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If Europe wants to defend itself, it must build armies that people want to join

The prospect of an isolationist US under Trump should push EU leaders to design a defence policy that is democratic and accountable

As Donald Trump gets closer to (officially) wrapping up the race for the Republican nomination, and intensifies his attacks on Nato, European politicians are finally starting to openly share their concern about the future of European security in general – and Nato in particular. As Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, has eloquently explained, a second Trump presidency might not necessarily mean the end of the alliance, but it would fundamentally change it, and mean that the Europeans would primarily have to defend themselves.

During his first administration, Trump made it clear that his attacks on Nato were not just red meat for the increasingly isolationist base of the Republican party. As president, he shocked even the most pro-US leaders in Europe by declining to affirm Nato’s article 5 – in other words, saying that the US would not come to the aid of another Nato country if it were attacked. This led the then German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a staunch transatlanticist, to openly state that Europe should be ready to go it alone. But seven years and a (second) Russian invasion of Ukraine later, Europe is far from ready.

Sure, the defence budgets of (some) EU member states have gone up and military concerns are at the centre of political discussions, but some of the main questions surrounding European security remain unanswered. Should a European military alliance be created and, if so, should it be part of Nato? If yes, what should its role be and what new responsibilities towards Europe would the US have? If no, what would the relationship be with the UK, one of the few European countries with a significant standing army and with nuclear capabilities?

Irrespective of its specific form, and its relationship to Nato (as well as to the UK and US), it is absolutely crucial that the development of a new European military infrastructure is not an elite project. Politicians and military experts are undoubtedly discussing many of these key issues now, but little of this is being done in public. And while national security concerns justify secrecy about some details, it is vital for both European democracy and defence that these discussions become part of the broader political debate.

There are at least two reasons for a broader public involvement in the shaping of a new “European army”: popular buy-in and democratic control.

The building of a new European army requires massive amounts of money and significant numbers of personnel. If there is one thing in which Trump’s critique was valid, it was that most European Nato members have been largely freeriding on the perverse level of US military spending. A European defence force that is less dependent on the US will require significant increases in military spending at the national, and possible even supranational, level. And while overall defence spending is up across the EU, most Nato members remain below the (already low) 2% threshold they signed up to at the Nato summit in 2014. Obviously, this is money that cannot be spent on other issues. Hence, the priority of military spending must be explained and defended to the population as part of the political debate.

But even more importantly, to make Europe militarily less dependent on the US, it will need to significantly increase troop numbers. Since the end of the cold war, the number of EU military personnel has decreased by almost two-thirds. Currently, the largest military of an EU member state (France) is just one-sixth the size of the US military. In fact, US military personnel numbers are roughly equivalent to those of all EU countries combined. To compensate for the US’s absence, or at least limited availability, the EU would have to double, if not triple, its troop numbers. Even if the Brits were willing to join in, their roughly 140,000 troops would not change this.

To achieve this not only requires a lot of money but also a serious upgrade in the attractiveness of a military career. While the military is among the most trusted public institutions in many European countries, this does not mean that a career in the military is considered particularly appealing or prestigious. And so far, the Russia-Ukraine war has led to a recruitment slump, rather than a rise, among EU militaries, despite government campaigns.

Some military insiders have already called for the reintroduction of military service, which many EU countries either abolished or suspended after the cold war. There is much to say for that, both from a pragmatic and a democratic perspective. A smaller, permanent professional military backed up by a larger, temporary civilian force is more cost-effective, operationally flexible and popularly grounded. But it will also require far broader popular support, particularly from young people, who will have to do the military service. This will not be made easier by the fact that most politicians who would call upon young people to make this investment did not do military service themselves.

Finally, Europe must not make the same mistake as the US and build a military-industrial complex that creates a stranglehold on the economy and politics. As US president Dwight D Eisenhower, himself a legendary five-star US general of the army, prophetically stated in his farewell address in 1961: “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”. This can only be achieved through democratic control, which itself is only possible with a high level of accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, most countries have moved exactly the other way since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, increasing authoritarianism, secrecy and surveillance.

In the run-up to the European elections in June, the rightwing European People’s party has turned its focus to defence, suggesting the creation of a “defence commissioner” post at the EU level and a European “nuclear umbrella”. This is a good start, but the left should not leave this crucial issue to the right. Both the illiberal and the neoliberal right will favour a largely unchecked military-industrial complex. It is up to the (centre-)left to develop and defend a plan for a European army that finds a democratic position between pacifism and militarism.

Source : The Guardian



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