In the UK there were voices concerned about a European army, which Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were discussing back in 2018. Angela Merkel called for the creation of a “real, true” European army, echoing a similar call by her French counterpart. The German chancellor’s backing for the force came amid a spat with the then US president Donald Trump, who took offence to a suggestion by Emmanuel Macron that such an army could ensure Europe’s security. Envisioned was a pan-European army relying on European-made and -owned weapons and machinery instead of American ones. A Europe even defended by its own nuclear weapons.
In fact, it was Donald Trump who took offence at the military budgets of European NATO partners, even though since 2016, several European nations had begun, against internal opposition, increasing their military spending. Together, the European Union’s member states, including Great Britain, spent about $227 billion in 2017 on their national military budgets, the third most after the United States ($639 billion) and China ($228 billion). However, that equated to only about 1.3 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product, and not the agreed 2%.
With the surrender of the German Wehrmacht on 8.5.1945 the Second World War ended in Europe. The Allies liberated Germany from National Socialism and the victims of Nazi crimes were mourned. Tens of millions of people had lost their lives in the Holocaust and the “Total War”. Russia, America, England and France were the victors of the war and took over the country. They divided Germany into four zones: The Russian-occupied zone later became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the three Western zones occupied by America, England and France merged to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Europe was considered a continent defined by catastrophic wars and the clash of empires, and demilitarisation in Germany was considered a priority. The Wehrmacht and everything military or useful for military purposes were dissolved. The almost complete demilitarization was followed by political decentralization.
However, only ten years after the end of the Second World War and the German surrender, the Bundeswehr was founded because a new confrontation had broken out: The Cold War. The intensified confrontation between the Western world and the Soviet Union paved the way for the founding of the Bundeswehr in 1955-56. The Soviet Union had already used the currency reform in the West German occupation zones in May 1948 as an opportunity to cut off West Berlin, which was controlled by the Western powers, from West Germany by land. Via an airlift, the Western Allies supplied West Berlin until May 1949, and although the Soviet Union eventually abandoned the blockade, the dispute continued to simmer.
When I think back to the 1970s, as a British soldier I was told I was part of a friendly occupation of Germany, together with other European countries, by American and British troops, which was intended to serve as a defence against the threat from the Soviet Union. That will have been a primary goal of the troops stationed in Europe, but we can’t forget that there had also been the intention to prevent Germany from becoming a military power again. Schools and Universities in Germany were being utilised to invoke a spirit of pacifism. The call “Nie Wieder Krieg!” that was heard in protests against the Nuclear Armament of NATO wasn’t new, it had followed WWI, when the socially and politically committed artist Käthe Kollwitz supported these efforts in 1922-23 with a series of woodcuts entitled “War”.
When the Soviet Union began to disband after 1989, NATO gradually pulled its troops out of Germany, which was a sign to all that it was assumed that the threat of Russia had subsided. There were even calls for NATO to disband, but the Baltic States were looking for membership. They weren’t convinced that the ruminations coming from Russia were a sign that the political class were happy with what had happened.
Klaus Richter, Reader in Eastern European History at Birmingham University, wrote:
“As someone who has spent all his career studying the history of the ‘small’ states situated between Russia and Germany, I am very concerned about the framing of the Russian war against Ukraine as a conflict between Russia and NATO. Of course, NATO should not forcibly expand, but it also hasn’t: Membership is sought through application. If we want to respect the agency of ‘small’ states, we need to respect their wish to join NATO. None of them were ‘seduced’ into joining NATO.
It is difficult for people in the ‘West’ to understand what security means to these states. Security has been ingrained into their foreign policy ever since 1991. It’s not something abstract as it is for many in Western Europe. Ukraine’s, Lithuania’s, Moldova’s or Estonia’s security concerns are much more objective than Russia’s.”
This is another perspective given to the struggle back in 2018 with Donald Trump, who even threatened to take America out of the Alliance. If we imagine the consequences of that, the membership would have been worth nothing and in the Casus foederis (derived from the Latin for “case for the alliance”), which in diplomatic terms describes a situation in which the terms of an alliance come into play, such as one nation being attacked by another, there would be no military strength worth mentioning to back it up. Britain, it was speculated, would follow America.
With military spending increased in response to the invasion of Ukraine (even though it will take years to replace old military equipment) and the possibility of a new Donald Trump presidency, talk of a European army ultimately has a dual impact. On the one hand, people are concerned about a new military force in Europe; on the other, support for the international alliance among key Western nations had fallen since 2017, and fewer than half of Americans (44%) supported the United States’ place in the agreement at that time. If Putin is successful, which seems very likely at this point, and the Baltic states lose NATO protection, at least Germany and France, possibly along with the Netherlands and Belgium, could form an alliance to protect at least their own states. Given the prospects and the time such a project would take, it might be wise to start now.
Of course, Putin’s invasion changed the views of member states, and in 2021 there was a 71% majority for NATO among allies overall, with the U.S. at 67%. Of course, the Baltic states were clearer at more than 80% and Lithuania at 89%, which could be even higher now. So, is there a case for a European army? I think so, if only to free Europe from ultimate dependence on the US and the UK and to build a credible defence of its values.