In terms of security policy, Europe is still dependent on the USA. That should actually change, but the chances for the planned EU troops with 5,000 soldiers are slim. National egotisms of the member states prevent progress in the common defense policy.

In the eyes of many, a speech on September 26, 2017 made the French President a visionary from today’s perspective. Just four months in office, Emmanuel Macron demanded at the Sorbonne in Paris that Europe must become “capable of acting independently” “in the field of defense” in addition to NATO. With a firm tone and bright eyes, Macron presented himself as an enthusiastic European who encouraged the EU to have “a common task force, a common defense budget and a common operating doctrine” within a few years. In view of the war in Ukraine and the imperialist aspirations of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to create new borders in Europe, Macron’s demand seems almost like a prophecy today.

However, the idea is not new. It was first created a few years after the start of the Cold War. At that time, a European defense community, including an army, was to be created for the threatening fight against the Soviet Union. The plans failed at the French National Assembly in 1954. Since the founding of the European Union in its current form, many experts and EU representatives have been pushing for a coordinated security policy among its member states. Without success. Joseph Borrell, Vice-President of the Commission and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that many initiatives to strengthen European defense “have come and gone”.

All member states still have to find a unanimous consensus when it comes to EU foreign policy. And these decisions are not legally binding if they are finally made after tough negotiations. In order to pave the way for majority decisions, national egoism would have to be overcome and the European treaties would have to be changed. While the EU can vigorously enforce the rules of its internal market, it has so far been powerless in the area of ​​defense policy.

An example of the failure in this area is the history of the so-called battle groups. Within the EU, nine countries, including Germany, decided to deploy 15 multinational combat troops with a battalion strength of 1,500 soldiers by 2007. To date, these troops have not been used once. “The EU is not a unified actor in areas in which it is not communitized. The privilege of initiating the battle groups remains with the member states,” says Markus Kaim, head of the Security Policy research group at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. “And the member states have different views of the world, so there is no consensus on the circumstances under which the troops should be deployed.”

The Ukraine war reminds the EU of its impotence with regard to its security policy. Not least because the USA, which guarantees the protection of Europe within NATO, has grown tired of playing the world policeman. They prefer to gather their military forces for their own purposes, also because of the tense competitive situation with China. The “strategic compass” adopted by the European foreign and defense ministers in March of this year is intended to provide an answer to this challenge. Among other things, the concept envisages setting up a joint intervention force of 5,000 soldiers by 2025, better coordinating armament projects and aligning the military budgets of the member states.

For Kaim, defense industries and military spending are not the point. “If we imagine the member states had the greatest military capabilities in the world – what would that change?” he asks. “Then there would be excellently trained armed forces, but that would not improve the EU’s military capacity to act by five cents.”

If an intervention force were actually to be set up, the EU could use it to prove its competence. Federal Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht celebrated the idea of ​​European armed forces as the “military core” of the “Strategic Compass”. She assured that German soldiers should provide the core of the new force. But Kaim waves it away. He believes that the story of the Response Force will have a similar ending to that of the battle groups. Here, too, the member states would have to agree on the use among themselves, which has obviously not been possible so far.

The fundamental problem is that if countries actually gave up control of their armed forces to the EU, they would lose sovereignty. “Protecting citizens is at the core of national sovereignty,” Kaim said. “If we wanted a European army, for example in Germany, command over the Bundeswehr would have to be handed over to the European Parliament. Then we would have the United States of Europe.” The traffic light government formulated a similar goal in its coalition agreement, in which it wants the EU to develop further into a “federal European state”.

However, this aim is not realistic, says Kaim. Eastern member states in particular retained their sovereignty as the memory of its incorporation by the Soviet Union is still alive. In general, smaller countries are extremely suspicious when it comes to giving the EU more rights. They are driven by the fear of the superior power of the larger states. For example, European solidarity against Russian imperialism is currently failing because of national self-interest.

In addition, the democratic deficits of the EU in its current structure cannot be denied. The rights of the European Parliament are relatively weak. It must not propose laws on its own, but must ask the Commission to initiate them. And the electoral law of the EU ensures that the distribution of seats in the European Parliament does not correspond exactly to the population size of the individual states – small countries like Malta have more MPs compared to larger members like Germany. Some of the doubts that member states and their citizens have about the EU are therefore justified.

Nevertheless, the majority of Europeans would like to be militarily defended not only by NATO but also by the EU in times of crisis. This is the result of a survey by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard for the foreign policy think tank European Council on Foreign Relations. The study was published in early February this year, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. According to this, 60 percent of Europeans are of the opinion that the EU should defend Ukraine in the event of an attack by Russia, which was still imminent at the time. A similar result can be seen in the desire for protection by NATO with 62 percent.

“This crisis will test the willingness of Europeans to defend the common security order,” write the authors of the study. Because the citizens of different countries are divided about what price their country should pay for the defense of Ukraine: While Poland, Sweden and Romanians are willing to accept restrictions, the French and Germans are rather skeptical. Perhaps the poll, if conducted today, would come to a different conclusion. But it shows impressively how different the interests of individual countries are, which must be taken into account in the EU.

Despite all the problems, how could the Europeans still achieve their common defense policy? Kaim sees the greatest chances of success in cooperation within the alliance that has so far guaranteed Europe’s security: NATO. Kaim envisages “European autonomy in consultation with the USA”. The timing is now ideal, as Joe Biden is the president of the United States who looks favorably on European efforts to achieve military independence. The EU states should ask Biden for permission to conduct independent negotiations in NATO.

“A coalition of the willing could be formed to strengthen the European pillar within NATO. Security relations with the United States could be redefined in a major package of actions,” says Kaim.

Time is running out. Because after the next presidential election, Donald Trump could again be a man in the White House who is not particularly interested in international security guarantees. For this reason, the federal government should finally accept Macron’s invitation to set up a European security architecture, including in the nuclear field, said Kaim: “Macron’s demands touched a sore spot. But that’s annoying, and so far none of his counterparts want that talk with him.”