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Europe

The Quiet March Toward a Common European Army

Germany's foreign minister has called on the EU to step up efforts to create a common defense force, a European army. In today's world, many believe, an EU military force can tackle problems national armies cannot.

French soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo

An EU army could have more legitimacy abroad, experts say

While it was no new call to arms when Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at a Monday, May 6, security conference of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), urged accelerating efforts to integrate Europe's armed forces, it does appear that if the new EU reform treaty is ratified by all 27 members, individual states will be freer to take concrete steps toward closer cooperation in security policy.

That, in turn, could prove to be first steps toward an eventual European army, even though uniforms with only the EU flag on the shoulder are likely still decades away.

The SPD laid out its arguments for a common armed force and its suggestions toward moving its military in the same direction that Europe did with its currency. Money is one principle reason for the move, proponents of a joint fighting force say, adding that running 27 different militaries with 27 different sets of equipment represents an enormous waste of resources.

a french soldier with an EU flag

Soldiers only under the EU flag in the future?

According to the European Defense Agency (EDA), created in 2004 to promote European defense capabilities, the 27 members of the European Union spent 201 billion euros ($308 billion) on defense in 2007, second only to the 491 billion euros spent by the United States. However, the cumulative effect of these expenditures is lessened because of the duplication of capacities in individual national militaries.

At the same time, the modern security threats are often beyond the capabilities of national militaries.

"International terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and regional conflicts outside our borders are all dangers that we can only tackle together," said Peter Struck, the SPD parliamentary group leader and a former defense minister.

According to Hennign Riecke, head of the European foreign and security policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations, fighting terrorism requires cooperation since networks can exist with state sponsors, and tackling proliferation with an actor such as Iran requires political weight.

"There cannot be any effective national security policy any longer," he said. "Whatever you do, it must be done in cooperation."

Concrete steps

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier will work with his French counterpart on closer military cooperation

At the security meeting, Steinmeier said he had discussed concrete matters related to closer military cooperation with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner. Germany sees France as a key partner in this process. The two countries have had a common German-French brigade since the early 1990s.

France will take over the EU's rotating presidency in the middle of this year, and has announced that it wants to make EU security policy a focus of its six months at the helm.

The SPD laid out its ideas for the path toward a combined military, calling for an EU air transport command, a "real" ministerial defense council and the creation of an EU military academy.

The EU reform treaty appears to be heading in this direction when it specifies that member states will cooperate to "take concrete measures to enhance the availability, interoperability, flexibility and deployability of their forces."

Broad support

The European army has a good deal of support among German and European leaders.

"Within the EU itself, we will have to move closer to establishing a common European army," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany's mass-market Bild newspaper last year.

Those thoughts have been echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other high-ranking EU leaders and officials.

But, while an EU army might be the ultimate goal, to many Europeans, the thought of giving up one's national army is unsettling.

Keep it low-key

Soldiers talking

A joint military would have its challenges -- language, for one

According to Riecke, if the issue of a joint military is framed as a clear-cut project with a European command that is outside state sovereignty at some date, there is good amount of resistance to the idea.

However, if it is labeled as a process of slow military integration, with new institutions created that lead to an organic growth toward a common army, there are fewer furrowed brows.

Brussels and big EU states understand this and have not made a great deal of noise about the issue, although they've been working quietly to make it happen. For one, they want to wait until the EU reform treaty is fully ratified by all member states, since putting out a message of a super-army run by faceless Brussels bureaucrats could put the treaty itself in danger.

Struck, in arguing for more movement toward a common military, pointed out that for years, many thought the common currency, the euro, was a pipe dream. There were also years of discussions and a high degree of skepticism surrounding around the project. He said today, the euro has proved a success and a common army could share a similar story.

But it won't be quick in coming. Asked about the time frame for such a Euro Army, security analyst Riecke said: "Oh, come back and ask me in about 10 years."

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