Geoffrey van Orden is an MEP for the East of England and Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament. He is a former senior British Army officer.
Twice again in recent weeks the call for a “true European Army” has rung out – first from President Macron on Bastille Day and then from Ursula Von der Leyen, the EU Commission’s new President, in her pitch to MEPs in Strasbourg.
These were reminders, should we need them, that this ambition is one we must beware of both within the EU and long after we leave.
The UK has world-renowned security and intelligence agencies. It is also the pre-eminent military power in Europe with full-spectrum armed forces and global reach, Europe’s largest defence budget, and its biggest defence research capability.
The first of two new aircraft-carriers for the Royal Navy will soon enter operational service.The UK is a key member of the NATO alliance that provides credible deterrence and the ultimate defence guarantee for Europe. This is all well and good, but demonstrably not good enough in today’s increasingly dangerous world.
Given the paltry state of most armed forces across Europe, we should take little comfort from our marginal superiority to European allies. The true comparison is with our potential enemies, both high and low intensity, and our ability to generate and wield military power effectively to protect our interests and achieve our policy objectives.
Military capabilities take time to develop but are quickly lost. Aware how drastically our armed forces have been cut over the past 30 years, many of us have persistently called for a significant increase in real defence spending and for upgrading NATO. At the same time we have opposed EU defence policy, not through any shallow motive, but because we see it for what it is.
The objections to EU defence policy, the fabled ‘EU Army’, rest on many levels. It is primarily a political project to accelerate the political integration of Europe into a federal state.
Rather than seeking to create a more capable military partner to the United States, it is based on the opposite principle of “strategic autonomy”. The EU wants to create a separate power base, with decision-making and command structures deliberately outside that vital NATO alliance that binds the US to the security of the European nations.
Recent statements by the President of the European Council as well the French President bizarrely see the US as as big a threat to European security as Russia or China.
The desire to remove US influence and develop an essentially French vision of European defence and foreign policy runs long and deep in the corridors of the Élysée Palace and Quai d’Orsay. The European strategic priority should instead have been the opposite, to ensure the continued commitment of the US to the security of Europe, as the ultimate guarantor of peace.
European allies should be spending more on their national defence capabilities and revitalising NATO, instead they went along with the idea of alternative EU structures. This approach is sapping both material and political resources.
Far from strengthening the alliance of the democracies at this time of unprecedented challenge, the EU army idea leads to division and a widening of transatlantic difference. Moscow and Teheran can only be delighted.
I have always believed that in time of crisis, the democracies are best served by sitting around the same table to decide on a response. NATO is designed for precisely that. In spite of the fact that 22 EU countries are also NATO members, the EU wants to meet separately, keeping the Americans out.
This is a dangerous approach, it will bifurcate the transatlantic alliance and be exploited by our rivals and enemies. And besides seeking to give itself more global profile, the EU is unsure why it is developing a defence arm.
On the one hand, it insists it just wants to offer helpful civil assistance and deal with low-intensity threats while paying lip-service to NATO; on the other, it wants to assume responsibility for the defence of Europe and has even inserted a mutual-defence clause in the EU Treaty.
With Britain out of the way, the ayatollahs of European integration see the defence realm as key to their political objectives and want to go full steam ahead, harmonising defence planning, introducing a European Defence Fund for defence research and development, and removing the national vetoes in the realms of foreign and security policy, although its ill-defined Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) has already run into problems given the differing defence vision of the French and the Germans.
Hand in hand with the EU Army idea is the creation of an EU defence industrial development programme with common procurement rules that would effectively keep the Americans, and in due course the British, out of the EU internal defence market.
I have led the charge against EU defence policy for the last two decades. While we want our European allies to contribute more to defence, through NATO or coalitions of the willing, the EU Army is not the way. It will further dilute what limited capabilities exist, blur responsibility, and send the wrong signals to our adversaries.
Given all this, you might well ask why Conservatives voted in favour of such a strong advocate of an EU army as von der Leyen for President of the European Commission? Simple really. Any of the alternatives would have been worse. And we should respect the nominee of national governments in Council rather than of the federalist Parliament.
We did not want to unleash political chaos in Brussels and Berlin just when we need stable interlocutors to finalise Brexit. And given her focus on placating the Left and her performance in looking after the Bundeswehr, the EU army project would surely be doomed on her watch.
Our new Prime Minister will face many immediate and enormous challenges. High among these will be our national defence and security. Enhanced defence capabilities are not only essential for our national security, they are also central to whatever ambitions we might have to play a leading role in future hi-tech industries and to project ourselves globally.
We must once more become the indispensable ally that others need, rather than us being the needy ones.