus on the eastern border, Turkey in the Balkans, Iran with its nuclear armaments in the Middle East, the volatility in northern Africa and the increased influence of communist China on the global scale. As the old Roman proverb goes, si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. Can EU Member States defend themselves against these global issues on their own?
By cooperating and pooling resources, rather than wasting resources on parallel structures, equipment and bureaucracy, EU countries can get more for their military spending. As a bloc, the EU could also consider entering the military spending market, something which EU countries have struggled to do. Not to mention that there are important information synergies that can be shared between countries which, at least historically, have a long military tradition.
The third argument, which has been clearly articulated by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel on separate occasions, is for the EU’s self-sufficiency. At present, the EU’s defence strategy is essentially dependent on NATO, which is dominated by the US as the biggest military spender by far. France in particular has had a bit of a rough history with NATO, having partially and temporarily left in the 1960s, arguing that the United States was too dominant within the organisation. At that time, French president Charles de Gaulle believed that France should position itself as a counterweight to US power globally. It’s not too difficult to hear echoes of this sentiment by Emmanuel Macron in the European Army project.
It’s true that US and EU interests are not always perfectly aligned, but is it really a wise move to break ties with NATO, and place the EU as a counterweight to the US? Let’s not forget that despite their differences, in terms of democratic values and human rights principles, the EU and US are (and should be) broadly aligned. One must not forget the historical ties between the US and the Old Continent, and the fact that NATO has so far successfully managed to maintain peace within Europe.
And if the US is the dominating force in NATO, the dominating forces within the European Army would undoubtedly be France and Germany, with the French more eager than the Germans to wield military force in recent conflicts. So it would seem that France is opposed to US dominance in NATO, but is very eager for French military dominance in the EU.
Where does Malta stand?
When asked in 2017, 55% of Maltese respondents were in favour of an EU army. However, a substantial minority (37%) was completely opposed to the idea. Neutrality is established in the Maltese Constitution, and therefore, the European Army is a local political headache. However, like many other pressing European issues, this issue is absent in domestic political discussion. So let’s try and highlight some relevant questions in this article instead.
First off, are the Armed Forces of Malta capable of ensuring the safety of the Maltese in a credible manner? Most of us might say ‘no’. Being a small island at the very edge of the European border makes us very vulnerable. We should not be naïve about the growing security threats in an increasingly interconnected world, where a simple hack can jeopardise an entire nation (remember the cyber-attack on BOV?).
Secondly, let’s say we agree that we need better forms of self-defence, but for that we need some help from the EU. If so, there are inevitable compromises with the EU to be made. The most obvious would be the deployment of Maltese soldiers in conflicts not affecting Malta, which would clearly be in violation of our constitutional principle of neutrality.
At this point, we need to pause and ask ourselves; is the principle of neutrality still relevant in this modern, post-Cold war world? If Malta declares itself as a democratic nation that upholds human rights, should we remain completely passive in the face of evils that impinge on these very rights?
It is true that realistically, Malta cannot tip the global scales on its own. What Malta can, and has successfully done on previous occasions, is to act as a mediator for conflict resolution, which would be more in line with the typical foreign military strategy of small states. We can use our historic neutrality to influence the negotiating process for an EU defence strategy by presenting ourselves as a historically neutral state with a constitutionally established desire for global peace. Given our experience, it is more likely that Malta can influence the European military future through political dialogue, rather than via the use of actual force.
In our view, Malta should argue for the EU not to weaken, but rather to strengthen its ties with NATO. By having a credible military force, the EU can legitimise a stronger voice in NATO, exercise more discretion on the actions of the US, and better influence the course of events on a more global scale than it can do on its own. Unlike the French vision, the EU should not present itself as a counterweight to the US, but as a stronger partner to our Western allies who, now more than ever, must remain united to continue defending the western values of democracy and human rights against the rising totalitarian powers of the world.