Is the EU planning to create an army? If so, can and should the UK veto it – up until Brexit? The issue has been much debated in recent days. But this is the classic example of a debate that has created much heat but shed little light. Steve Peers clears up these misunderstandings. He argues the recently announced plans do not amount to an EU army – and so the UK is not able to veto the EU’s plans.
Initially, the EU’s foreign policy had little to do with defence, in deference to Irish neutrality and the UK’s strong support for NATO. This has changed gradually over the years as the Cold War ended, US troops left Europe, and the parallel non-EU defence organisation (the Western European Union) was wound down.
Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the rules on EU defence policy are set out in Articles 42-46 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). Full text of these Articles can be accessed here. The starting point (Article 42(1)) is that the EU has an ‘operational capacity’ to use on non-EU missions ‘for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security’, consistently with the UN Charter, as explained further in Article 43. These actions shall use ‘capabilities provided by the Member States’, meaning that they each retain their own armed forces. There’s a reference to using ‘multinational forces’ too (Article 42(3)), but it’s clear that it’s optional both to set up such forces and to contribute them to support the EU defence policy.
However, there is also a long-term objective. Article 42(2) TEU says that the EU includes ‘the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy’, which ‘will lead to a common defence’. But this policy must ‘respect’ the obligations of those Member States who are parties of NATO, and be ‘compatible’ with NATO policy. Equally it ‘shall not prejudice the specific character’ of some Member States’ defence policy: this is an oblique reference to neutrality. (Six Member States are neutral).
Most importantly, it will only happen when the European Council (consisting of Member States’ presidents and prime ministers) ‘acting unanimously, so decides’. That decision then needs to be ratified by Member States ‘in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.’ For the UK, that would require a referendum, as set out in section 6(2) of the European Union Act 2011. It would need a referendum in Ireland too, since Article 29(4)(9) of the Irish Constitution rules out Irish participation in an EU common defence, and the Irish Constitution can only be amended by referendum. Other Member States may also have stringent constitutional requirements to this end.
What happens in the meantime, before this rather mythical notion of a common defence is achieved? Article 42(3) says that Member States must ‘undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities’. A ‘European Defence Agency’ (see further Article 45) is set up to this end. It’s possible for a group of Member States to take on an EU-wide task (Article 42(5), as set out in more detail in Article 44). Member States have an obligation of ‘aid and assistance’ to each other, if one of them is ‘the victim of armed aggression’, in accordance with the UN Charter (Article 42(7)). Finally, certain Member States which meet higher standards as regards their ‘military capabilities’ and ‘which have made more binding commitments to one another in this area with a view to the most demanding missions shall establish permanent structured cooperation’ within the EU (Article 42(6), referring to Article 46).
New EU plans
What are the EU’s new military plans? Some newspapers and commentators have referred to plans for an ‘EU army’, which at first sight implies a ‘common defence’. In turn, the UK’s defence minister is quoted as saying he would veto these plans, as long as the UK is part of the EU.
As we saw above, any Member State can indeed veto an EU ‘common defence’. But still, it’s striking to hear a supporter of the Leave side acknowledge that the UK can veto an EU army, since many of them suggested during the referendum campaign that this scary prospect was unavoidable if the UK remained part of the EU. Having said that, there’s a misunderstanding here. According to the information available, the proposal is not to create an EU army, and therefore the UK can’t veto it.
In fact, the ‘State of the Union’ speech by Commission President Juncker proposed four things: a joint headquarters for EU military missions; common procurement to save on defence costs; a Defence Fund for the EU defence industry; and the development of ‘permanent structured cooperation’, as referred to briefly above (and see below). It did not propose merging armies to create a common army. Some press reports suggest that the recent EU summit discussed a ‘common military force’, but the ‘Declaration’ and ‘Road Map’ issued after the summit make no mention of such a thing.
So what exactly is ‘permanent structured cooperation’? It’s described in Article 46 TEU, as well in as a Protocol attached to the Treaties. Article 46 sets out the process: it’s set up by willing Member States only. Any unwilling Member States can simply choose not to take part. There’s no veto on setting it up, but that’s because participation is voluntary. Member States can join once it’s underway – and leave at any time, with no conditions attached. If more EU policies were this flexible, EU participation would be less controversial – although in a post-truth world some people would undoubtedly deny that those policies were flexible in the first place. (If the current EU plans go ahead, I expect to read somewhere that the soldiers are inspired by Hitler, and armed with Muslamic ray guns).
As for the substance of ‘permanent structured cooperation’, it’s explained fully in the Protocol (also reproduced in the Annex). The criteria to join are development of defence capacities, and in particular supplying forces to support EU operations within a short period. Participating countries must aim to achieve approved levels of domestic spending, align their equipment and operability of their forces, fill capability gaps, and take part in joint procurement. That’s significant – but that’s it. It’s not an EU army.
Plans can always change. But the recent Commission plans, and the EU summit declaration, don’t amount to an EU army. And if there’s no EU army, the UK can’t veto one. It’s arguable whether a veto threat is a good negotiating strategy, but it’s indisputable that an empty threat is simply ridiculous.
A more rational approach to the issue would be to acknowledge (as a number of calmer voices on the Leave side have advocated) that the UK and the EU might well benefit mutually from continued defence and foreign policy cooperation after Brexit. In that light, the best way for the UK to spend its remaining time as an EU Member State as regards defence issues is to offer constructive criticism of the EU plans – and align that with sensible proposals for how post-Brexit EU/UK cooperation could go forward in this field.
This article first appeared on the EU Law Analysis blog, and represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor of the LSE. Defence clauses of the Treaty on the European Union can be accessed here. Photo credit.
Steve Peers is Professor of EU Law & Human Rights Law, University of Essex.