European defence possibilities

One of the ironies of the referendum campaign was the (unsubstantiated) claim that the EU is about to create a European Army. Yet as anti-federalists get jumpy about the tone of Guy Verhofstadt’s comments on closer co-operation on defence, Trump pushes for something similar. Has closer co-operation on defence just become a really good idea, and essential for the UK to be part of?

The sequence of events feels almost surreal. During the referendum campaign several former generals, including Lord Guthrie, came out in favour of Brexit, supposedly over fears that the EU is about to create an EU army. In the swirl of half-stories it was not clear what was actually being said: there has been shared policy on security and defence for a long time, which became the Common Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty. Crucially, anyone with a grip on the different stories of EU member states would be aware that this is very complicated — particularly because of the anxieties in Germany about armed forces serving a purpose that’s anything other than defensive. A move as big as creating a fully-fledged European Army would also need treaty changes, which require the agreement of all the member states, so there is no chance of it happening without the agreement of the UK as long as we are in the EU.

Guy Verhofstadt and European defence

Away from the confused world of the British debates and anxieties on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, of ALDE has been prominent in pushing for increased co-operation over defence. His Plan for Europe, 2014–2019 picks up the full range of European policy, but his comments on defence include:

A new strategic concept must be developed based on 21st century policy requirements. In times of limited funds, economies of scale can produce huge gains in effectiveness are required. A Europe army would dramatically reduce the costs incurred by duplicating 28 times the same activities and provide greater effectiveness. Equally, the foreign services of the Member States employ over 90,000 people whereas the USA only 28,000. The gains in cost and effectiveness are clear. We will only have a foreign policy that will enable the EU to become a global player if we put at our disposal the rights tools.

Talk of a European Army needs to be nuanced: as with many European things there is a spectrum from being wholly separate to wholly united: his words should be heard as nudging in the direction of closer union, not necessarily of being all the way there in the forseeable future. Elsewhere he has spoken of this as closer co-operation on European Defence. His point is that EU defence spending (€203 in 2015) is just over a third of US defence spending ($598 in 2015) but is achieving less because things are too fragmented: closer co-operation would make better use of available resources.

In a speech to the European Parliament on 14 September 2016 he commented pithily on European Defence Union: “It is no longer the Americans who will take responsibility in our neighbourhood. We will do it ourselves or it will not be done.”

Some people — not least Nigel Farage — have been describing Verhofstadt as an extreme federalist: but his comments are not sounding so isolated…


During the election campaign, Trump criticised Europe for not spending enough on defence (and therefore relying too much on the USA) and for being inefficient in its lack of integration.

New co-operation

The result is that defence has come up the EU agenda, heading in the direction that Verhoftstadt has been suggesting, with deeper co-operation and more investment. In the world of Brexit irrationality, Michael Fallon has been both pushing for the EU to spend more on defence and threatening to veto the creation of a European Army — which actually means vetoing the army that is not proposed, and not stopping the deeper co-operation that is.


In all the raging confusion, the case for deeper defence co-operation has deepened, which means more close working and less duplication. That makes sense in an EU founded to prevent another European war (rather than invade other countries). Guy Verhofstadt’s position has gone from being “provocative” to being mainstream and the UK continues to send mixed messages.

If a Trump-led US is less willing to spend on European defence (which is not unreasonable) then Brexit risks the UK being under neither the wing of the US or the EU. We’re not an inconsequential military power, but we did need the help of others in both world wars, and would need it again if we were caught up in another major conflict. Surely that adds to the case for being fully engaged in the European project, able to share in European defence and take part in shaping its future.

A federalist footnote

A federal approach to Europe has never been about a “superstate” taking over: it’s always been about creating a stable framework, where those things best done together are done together, and everything else is done more locally. Defence is crucial to this, because it needs stability for there to be genuine freedom, and it’s easier for natural differences between regions or countries to emerge if there is no risk of that leading to war.

Failure to co-operate on defence because of mis-placed fears of a “European army” don’t make us safer: they actually undermine our peace, stability, liberty and prosperity.

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