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Without Britain, the European Union Lurches Towards Its Own Army

For all its talk about peace, the EU sure is obsessed with weaponry and military control.
Guy Verhofstadt

A regrettable consequence of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is that the bloc has lost a mitigating influence on its political integration. For the most part, the UK has sought to protect its financial and regulatory advantages against Brussels, which has been keen to over-regulate London’s finance industry. Former British prime minister David Cameron demanded exemptions from EU financial regulations and subsequently vetoed a revision of the Lisbon Treaty. He also prevented a British contribution to the bailout of Greece during the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009.

The UK has also consistently opposed any moves towards defense integration beyond existing cooperation models. British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said in 2016: “We agree Europe needs to step up to the challenges of terrorism and of migration. But we are going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army or EU army headquarters, which would simply undermine NATO.”

This has been in line with the UK’s pushback more generally against the large armies of Europe. While the EU is not a hostile military power now, it could very well change its mind in the future, and the UK wants to prevent that. During the crises in Libya and Syria, many EU parliamentarians were in favor of military intervention.

For senior EU federalist Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit has exposed the failure of the European Union…it isn’t integrated enough. He argues in favor of an EU without opt-ins and opt-outs. This is likely to be applied to all policy issues, including a common military, supported by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

France recently released its post-Brexit nuclear strategy, which is closely tied to its vision for European defense. With the UK’s exit, France is now the sole nuclear power in the European Union. During the presentation, Macron said that Europe needs a new approach to international arms control, and that the continent needs a renewed commitment to mutual defense, as NATO is now in question. 

In reality, it is Macron himself who has been questioning the integrity of NATO, as I laid out in a piece for The American Conservative back in November. Weakening the perception of NATO plays into the hands of the French president, who claims that an EU army (which he desperately wants) is necessary in a world of reduced American presence and commitment. And Macron’s comments on nuclear disarmament are laughable, as France is merely not increasing its own arsenal, as opposed to actually disarming.

During a visit to Poland at the beginning of the month, Macron told local officials that France’s nuclear strategy would “take into account the interests of other European countries.” It was an odd statement for a president so keen on rejecting the idea that large countries ought to defend smaller nations. 

Meanwhile, in a reconsideration that would mark a significant shift, senior German officials are questioning whether Berlin should not give itself nuclear capacity. A senior member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party made a case for the EU to create its own nuclear deterrence capability, while other media contributors argued for Germany to have its own arsenal.

For a political project so dedicated to the idea of peace, this amounts to an awful lot of talk about weaponry. Terrorist attacks remain a constant threat, but those cannot be solved with tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, or nuclear warheads. In the same way, Russia’s presence in the Baltics cannot and will not be defended against with nuclear weapons, but through careful surveillance and counter-intelligence.

Macron’s push for EU military capabilities leaves only one logical explanation: France cannot afford those increased capabilities itself, because budgetary constraints are looming and the Yellow Vest protesters are not having any new tax increases. That means Macron needs to outsource these needs to other countries through the EU.

Adding to that, Paris has already had bad experiences when it wages war by itself. While French politicians criticize the United States for its failed and wasteful interventions in the Middle East, few point out that France itself has been engaged in a seemingly endless war in Mali. For over eight years now, France has fought a large number of Islamist groups in that African country, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, and various Nigerian jihadists. Upon calling its European allies for help, it was joined only by Germany, Sweden, and Estonia. With a European army under its control, it would be able to entangle all 27 EU member states in its geopolitical interests in Africa, stripping them of much of their control over whether to intervene or not.

Meanwhile, if there’s anyone in Europe so naive as to believe that the European Parliament would exercise control over the executive, they should take a closer look at how the United States has waged constant war since the end of World War II, often without the consent of Congress.

How do you say “checks and balances” in French anyway?

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.