"This is a dangerous fantasy. The idea that there's going to be a European air force, a European army, it is simply not true."
Nick Clegg, 2 April 2014
"European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called for the creation of a European army"
BBC News, 9 March 2015
"The EU has a long record of creating institutions through the 'back door' and the creation of a EU Army will be no different. All of a sudden, the British public will be presented with a 'done deal' and British troops will find themselves operating under the EU flag rather than the Union flag."
UKIP, 4 May 2015
The EU doesn’t currently have an army. It does encourage military co-operation between member countries, which already run joint operations under an EU banner, and some European politicians would like to see this take the form of stand-alone EU armed forces.
Member countries would have a veto on any such plans, so the UK would only take part if it chose to.
European military force is still a matter for national governments
The EU doesn’t have the legal power to act in this area unless member governments actively give their permission.
The EU treaties do allow for “the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence”.
This is the place where EU heads of state or government meet at least four times each year, but more often if necessary. It plays a major role in setting the EU’s overall agenda and is the EU’s ultimate political authority. It was the European Council that decided to accept David Cameron’s renegotiation package.
But this “common defence” will only come about “when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides”. Unlike in other areas of EU decision-making, the European Commission can’t propose laws about security and defence, and any decisions in these areas must be made unanimously.
That means that the UK effectively has a veto.
UK law also states that no such common EU defence powers can be handed from the UK to the EU without the approval of parliament and a referendum on the decision. So the government would need the support of both the public and MPs before they could make such a decision.
The treaties don’t say what “common defence” means exactly. Presumably, while you could have a “common defence” without an EU army, creation of an EU army couldn’t happen without a “common defence” being formally approved by each individual government.
So while UKIP is correct to say that there’s supposed to be a gradual development of shared responsibilities in this area, an EU army couldn’t be brought into existence without the agreement of the UK (and other EU member countries, many of which reportedly don’t think it’s a good idea).
The UK’s position on an EU army
The UK doesn’t support an EU army.
The government’s position is that: “The Prime Minister has been clear that the UK will never be part of a European Army. We have consistently said that we will oppose any measures which would undermine member states' competence for their own military forces, or lead to competition and duplication with NATO, which is the cornerstone of our defence”.
The EU already runs military operations, based on armies working together
When people talk about an “EU army”, they seem to mean armed forces recruited by, and under the central command of, an EU organisation which could deploy them as it sees fit.
Military operations are already managed at EU level. The first of these began in 2003 in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia under the control of the EU Political and Security Committee of member countries’ ambassadors. Other operations followed in the Congo, and Bosnia Herzegovina in 2004—that one is still going on.
The EU currently has six ongoing military operations in non-EU countries, and another dozen ‘civilian missions’.
An important difference between these operations and an “EU army” is that they rely on member countries to provide the boots on the ground. The Union doesn’t directly employ soldiers.
Its military operations, and stand-by ‘Battlegroups’, are formed from various armies working together.
On a practical level, this shows up in soldiers on EU missions wearing EU badges on their regular army uniforms.
In terms of high-level organisation, the EU Military Committee is made up of Chiefs of Defence from each country. The EU Military Staff reporting to it are on secondment from the armed forces of member states—the European Commission told us that the dozen UK military personnel on the Military Staff “remain employees of the UK Government”.
EU military operations are also financed from a separate pot of money from the centralised EU budget.
EU member states can have closer cooperation between their armies
Member countries who want greater defence cooperation can work together without the involvement or backing of all members. This is referred to as ‘permanent structured cooperation’.
These countries can then coordinate on a number of areas including operational planning, training and sharing equipment.
Leave campaigners have claimed that the UK would be forced into an ‘EU army’ under the rules allowing for these activities.
But even if you think this kind of cooperation amounted to an EU army, which isn’t clear, it’s entirely optional. Member countries also have the option to leave these agreements further down the line if they wish to.
So far no EU countries have taken up this option.
Some people would like an EU army, but there aren’t concrete plans for one
Proposals reported in May 2016 as “the first step towards an EU army” referred to a push for permanent structured cooperation, to be tabled after the UK membership referendum.
There are plenty more examples of EU politicians pushing for more defence integration.
Proposals put forward in 2013 involved “assets directly purchased, owned and operated by the Union”, although the EU said that this referred to non-military equipment.
These mirror the desire of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, for “at least some integrated defence capacities”. He’s also made a more specific call for a joint EU army, in an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
A paper published by his European People’s Party political grouping called for “an EU strategic civilian and military headquarters” and, in the long run, “European stand-by forces under Union command”.
So we know that some players on the EU political scene would like the Union to be able to use military force on its own. Accordingly, experts in European issues and defence policy have been debating whether or not it’s realistic and a good idea.
But, politically, it seems a fairly distant prospect at present. The 2013 proposals we mentioned, for instance, were welcomed by the European Council of national leaders on the pointed condition “that the capabilities are owned and operated by the Member States”.
The European Council has given defence and security policy more attention recently. After a recent meeting, it said that the EU should be doing things like “fostering greater and more systematic European defence cooperation to deliver key capabilities, including through EU funds”.
While this suggests that countries will work more closely together in future, it’s not a resounding call for an EU army.