Adam Tooze, historian: “European countries could form a defence union as part of NATO”

Adam Tooze, adapted from © World Economic Forum | Walter Duerst (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Under the pressure of the war in Ukraine, the demand for a common European defence policy suddenly becomes very urgent. But is it realistic? Is it feasible with the current constitution of the EU that requires the approval of 27 states for everything?
We have seen for decades that it would make sense to create such a defence union, and yet little comes of it. If it changes now, it will probably follow the pattern of what is sometimes called “variable geometry” in EU jargon, that is, a kind of coalition of the willing that pushes this forward without all EU states having to participate.

This becomes complex not least because the Poles, who are certainly very much in favour of more armament, are interested in a European solution, but are fixated on NATO and the USA because they simply do not trust the Germans and probably never will.

But why shouldn’t what Joschka Fischer once called the “old Europe”, i.e. Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria and perhaps Denmark, why shouldn’t these countries form an armaments union together?

This already exists to some extent. There are joint armament projects and binational brigades or the EU “battle groups”, none of which even comes close to a functioning and operational army. If the EU wants to acquire “strategic autonomy”, as is often said now, a common army should be the goal. But then there must also be a body that gives the orders. Who should form that body?

That’s true, and presumably it would have to be linked to NATO’s command structures. It will not work completely independently of NATO, and there is no reason for that.

But NATO without the US would be just an empty shell.

It doesn’t have to be. It could be a NATO that stands on two independent pillars. There are also the bilateral links between the US and Poland and the UK within NATO, where the intelligence services work together and American weapons are bought. Why not have a Western European wing within this existing system, with perhaps a budget of around 150 billion dollars a year, with Airbus as a central arms producer and the other big arms companies? There were times when the Americans deliberately prevented such a thing because they wanted to keep the power structure within NATO. But today there is no one among the leading defence politicians of both parties in Washington who would not be pleased to have a competent and capable partner in Europe.

As far as the command structures are concerned, it would be a matter of building on initiatives like the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which is a brigade-strength unit of 5000 soldiers with France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom assuming the lead role on a rotational basis. The US estimates the cost of operating combat brigades at roughly 450 to 500 million US dollars per year. The acquisition costs run into the billions per brigade.  Right now the priority should be to ensure that the existing structures are properly funded and capable of action. As far as I know, the Bundeswehr has eight brigades. That is a good start. If those are all properly equipped and ready for action at relatively short notice, you really don’t need to worry about the threat posed by a force as disorganized as the Russian army we have seen in Ukraine. Perhaps Ukraine will make soldiering cool for a new generation of young men and women.

Plus air force…

Yes, but those are high-tech modular units. The aircraft is the key and the pilots. Combat-capable ground troops require much more personnel. The current actions of the Russian army make the need apparent: if Europe had a truly capable army of 200,000 soldiers, 30 combat brigades well-equipped and trained, plus overhead, five large corps of 40,000 soldiers each, that would be quite enough to deter Russia, given the visible incompetence of the Russian troops.

If there were such an army, then it would at least need a kind of rump government that would then also decide on the deployment and would also be democratically legitimised and parliamentarily controlled, wouldn’t it?

Why should it be different from monetary policy? The ECB (European Central Bank) leadership is not elected either. Of course, when it comes to deciding on war and peace, there is a greater need for legitimacy…

…it already starts with the high sums that the taxpayers would have to pay for it….

Spending does need to rise. Currently the EU collectively spend 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. That is not a lot by historical standards. You could imagine raising that to 2 percent without requiring a political revolution. If you raised health spending by that amount, for sake of comparison, I don’t think you would need a referendum to legitimize it. These are small shares of a very big cake. But, first and foremost this is all about turning the 198 billion euros that Europe already spends on defense into a force that is capable of action and ensuring that in raising defense spending further. We do not want to throw good money after bad.

But the money would have to go to a joint institution, which in turn would have to be jointly managed and supervised.


And how? With 10 or 15 national parliaments? That would take far too long and, with many special interests, make the process as laborious as the completely dysfunctional EU foreign policy.

You would probably need a structure like the Eurosystem.

That sounds daunting. The Eurosystem systematically disadvantaged and harmed the weaker states during the crisis. A lot of people will not want be involved in something like that.

In fact, as you know, opinion polls show surprisingly high levels of public support for the Eurosystem, despite the pain it inflicted. There are vociferous critics but they are a minority. Folks seem to accept it as a fact at this point and in the last crisis, 2020, it played a constructive role. It is a system with opaque structures but basically legitimized by delegation. Why should a military structure not work on the same basis? Actual decisions would be taken by a smaller board, the equivalent of the ECB’s governing council, with a commander in chief (the equivalent of Lagarde) with deputies (Lane and Schnabel) etc.

All historical experience says: power without control leads to abuse of power.

The objection is not wrong, of course. But historical experience with the militaryalso tells us that the military is in general legitimated indirectly nor can errors and misjudgements be ruled out. There are many wrong decisions everywhere. This is no different with the armies of the French, British and Americans. In this respect, the EU would possibly only normalise itself as a very ordinary, and thus partly dysfunctional military power. I see no reason why the EU could not try this. It would be an experiment like many other steps in the EU’s development before. But in my opinion an important and necessary experiment.Like the ECB, it would be a quasi-federal institution that would stimulate public discourse and ultimately promote European integration. Like the ECB, it would be a matter of trial and error, collective learning by doing etc.

If the EU governments now build something comparable to a common army, a European pillar within the framework of NATO, even if only some of the Member States are involved for the time being, then this virtually forces a debate on how this should lead to a true European federation or Republic. If at all, it will probably only be through such improvised and thus provisional formats that emerge through functional cooperation and delegated legitimation. That’s just how it works, this Europe. Whether we like it or not, it is what Angela Merkel called the “community method”. This is the “actually existing” EU.