Inside Nato, an EU army of the willing is forming

A thundering roar splits the air above the snowy plain. For a few seconds, the profile of an F35 fighter jet is visible under the thick clouds. Then it is gone. In this Nato exercise in eastern Norway, the US-made combat aircraft is the only visible American element. The soldiers on the armoured vehicles of a fictitious attacker, and the fighters that lie in sniper positions in the bushes to stop them come from France, Poland and Spain. Are they the beginning of an EU army?

Norway is the neighbour that Russia has never occupied or been at war with. Hoping to keep it that way, every other year, the Norwegian Armed Forces invite its Nato allies to come and test their ability to help defend the country against unnamed external enemies in biting winds, freezing temperatures and snow. This year, over 30,000 troops from 27 countries are participating in the exercise, named ‘Cold Response’, bringing with them battle tanks, helicopters, attack airplanes and warships.

This year is different

This exercise has happened many times before. But this year is different. Not least for the Polish contingent. The artificial theatre of war in Norway mirrors a deadly real ‘theatre of war’, as military people call it, in their neighbouring country, Ukraine.

This also explains why this year’s exercise needed two buses to transport all the visiting journalists and their cameras to the display of Nato force at Rena, a remote valley in the eastern Norwegian pine forests. 

Both the Norwegian government and the Nato top brass could not seem to reiterate it enough: this exercise is not a threat to anybody. As Dutch admiral Rob Bauer said when he greeted the reporters who had come to watch the war games of French, Spanish, Polish and Norwegian troops, “this exercise is not directed against any specific country or region.” In fact, it has been planned for two years, and “all OSCE members were invited to send observers”, Bauer said.

One such OSCE member is Russia.

Practising without Americans

Young Spanish soldiers from the Leon armoured battalion, more used to the scorching heat of Madrid than Nordic frost, stood patiently on display for TV cameras in front of their armoured vehicles. So did the 13thAlpine Infantry Battalion from France, in its white tundra camouflage, and the Mechanised Infantry Battalion from Poland. They are all part of Nato’s “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force”. English is their common language, as well as hand signs meaning “stop”, “go”, “left” or “right”. Those came to use when a Polish Rosomak armoured personnel carrier was manoeuvred onto a French convoy.

French soldiers on the tank during NATO training | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

On this particular day, none of their American colleagues were present.

Can the Europeans do without them? The US represents more than twothirds of the military spending in Nato.

And which EU countries even want to have to defend themselves without American backing?

Probably nobody.

And until recently, EU governments have not even agreed that there is a need for more European self-reliance in military matters. But the violent push from Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has thrown the question of a more autonomous European defence to the top of the political agenda.

“There is a real spirit around a common defence now,” insists 1st lieutenant Clément of the French Alps Hunters Battalion, standing in the Rena snow in the same motley-white camouflage uniform as his troops. “After that, it is more about coordination than about material. All our countries in Europe have armies. So it is about a spirit, and it is really present. We really feel like comrades. More than five years back, more than 30 years back,” he says.

Breakthrough for French agenda

French president Emmanuel Macron has long been calling for “strategic autonomy” for EU. For Europe to be a credible partner to the US, it also has to be “an autonomous partner” with its own military and technological capacities, because “cooperation cannot be dependence”, he said after a discussion about the future of Nato with US president Joe Biden in January.

“It’s not that we want to undo the existing alliances or partnerships,” Macron assured, according to the New York Times. “[But] the day that cooperation becomes dependence, you have become somebody’s vassal and you disappear.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically turned Macron’s view into a more commonly-held belief: Europe needs to develop its own military capacity to not totally depend on the enormous military power of the US. 

EU army: Non-issue

“Strategic autonomy”. So, an EU army?

“No”, says Robin Allers, senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. “Nobody wants a single army. It is nearly a non-issue.” .This issue, instead, is how to cooperate more, and whether the EU should have task forces.  “Europe’s problem has never been a lack of money. It has been a lack of will to cooperate,” says Allers.

Investigate Europe asked the EU’s 27 member states if they are in favour of a common European army. Thirteen governments answered. Only Germany expressed support for the idea, calling it a “long term goal”.  The other governments either “opposed” it strongly, or said that “there is no such debate”.

Peace “needs defence”

The EU was created in the ruins of two world wars and was seen as a peace project by many. “Soft power” and economic might has been its clout. In 2012, it was awarded the Nobel peace prize. There are no contradictions between this heritage and a new push for European common defence, according to Hannah Neumann. She belongs to the Green party, which is part of the German government coalition, and sits on the security and defence committee in the European parliament. “For the EU to be a peace project, it remains crucial to be a global actor for crisis and conflict prevention. However, we also need to be able to defend ourselves, and sometimes also to help those who need military support, because they defend the universal values that are constitutive for peace,” Neumann tells IE. “So yes, sadly, we will need to become a military power to safeguard peace.” She says creating a real European army would require a major shift of responsibilities away from the nation states – for which there is no majority consensus at the moment. That’s why, she concludes, “we should, as of now, rather improve what we have and fully implement what we are able to do within the framework of our current treaties”.

Soldier of the French 13th alpine infantry battalion | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

Trusting USA, but with a Plan B

This does not mean pulling away from the US and Nato, Neumann assures. 

“But with former US president Trump, we sadly learned that we cannot be sure whether we could count on them in case of an aggression against us by Russia. So we have to make sure in the medium term that we will be able to defend ourselves.”

One concrete grudge towards the US has been simmering since last August, when Taliban forces took over the capital of Afghanistan. Nato’s 20 years of American-led war against the Islamist movement ended in spectacular defeat. In the end, US forces under the command of president Joe Biden left the country hastily, having informed rather than consulted their European allies. They left too, frustrated and not able to remain without US support. Politically, that was the first watershed moment.

Just days after the evacuation from Afghanistan, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell revived the idea of an EU intervention force to deal with future crisis situations abroad. In May 2021, 14 EU governments proposed such a force — a brigade of 5,000 soldiers, potentially equipped with ships and planes, to help democratic foreign governments in need of urgent help. The governments were Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, France,  Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

“We need to draw lessons from this experience…As Europeans, we have not been able to send 6,000 soldiers around the Kabul airport to secure the area. The US has been, we haven’t,” Borrell said.

Battle groups on the shelf

But European military units already exist. The EU’s so-called Battle Groups have been operational since 2007, each consisting of around 1,500 troops. They are special rapid reaction forces put together by personnel from several countries, and tasked with preventing and managing crises outside the EU. Two battle groups are on stand-by at any given time, each on a six-month rotation. They are supposed to be able to spring into action on five to 10 days’ notice.

But the battle groups have never been used, because of disagreement over funding, and because member states have not agreed on how and when to use them.

In fact, when Investigate Europe tried to arrange a visit to a battle group on stand-by in Italy, there was no response. In the end, an army representative explained to our reporter that they had to find out what the EU battle group actually was.

The EU battle groups are like life insurances, says French brigadier-general Jean-Philippe Leroux. He commands Nato’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which participates in the winter exercise in Norway.If the forces are not used, “it means we don’t have the need. The situation is stable enough to not commit the force. That is a rather good sign,” argues Leroux.

Go with Nato or with EU?

The US government insists that European countries take more financial responsibility in the Nato alliance. They demand that everyone spend two percent of their GDP on defence. But the Americans also require that Europeans stay away from ‘the three Ds’ — decoupling, duplication, and discrimination. Duplication may become a real issue, as Nato has its own Reaction Force (NRF). On paper, it can activate 40,000 troops, eight times more than the one the EU is planning for. But the different forces within Nato and EU are drawn from the same European armies.

“It is a challenge”, concedes Philipp Leyde, deputy commander of VJTF. It comes down to a political decision, adds Jean-Philippe Leroux. “And for the governments to have a clear picture of what they want to do, and if they, in a given conflict, would prefer to rely on a UN organisation of forces, on OSCE organisation and observers, on Nato crisis response – or on EU capabilities. So there is a panel of possibilities. But this is all political.”

Nato force on Ukraine borders

There has not been huge enthusiasm for the Nato Reaction Force either. As in the EU, governments are reluctant to give away national decision-making power. Some have called for the force to be dismantled. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, Nato added the ‘Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’ (VJTF) to NRF core. On February 25, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Nato for the first time in history deployed parts of the Reaction Force/VJTF to Poland and other Nato countries that border Ukraine, to “ensure strong and credible deterrence and defence”.

A Polish soldier with the German general Jörg Vollmer | Photo: Ingeborg Eliassen

Coalition of the willing

A European defence union has made sense for decades, thinks Adam Tooze, British professor of history at Columbia University. But little has come out of it. If it changes now, it will probably happen as a coalition of the willing that pushes this forward, without all EU states having to participate, he believes.

“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.”

The 100 billion euro question

Whether needed or not, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to put enormous amounts of new money on the table in Nato as well as in the EU. In a dramatic policy reversal, Germany’s coalition government decided to beef up its 2022 military budget with €100 billion — twice the annual defence budget. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also declared that Germany aims to fulfill Nato’s demand to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence. This totally overthrew the forecast by former chancellor Angela Merkel and then-finance minister Scholz in 2018 — that Germany would reach 1.5 percent by 2025. It will make Germany a military superpower in Europe for the first time since World War II.Robin Allers at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies does not like this description of how the €100 billion will change Germany’s role. “Germany will not become a military superpower. This money is needed to make Germany a functioning and trustworthy contributor in a European defence policy,” he says. And even if Germany is to become a military power, the country will not become a military player the likes of France or the UK, according to the defence analyst: “Germany will not have nuclear weapons. They will not purchase aircraft carriers. They will not have forces in warfare elsewhere in the world. ”The massive scaling-up of defence spending in Germany will mainly serve Nato, he thinks.  “But in the longer term, it will also strengthen the European ability to do bigger military operations on its own and thereby contribute to more ‘strategic autonomy’.”