Our student John Smith argues that the EU could replace the United States as the world’s military superpower, but it must start to cooperate more closely in areas that were hitherto left to individual member states.

The ultimate aim of defence policy is to provide a country’s population with a feeling of security from external harm. There is an increasing need for a common defence of Europe, due to the effects of globalisation and rising global tensions. Integrationists have longed for this since their first attempt to create a single European Army in 1954, since it represents the pinnacle of political integration in which defence becomes a shared competence. Before I go any further I want to make it clear that I am not advocating for a single European Army, rather I am advocating for much closer cooperation on defence policy.

Setting the international scene

The most recent US presidential election shook the world, by that a man who is clearly unfit for public office became the President. In his inauguration speech Donal Trump declared “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first”, a foreign policy signal that America will no longer be acting as the foundation for the current rule-based world order. As such this mantle would have to fall to another superpower, one which could act in a (relatively) predictable manner to maintain peace and stability across the world. I think that superpower can be the European Union, so long as it begins efforts to cooperate further on measures such as defence.

However, the American presidential election was not the only event that has far reaching implications in the current world order; the UK’s decision to leave the Union was frankly a surprise to even one of the cult leaders of the vote, Nigel Farage. The consequences of this decision have yet to come into effect and show us what lies ahead for the Union, or even the UK in terms of defence policy. This issue has yet to be negotiated once the current gridlock in negotiations is overcome.

EU defence cooperation

Data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 2015

The EU27 (excluding the UK) currently have a combined defence budget of around $135.9bn in 2015, which would make it the 3rd largest defence budget in the world. But Europe has a fraction of the capability one would expect such a substantial budget should maintain. This is due to the effect of duplication of capability. Each of the member states have their own methods for procurement, but also maintain their own full-fledged militaries.

The obvious solution to this situation would be to have full defence integration under the auspices of the EU. However, this is not practical since defence is seen as a core element of national sovereignty.

But what is possible, is further cooperation on the procurement of equipment as well as establishing specialities with the member states which are complimentary to each other. Such an arrangement would allow for a more effective military response should it ever be required. The Lisbon Treaty foresaw that there could be circumstances where the member states might want to cooperate more closely on such issues and established the PESCO instrument. This instrument can be used when there is to be further cooperation using EU institutions and procedures between groups of member states when they see it within their strategic interest. In a nutshell, it is selective cooperation when the EU cannot proceed as a whole.

How Brexit factors in

The defence of Europe is not very likely to change, since the core of most European nations’ defence policy is membership of NATO. However, what will change will be its ability to launch autonomous action that is complimentary to NATO. This is will become harder for the Union to do should the UK be left outside its defence framework. Dependent upon the position the government wants to take, the EU could be very amenable for the UK to continue its participation in defence operations, both civilian and military. This would be the best outcome for both sides, as it would mostly maintain the current security framework.

Final words

What is clear is that the current defence arrangement for Europe is in substantial flux. This is due to the uncertain role that America is going to play in the defence framework of Europe with Trump as President. It is also in flux because of the uncertain arrangement between the EU and the UK. I feel the only way to deal with the increased tensions across the world is to have a superpower that is capable of acting to preserve international peace and security. The EU is the only power that I think can do that – as long as it takes measures to cooperate more fully on policy areas in which member states currently have exclusive competence such as defence.

John Smith is a 3rd year BSc in International Relations student at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is particularly interested in European Union politics.