Security and Foreign Policy

Hard Power: Moving Towards an EU Defense Union

On March 28, 2018, the European Union announced the Military Mobility Action, which brings the EU one step closer to realizing its goal of an EU Defense Union. Tawnni Castaño de la Cuesta weighs the pros and cons of the EU Defense Union, outlining its history and its path forward.


The EU is often described as lacking “teeth” and as a predominantly “soft power”. It is therefore not surprising that the EU has long desired a stronger military presence to add a punch to its soft power. In the past, efforts to create a European Defense Community and an EU army failed due to a lack of support from Member States. However, the present turbulent times, which pose threats to EU security, have caused a similar idea to resurface. Contrary to the past, Member States now seem to welcome Jean-Claude Juncker’s efforts for an EU Defense Union. The EU Defense Union is well on its way to meet its scheduled deadline in 2025. The EU Military Mobility Plan, announced on 28 March 2018 by the Commission, is a particularly significant move towards the realization of the EU Defense Union.

During Juncker’s election campaign for the Commission, one of his main priorities was to make Europe stronger in its security and defense. He stated that “even the strongest soft powers cannot make do in the long run without at least some integrated defense capacities”. Throughout his campaign Juncker focussed on the Ukraine crisis, which indicates that the EU Defense Union is partly a response to the deteriorating relationship between the EU and Russia.

Unlike the failed European Defense Community in the 1950s, the EU Defense Union has been welcomed by the EU Member States as a result of various structural and external security threats to the EU that have emerged in the past few years. The need for a stronger defense was clearly expressed in the joint NATO-EU Declaration in 2016. It was stated that in light of common challenges Euro-Atlantic security needed to be improved through: boosting the ability to counter threats, intelligence sharing, developing cooperative procedures, broadening and adapting operational cooperation, developing defense capabilities, and facilitating a stronger defense industry with increased defense research. The influence of the U.S. on NATO is no secret, nor is Trump’s opinion that the EU should do more and rely less on the U.S. The joint NATO-EU Declaration was therefore not only a response to the common security and defense challenges, but also a response to ensure the U.S.’ commitment to NATO.

In response to the various structural and external security threats to the EU and the worries about U.S. commitment to NATO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was established in 2017 to strengthen EU defense and reduce reliance on NATO. PESCO originated from Articles 42 and 46 of the Lisbon Treaty and is a mechanism for willing Member States to realize greater military cooperation, without the need for approval from all EU Member States. Presently, 25 Member States are part of PESCO (excluding Denmark, Malta and the UK) , all aiming to harmonize capabilities, pool assets, cooperate in training and logistics, hold regular assessments of national defense expenditure and the development of flexibility, interoperability and deployability among forces. The main objectives of PESCO are thus to ensure military mobility and readiness of military forces to threats, as well as to strengthen EU defense, hence clearly working towards the EU Defense Union. The Rome Declaration of 2017 expressed the acceptance of the EU Defense Union by Member States. Both global as well as domestic challenges, such as regional conflict, terrorism and migration pressures, were specified as reasons for the establishment of the EU Defense Union.

The move towards this EU Defense Union took another leap in March 2018. The Commission and the EU High Representative announced their Military Mobility Action Plan to remove the procedural, physical, and regulatory obstacles to PESCO’s objectives. The plan aims to set up an European Defense Fund to invest in research and development of defense equipment and technologies. It also aims to invest in defense suppliers and strengthen the single market for defense. In essence, the Military Mobility Action Plan aims to remove the obstacles to military mobility in the EU by investing in innovative defense and infrastructure that can facilitate easy transportation of military personnel and equipment. Additionally, it also aims to loosen national rules that form obstacles to military mobility, such reducing administrative challenges to obtain Cross Border Movement Permission to transport troops through the EU. The Military Mobility Action Plan thus paves the way to achieve the commitments in the joint NATO-EU Declaration and PESCO’s objectives.

Despite all the progress the EU is making towards a defense union, this move can have significant consequences. The most obvious is militarization, which in turn, risks the outburst of hostilities. The militarization of the EU can be disastrous for its already unstable relationship with Russia. The EU’s and NATO’s enlargement, having encroached upon Russia’s borders in combination with EU militarization, could put Russia further on edge. Moreover, as the Military Mobility Action Plan is closely connected to realizing the aims of the NATO-EU Declaration and PESCO, it will not only facilitate easy military mobility of EU Member States’ troops, but also of U.S.’ troops. As tensions between the U.S. and Russia continue to rise, easy military access of U.S. troops through the EU may provoke Russia even further.

Additionally, facilitating easy U.S. military access to the EU may cause sovereignty issues. EU Member States might agree to let other EU Member States’ troops pass through, but may not agree to granting U.S. forces the same luxury. Furthermore, removing too many obstacles to military mobility could lead to a militarized Schengen Zone, which may also cause domestic tensions around sovereignty. This is especially the case because the Military Mobility Action Plan does not define “internal and external crises”, which begs the question in which situations can EU troops under PESCO be deployed. If they are to be deployed to counter national instabilities, such as the current protests in Hungary, this could cause serious sovereignty issues within the EU, especially for states whose fragility is in question. This would also risk the EU becoming more autocratic, which would go against the very core of the EU as a democratic entity.

Regardless, the EU Defense Union is making significant headway and may indeed realize all its goals by 2025. Only time will tell what the consequences will be for the EU. What is for certain, though, is that the EU is not letting go of its desire to have a stronger military presence as well as keeping the U.S.’ commitment to NATO alive.

Tawnni Castaño de la Cuesta is an Assessment and Feedback Officer at the University of Birmingham. She has previously worked at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security as well as the Human Rights Advocacy Center. Tawnni has a Bachelor’s degree in Global Justice from Leiden University College, The Hague and is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Birmingham. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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