*English Bezpieczeństwo Bezpieczeństwo międzynarodowe Europa Europa Zachodnia UE Weimar Youth Forum

Europe’s military isolated collective suicides


French_soldier_equipment_USAF_C-17_130123-F-GO452-511, wikimedia commonsItaly, Greece, Romania, Slovenia, those are but few European countries who recently withdrawn their forces from ongoing operations (Libya, Atalanta etc.). Not for military nor political motives, simple because they ran out of money to finance their forces. Even European countries that still perceive themselves as great military powers face this situation. Symbolically, the recent operation in Mali was led by French soldiers who had to use adhesive tape to prevent there shoe-soles from being detached from their shoes. Indeed, Paris did not have the capacity to provide robust shoes to its soldiers.

Cuts to defence budgets are likely to be deepened in the future. Firstly, because current European leaders are unable to solve the economic crisis. Secondly, because ageing Europeans understandably prefer that cuts target defence instead of pensions, healthcare or education. As Arnaud Danjean, Head of the Defence Committee of the European Parliament, puts it: the main threat to Europe’s security is not terrorism, not Russia, not cyber attack, not atomic bombs, but shrinking defence budgets.

From isolation to desertion

A tacit choice is currently made by Europeans to respond to budget cuts in defence: each European state cuts its defence capability, alone, in isolation. To use Christian Mölling’s metaphor, if bonsai are like small-scaled trees, then European armies are becoming ‘bonsai armies’: big enough to parade on National day, but unable to wage war.

With the choice for isolation, Europeans only preserve the illusion of state’s sovereignty. This may be enough for countries who simply do not want to use their militaries anymore, like Austria which lately decided to withdraw its 376 soldiers from the UN mission in Golan because it became “too dangerous” – as if militaries had been created to operate in safe heavens.

But do we still need an army? Economically speaking, our military is an insurance policy: it always costs too much when you pay the monthly bill, but it gets you out of deep troubles when you need to use it. This however implies that, if you don’t want to use it, then, you just don’t need an army.

In the long run, the current choice for isolation in defence planning, in a context of shrinking defence budgets, will lead to Europe’s desertion. We will no longer have the military tool in our foreign policy toolbox. And one should then pray that history will not teach European democrats what WWII should have already taught them: war can sadly be a necessary evil when weapons are the tool of last resort to safeguard freedom.

The solution of European defence cooperation

But let’s suppose that Europe still needs a military tool, for instance to avoid Bamako being captured by a few hundred jihadists. Then, to provide more military efficiency with less money, the solution is actually known: European defence cooperation. Why European and why not NATO? Simply because NATO military shortfalls are European shortfalls, not US or Turkish. By performing deep European defence cooperation, we can kill three birds with one stone: enhance Europeans’ capabilities, enhance NATO’s capabilities and overcome the sterile debate opposing cooperation through NATO and cooperation through the EU.

The Belgium-Netherland-Luxembourg example

There is no need to re-invent the wheel. From 1996, the Benelux countries already invented a way to provide savings, solidarity and sovereignty as they chose a quasi-fusion of their navies:

  • Savings are important. Buying 12 bottles of beer gives you a cheaper unit price than buying six bottles, and the same goes for war-boats. And once you have the same boats, you can specialize in training and maintenance (e.g. frigate’s training and maintenance is being done only by the Dutch), which provides great savings.
  • Solidarity comes with the obligation of trainers, maintainers and HQ staff, regardless of their nationality, to provide their services to each state taking part in the cooperation. But neither trainers, maintainers or HQ staff need to be deployed in combat, so this obligation has a very limited impact on State sovereignty.
  • Sovereignty is also preserved. Indeed, crews remain national. The Belgium frigate is Belgium (albeit maintained by Dutch), composed by Belgium sailors (albeit trained by Dutch). Therefore, the Belgium government is free to use its frigate as it wants, regardless of what the Dutch want to do. And since Belgium would not be financially able to sustain frigates without such cooperation (because it would be too costly), not only cooperation does not threaten national sovereignty, it actually reinforces it.

Poland, France, Germany and others can do what the Benelux has done with its navies. And this can also be done with the airplanes and some parts of the army (e.g. French, German and Italian mountain infantry can be largely trained together).

Enshrining cooperation in reality

EU-wide progresses are realistically off the table, notably because some countries have just given up on their military (e.g. Austria). But a cooperation between some significant European countries can bring the needed critical mass.

France’s policy remained pretty stable over time, with its classic arrogant way of telling others how to think and how to do things, its reluctance to achieve concrete steps. France is however a true defender of European defence cooperation, and, as underlined by its recent intervention in Mali, France is (still?) the greatest military power in Europe.

Germany has a modern army but has some political breaks when it comes to cooperating in defence. The greatest fear is that Germany aba ndon its cooperating partner, with its very-pacifist political class refusing German forces to be deployed in support of their allies –or with counter-productive caveats (as it did in Northern Afghanistan). Germany is however willing to join some kinds of cooperation, especially in common R&D, procurements, and training.

The UK has lately shifted its foreign policy. Since its adhesion to the EU, UK policy has been a pragmatic use of the anti-EU resentment among its people and elite to obtain gains of national interest (such as a yearly 6 billion euro rebate to its contribution to the EU budget). Today, the UK has a dogmatic anti-EU policy, a symbol of it being the reduction of the European Defence Agency budget imposed by the UK only (even if the UK was the co-founder of both EU security and defence policy and the European Defence Agency). Therefore, cooperation with the UK is very unlikely to reach the quantum leap necessary to seize the benefits of cooperation, at least as long as the UK attitude towards the European project as a whole does not change.

Poland lately shifted its approach towards a truly pro-European engagement, also in defence policy, as symbolized by its activism regarding EU battlegroups. It therefore provides fresh blood and fresh thinking to a policy that truly needs it. It has a capable army and is one of the few EU countries which increase its defence budget, making Poland a country with a significant military potential.

A way forward would be for Poland to take the lead, in close relationship with France, within the Weimar framework (France-Germany-Poland). If so, Poland and France might have a chance to foster a change in Germany’s strategic culture, at least to allow Germany to deploy non-front-line units or to agree that German mechanics based in Europe perform the maintenance of French or Polish warships or aircrafts.


Europeans need to change their current approach towards defence policy: in an era of austerity, isolation in defence planning will lead us to pure desertion. It is a choice that Europeans can make, but coherence will then oblige us not to cry when a free city will be captured by enemies of freedom, or when genocides will be committed, again.

But there is no fatality. Europeans can go for cooperation. It is a difficult choice that requires a creative, pro-active and long-term commitment in order to provide sovereignty, savings and solidarity to European states. Today, Poland can lead the way to propose a pragmatic adaptation of the Benelux cooperation to other important European states. If France and Germany are somehow the natural partners of such collaboration, later on it can be extended to any European state, willing and able to take part in this cooperation (such as Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia etc.).

More broadly, it would be a way to show that the European project can concretely enhance the control of states and peoples of Europe over their own destiny. It is also a way to show to the world that Europe did not give up on its 2003 objective to have a “Secure Europe in a Better World”.

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin – CII Collaborator – Master graduate in European Affairs from Sciences Po Lille in 2012 and in European Political and Administrative Studies from the College of Europe in 2013. His main topics of interests are the European Union, social-democracy, energy, macroeconomic and defence policies. His expertise in the field of defence is built on academic lectures and readings, a thesis on the European Defence Agency, one-month training as a soldier in the French army and on regular talks with former and current actors of defence policy, with a focus on European defence cooperation.

See also: