The myth of a European army: Explaining the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy

The myth of a European army: Explaining the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy

By: emmi kivi&
May 15 2024

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The myth of a European army: Explaining the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy

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"We must send a clear message to Vladimir Putin," proclaimed Valérie Hayer, the head of the Renew group in the European Parliament, in a TV appearance last month. "We must move forward with the idea of a European army."

Her comments added fuel to the fire of a debate on the bloc's Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), which has risen in prominence ahead of the European Parliament elections from June 6 to June 9.

The EU has been ramping up defense initiatives since 2016, but investment escalated following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as member states sought to strengthen their safeguards against a security threat on their own doorstep.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also driven an increased focus on defense among the European electorate. According to the most recent Eurobarometer, EU defense and security ranked third as the main issues the respondents would like to see discussed during the electoral campaign, just behind poverty and social exclusion. Some 81 percent of respondents also believe voting is more important given the current geopolitical situation.

Screenshot of the February/March Eurobarometer showing the discussion priorities ahead of the European Parliament election. (Source: Eurobarometer/European Union)

As European voters prepare to select their representatives for the next five years, Logically Facts examines the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and debunks the most common false misconceptions.

Conscription and NATO conspiracies during national elections

The circulation of misinformation and disinformation around defense and security is a well-documented phenomenon during European national elections. Ahead of Czechia's presidential vote in 2023, ANO candidate Andrej Babiš falsely claimed the country's parliament was planning to scrap time limitations on sending troops abroad. The victor of the vote, Petr Pavel, was also implicated in a forged article claiming he was planning to reintroduce mandatory military conscription

A similar incident occurred in Poland. Before its parliamentary election in October 2023, a prominent false narrative suggested the country would soon be directly involved in the war in Ukraine. 

International alliances are often a particular target for misinformation around national elections. In Finland, NATO-related misinformation witnessed an uptick ahead of the January 2024 presidential election, while in Spain, there were unfounded accusations of "a secret NATO meeting" to interfere in the Spanish election in July 2023. 

The CSDP in a nutshell

The complexities of the CSDP and the overlap between national and bloc responsibilities contribute to it being a target for misinformation. 

"The CSDP is the main instrument through which EU member states can develop joint security and defence initiatives, address conflicts and crises together, protect the union and its citizens, and strengthen international peace and security," EU spokesperson Peter Stano told Logically Facts. 

The CSDP framework incorporates military, civilian and political collaborative structures, as well as a shared budget. Today, there are 24 ongoing CSDP missions and operations, with mandates varying from crisis management and military advisory tasks to humanitarian and rescue missions. "All these missions and operations are launched upon agreement by all EU countries. They are composed of EU member states' personnel and assets," Stano told Logically Facts.

Screenshot of the EU's current CSDP missions and operations around the world. (Source: European Union External Action)

Decoding the myth of the EU army

One of the most common and evergreen narratives around the CSDP concerns false claims about an EU army, including refuted narratives that an EU army has existed since 2005 or that plans for an EU army aim to deprive Member States of their national sovereignty

In 2016, before the Brexit referendum, the Leave campaign erroneously claimed the EU was scheming to establish an EU army and take control of U.K. troops without a national say in the matter, Full Fact reported. Similar false claims of domestic erasure and EU plans to establish a standing army of 50,000 were disseminated before the Danish referendum in June 2022, when the country renounced its opt-out on EU defense. 

There's no suggestion in the CSDP that bloc-wide defense decisions would override national sovereignty. 

"Defense is an exclusive competence of the member states who keep their own national armies," Stano told Logically Facts. "The EU does not have an army. In fact, the point is not about having an "EU army" but rather to work better, together, and more effectively among the 27 armies."

Furthermore, unlike in many other areas of EU decision-making, security and defense decisions require a unanimous agreement by 27 member states, as inscribed in the Treaty of the European Union.

"The EU's legal powers on security and defence matters are very narrow and typically require the consent of all EU member states," Dr Daniel Schade, assistant professor at Leiden University, told Logically Facts. "Any significant change to this would again require agreement by all of the EU's member states and public referenda in certain countries."

No to a common army  – alternatives for European military cooperation

In the past, Germany and France have been the two most vocal supporters of a European army. Recent pushes for a joint army were swiftly rejected by multiple EU countries as "unrealistic and unnecessary" due to, for instance, an overlap with the NATO alliance.

"Any serious proposals aiming at reforming the EU's role in security and defence typically only aim at giving the EU limited additional powers such as pooling weapons procurement or keeping a certain number of national troops in a high readiness state to be able to react to crises more rapidly." Dr Schade told Logically Facts. 

One such new initiative currently in the works is a Rapid Deployment Capacity. This framework would allow up to 5,000 troops to be deployed to respond to imminent threats and crises. These would most likely be outside the EU and relate to the evacuation or delivery of humanitarian aid. Designed to be operational in 2025, the force would be made up of available troops from member states but wouldn't be a permanent military force. 

Any plan to establish a European military force would be outside the legal power of the EU. This also means that the EU does not have the power to send troops from member states into missions or battlefields. That decision lies solely with the national governments. 

EU troops in Ukraine? False claims over EU's support for Ukraine

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has provided fertile ground for claims of larger Western involvement in the war in Ukraine to spread. The EU and its member states have been adamant supporters of Ukraine since the war began, providing weapons and military training as well as political, humanitarian, and financial support

Individual European politicians have also suggested further support. In May, the Lithuanian Prime Minister said the country is prepared to send its soldiers to Ukraine on a training mission. French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed that he is "not ruling anything out" in supporting Ukraine, including sending French troops to Ukraine if the situation on the battlefield deteriorates.

However, neither the EU nor its member states have sent troops to Ukraine and are not directly a party in the war, nor have they expressed a desire to be. On the contrary, when Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico claimed several EU and NATO members were considering sending troops to Ukraine, multiple EU leaders, including Poland and Sweden, refuted any such intentions. 

In April 2024, false visuals of an EU flag on a tank in Belgorod, Russia, suggested EU involvement on the battlefield or an escalation of war against Russia. In reality, the flag belonged to a Ukrainian legion "Freedom of Russia" tank, whose flag only resembles the EU flag. In France, the authorities recently removed a fake website calling for French volunteers to enlist to fight in Ukraine. The website resembled the French army's genuine recruitment portal.

Screenshots of false claims of EU army and troops in Ukraine. (Source: X/Agenzianova)

Similar false claims have circulated regarding European troops fighting or dying in Ukraine. Russia has reinforced this false narrative, with foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claiming that "EU military forces were already sent to Ukraine long before 2022, in the form of instructors, special services and mercenaries." Allegations that the EU is planning to launch military conscription have also begun spreading.

Just like it does not have an army, the EU does not have a standing force of mercenaries to send abroad. Foreign nationals are fighting for the Ukrainian and the Russian sides, but under their own volunteer initiatives, not as official deployments by their respective governments. Foreign nationals fighting for the foreign legion are regular soldiers of the Ukrainian military, not mercenaries, under international law and acknowledged as such by the Ukrainian authorities.

Beyond an army: boosting the EU's defenses

Sensitive to the worsened security environment, the EU has acknowledged the need for a self-sufficient Europe. To that end, the EU's 2022 Strategic Compass outlines a plan for strengthening the EU's security and defense policy by 2030, including against non-military threats such as disinformation and foreign interference. A key element of these plans is to boost the European defense industrial base through shared investment and technological innovation to reduce external dependencies.

"Most significant ongoing debates still relate to the EU's reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and protecting against any direct or hybrid Russian threats," Dr Schade told Logically Facts. "With the potential reelection of Donald Trump in the United States, another frequently debated issue is how the EU and European countries more generally can bolster their collective defence amid the risk of a U.S. disengagement or withdrawal from NATO."

Such concerns about further shifts in the geopolitical environment are prompting EU politicians to put the onus on security and defense for the long term. In February, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated plans to establish a defense commissioner if re-elected in June. 

However, the notion of a "European army" remains a false one. At the European Defence and Security Summit in April, von der Leyen affirmed: "Member states will always be responsible for their troops and all decisions linked to that."

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