Once the continent that contained the global superpowers, in the aftermath of World War II Europe moved from devastating wars and murderous conflicts towards a new stability that was reinforced by the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and the consolidation of the European Union.
For perhaps the first time since the Roman Empire, which at its height controlled most of Europe and much of the old world, Europe is now enjoying a condition of general peace, its first Pax Europaea since the second century CE.
Only the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s have supervened to disrupt the sense of overall peace in the old continent.
Yet, French President Emmanuel Macron said on 7 November that he wanted to see the formation of a unified and independent European army to protect the continent from threats from China, Russia, and, more surprisingly, the United States.
The call has sparked major controversies about its meaning and timing. It was announced just before last weekend when France, like many other European countries, was celebrating the centennial of the end of World War I in November 1918.
Before a celebration held in Paris attended by many world leaders, US President Donald Trump described Macron’s statement as “very insulting” and called upon France and other NATO members to pay their fair share in supporting the work of the Atlantic alliance.
France is a major proponent of European unity, and as a founding father along with Germany of what is now the European Union it has always been concerned to expand the unity between Europeans and not to keep it only on the economic level.
Macron’s call for a unified European army stems from his fears of challenges and potential threats against the old continent, especially in the wake of the American announcement that the US is considering withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in 1987 with the former Soviet Union that has been seen as a cornerstone of European security for decades.
Other challenges include a possible showdown with Russia or China.
In a meeting with Trump that took place during the centennial celebrations in Paris at the weekend, Macron attempted to soften his earlier statements by saying that the proposed European army would function within the framework of NATO and would share the cost of funding the alliance with the United States.
He was attempting to defuse US criticisms that the European countries do not pay their fair share of the growing expenses of NATO, though this did not change the fact that Macron remains a believer in Europe’s capability to forge its own independent security measures.
An independent European army remains part of his agenda.
However, Macron may have spoken too early about his project, since he does not appear to have consulted other European leaders who may not be as enthusiastic as he is about such an arrangement.
He is likely to have an uphill battle ahead in convincing other European countries of the need to establish the proposed army.
These challenges can be summarised in several points, starting by the expenses which are likely to be borne by the Europeans alone and not shared with the United States, which currently pays most of the expenses of NATO.
Another challenge is the overall readiness of the European Union to raise a standing army of a size that can match those of Russia, China or the United States. This is questionable, though it is not impossible.
Most of the European countries likely to join such a defence force have abolished conscription and replaced it with the training of professional soldiers.
Any reversal of this decision would likely lead to a spike in military expenses across the continent. Even Germany, the potential main partner of France in such a unified army, abolished conscription in 2011 and has been reducing the overall size of its armed forces since then.
With the Chinese and Russians drafting hundreds of thousands of recruits every year, it will not be an easy task for the Europeans to match such enormous resources in terms of manpower.
Moreover, the decision by Britain to exit the European Union leaves France as the only European country with a nuclear capability in such a proposed common army.
Most initiatives involving European security have up to now been limited to coordination and peace-keeping missions based on the continent’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) protocol.
Over recent decades the Europeans have avoided any escalation of defence expenses in this way, and today only four countries in the European Union meet the minimum two per cent of GDP spending target on defence set by NATO.
Ironically, these countries do not include France. The fact remains that the reliance on NATO has rendered the formation of a separate European army an irrelevance for most Europeans.
What was considered at the time to be a possible seed for a common European army, the European Rapid Operational Force (EUROFOR) established in 1995 and comprising forces from Italy, France, Portugal and Spain, did not last after 2012 when it was dissolved amidst a wave of spending cuts.
Despite the growing challenges adverted to by the French president, the growing economic problems of the European Union and the European reliance on NATO over the past seven decades mean that most European countries are likely to want to keep the status quo as they will not want to spend a significant portion of their GDP paying for a separate European army.
The tide may change should the Europeans feel the need for further security measures in the case of a US withdrawal from INF or further Russian threats on their eastern borders, however.
For the moment, the Europeans are content to rely on the US as a friendly superpower should there be a conflict with the Russians or possibly the Chinese.
As a result, the French president’s call for a common European army is likely to remain wishful thinking despite the massive economic and overall military strength of the European Union.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Macron’s European army