BY UPAMANYU LAHIRI
Recently, Germany, Romania and the Czech Republic quietly took a step toward integrating some aspects of their armed forces. Over the next several months, each country plans to integrate one brigade into the German armed forces: Romania’s 81st Mechanized Brigade will join the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) Rapid Response Forces Division, while the Czech 4th Rapid Deployment Brigade, which has served in Afghanistan and Kosovo and is considered the Czech Army’s spearhead force, will become part of Germany’s 10th Armored Division. This development was starkly underreported in international and U.S. media; the latter was consumed in covering the unfolding Trump-Russia scandal. However, it is hard to overstate the significance of this development. To the uninitiated, this could be just more news, but for those in the know, this could be the first step toward what could become an “EU army” to rival NATO, a prospect which was once so unthinkable that its mention in the European Parliament elicited laughter. In addition, this development comes just two months after the European Union created a joint military headquarters in charge of training missions in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic, albeit with a small staff of 30. Furthermore, the Czech and Romanian moves to integrate units of their armed forces with the Bundeswehr’s units come on the heels of two Dutch brigades that also joined the Bundeswehr. Other multinational army concepts have also been created, like the Nordic Battle Group, a 2,400-strong rapid action force formed jointly by the Netherlands, the Baltic states, several Nordic countries and Britain’s Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes the Baltic States, Sweden and Finland.
But, in the absence of any appropriate deployment opportunities, these multinational armies have not been of much use. However, under the Framework Nations Concept, Germany has been working on a much more ambitious project. It is creating what is essentially a German-led network of European mini-armies. Justyna Gotkowska, an expert security analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies, said, “The initiative came out of the weakness of the Bundeswehr.” This is certainly a part of the reason. In 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany spent 2.7 percent of its GDP on defense. By 2016, that figure had plummeted to an anemic 1.2 percent, far below NATO’s recommended benchmark of 2 percent. An inspection in 2014 revealed that most of the Bundeswehr’s navy and army helicopters were not working and the troop strength had dropped from 370,000 during the Cold War to just 176,015 last summer. While for Germany this military integration is a much needed opportunity to fill the gaps in its military, it is also something far more than that: it is an attempt to integrate armies from all across Europe into a single unit.
A combination of factors has made this once impossible dream of further European integration a possibility. Like much else in the world these days, this development is related to Donald Trump. Trump, throughout most of his presidential campaign, promoted an “America First” foreign policy that meant possibly retreating from the country’s role of safeguarding Europe and the rest of the world as it has since World War II. Trump has repeatedly complained about NATO members not paying their dues and, on some occasions, even questioned its necessity. This attitude was on display during Trump’s recently concluded maiden foreign trip, during which he scolded European allies for failing to spend enough on defense for NATO dues. Trump also failed to reaffirm Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which says that all NATO members will come to mutual defense if any one member is under attack, which every U.S. president since Harry Truman has reaffirmed. This is likely what prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say, “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.” Trump’s reluctance to adhere to American commitments to collective security, and NATO in particular, in the face of rising Russian aggression is prompting European leaders to take their security into their own hands. More importantly, Britain, a long-time staunch opponent of an EU army, is on its way out of the European Union. Britain enjoyed a great deal of clout within the EU, particularly in security and defense matters, given that it is a nuclear power and spends more on defense than Germany. With Britain out, internal opposition to the idea of an EU army is greatly reduced.
Germany, the largest nation in the EU, will have to be an important part of any such unified EU army. Thus far, Germany has been reluctant to aggressively modernize its armed forces because any such moves invariably brought back memories of its militaristic and genocidal Nazi past. It currently spends just 1.2 percent of its budget on the military, far lower than the 2 percent benchmark of NATO. However, few NATO countries spend extensively on defense. In fact, when Trump complains about lack of contributions by other member states of NATO, it may strain transatlantic ties, but he has a point. Apart from the United States, only four of the 28 NATO nations spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense, namely Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United Kingdom. In the quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, European defense spending has dropped sharply, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis that made the alliance even more dependent on the United States than before. However, the latest development suggests that may be changing as Germany may finally shed its long-held inhibitions toward taking the lead role in Europe’s collective defense so the last major roadblock to a collective EU army may have been removed. In addition, given that France, the other European powerhouse, is now led by Emmanuel Macron, a proponent of deeper European integration, this project seems likely to proceed for the time being.