An EU Army: competition with NATO or the right to protection?

An interview with MEP Witold Waszczykowski, First Vice-Chair of the EU Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Kristina Zeleniuk is a Ukraine-based political and international observer and journalist, and a 2021 FES DC Media Fellow. 

The U.S. messy and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan exposed one of the key challenges facing the EU: Brussels needs to finally start thinking about its own defense and security issues. The migration crisis started almost two months ago along the border between Poland and Belarus has only made this need more urgent.  To understand what continues to prevent the EU from creating its own army after almost 30 years, why there is no consensus within the EU on an EU army, and how to avoid competition with NATO, I interviewed MEP Witold Waszczykowski, First Vice-Chair of the EU Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In late August, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that Brussels needs to draw lessons from the Afghanistan experience and be able to act autonomously, and therefore formed an initial “Rapid Deployment Capacity” force of 5,000 troops to be able to respond quickly to a crisis. This follows discussions from this past May where 14 EU countries, including France and Germany, agreed to create a joint military force by 2025. A final document is supposed to be adopted by March next year, including a military doctrine called the Strategic Compass.

What does this decision mean? Half of the EU member states want to create some battle groups or rapid military forces address an emerging issue – whether it is migratory pressures, regional instability, or terrorist threats. The plan would also permit EU troops to provide greater stability and take part in missions that didn’t include NATO and the UN, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

France will host the EU defense summit next year when the final decision will be made. But some EU members believe that it will create competition with NATO and the US. And it’s not clear how and who will finance additional military forces. This is not a minor concern – the majority of those 14 countries can’t or won’t reach the 2% defense spending goal within NATO.  Moreover, it’s hardly the first time the EU has tried to create its own army. EU leaders have been talking about it for over three decades, first in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union to restore order in the countries of the former Soviet camp if needed; then in 1999 at the height of Kosovo war, where EU leaders discussed the establishment of joint battlegroups of 1,500 personnel. During the Yugoslav wars, there was an attempt to create an EU army of 50,000 troops by 2003 – but this never happened. Only in 2007 were two EU battlegroups finally established but never used.

Some blame the U.S., saying that Washington didn’t want the EU to have its own army. Others say that it was the EU that didn’t do anything to move from words to deeds. But now the opinion of the American administration seems to have changed. President Biden doesn’t seem to oppose a more autonomous EU in matters of security.

According to Waszczykowski, "the defense identity of the EU" is “like yeti” - everyone is talks about it, but no one has seen it.

At the same time, there is another more serious problem: European treaties would have to be changed to allow an EU army to function efficiently.

This interview has been edited for clarity.  

Before we get to the subject of an EU army, let's discuss why it's relevant again: because of the migration crisis. Is the problem far from being resolved?

If you are referring to the situation on the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders with Belarus, the migration problem has not been solved despite our and other EU countries’ efforts, and the phone calls between [former German] Chancellor Merkel and [Belarussian President Alexander] Lukashenko. The problem in question is how to stop the illegal migration and control the border by the Polish border guards supported by military forces. But it’s mostly being accomplished due to the Polish efforts. Thousands of migrants were attracted and mislead by Lukashenko to come from Northern African and Middle Eastern countries to Belarus, hoping to get an easy access through Poland to Germany in an illegal way. This crisis is under control right now; thousands of these people are being stopped and not allowed to cross the Polish border illegally.


Are the EU and NATO offering a sufficient response to the hostile actions of the Lukashenko regime, which has organized a migration crisis with Putin's support? What is Lukashenko and Putin’s main goal?

Well, there are two questions. So let’s start with the first one about the EU’s and NATO’s answer. I’ve mentioned that we have been defending the Polish border. But actually it’s the same as the external border of the EU and NATO. So it is a legitimate question to ask if there is any support from these two institutions. So far, the support of NATO has mostly been political. There is strong political condemnation rhetoric of Lukashenko's actions. And we haven’t asked NATO for [military] support yet. Because we have enough security and military forces to defend the border.

We also got political and diplomatic support from the EU, because some EU institutions and leaders, Mr. Borrel for instance, and a few others, are also engaged in the process of pressuring Middle Eastern countries to stop the flights of migrants to Belarus. We also got a promise from institutions like the EU Commission that next year Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia will be granted 200 million euros to improve the protection of their borders. It’s not a big sum, but a breakthrough in Europe’s approach to protecting our borders. Because so far the main idea within the EU was to keep the borders open instead of protecting the border, building fences or walls. Now, the game has changed: we have to protect the border to control illegal migration.

What is missing are stronger sanctions against Lukashenko. Of course, recently EU ministers of foreign affairs adopted an additional set of sanctions to cover Belarusian airlines, institutions which are engaged in the process of bringing migrants to Belarus and ultimately the Polish border. But we believe that the sanctions have to be stronger and include Belarusian exporters of fertilizers. And I think that Belarusian institutions should be excluded from international activities like culture or sports. So there are still opportunities to impose additional sanctions. There is no deficit of instruments able to punish Lukashenko. There is a lack of will to do so.


Inside the EU, right?

Inside the EU, yes.

And the second part of your question was about Lukashenko’s and Putin’s goals. I think that the scenario which Lukashenko is implementing was actually written in Moscow. And Moscow has two targets.

First, Moscow is using Lukashenko as a proxy, as an indirect instrument to create tensions in the EU through the migration crisis on the borders. And through these tensions on the borders, Lukashenko is hoping to force the EU’s leaders to contact him and to grant him recognition. We have to remember that Lukashenko was not recognized for the last year after the falsified [2020 Belarussian] elections. He was not recognized as a legitimate President of Belarus. And that was the mistake of Chancellor Merkel. By calling and contacting him, she broke the solidarity of the EU’s policy of non-recognition. So he has been partly successful because he was recognized in an unofficial way as the ruler of Belarus. Next, he would like to get the sanctions lifted. And finally, he would like to send these thousands of migrants to Europe. So far, he is not successful there.

The second Russian goal is to cover the Russian military activity on the Russian-Ukrainian border by using Lukashenko. Essentially to keep us busy with the crisis created by Lukashenko instead. Putin thinks that we won’t be paying attention to the rising tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border. And some analysts predict that we can expect some winter actions of the Russian forces against Ukraine. No one knows where it’s going to be; for instance, it may be on the part of territory on the Azov sea; some say that maybe Putin will try to get territorial access to connect Donbass with Crimea; some others even predict that Putin will try to occupy Odessa and cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. Or maybe he is just going to continue irritating Ukraine, forcing Ukraine to spend more and more money for military and security services, and not allowing enaction of social reforms. So he is actually going to make the Ukrainian society create something that is called "anti-Maidan". The idea is to convince the Ukrainian population that it is in their interest to cooperate with Russia.  


So, you can see the connection between the migration crisis and the suspicious concentration of Russian troops near Ukrainian borders?

Yes. I connect these two issues - the migration crisis and the concentration of Russian troops. I can even say that Lukashenko's actions are a kind of distraction meant to hide the actions of the Russian forces against Ukraine.


And just to specify, what other sanctions against the Lukashenko regime were on the EU’s table? And what, from your point of view, ideally, should be the response in Brussels?

So far Brussels has only been expanding its sanctions against the people of the regime. So it covers the actions of Belarusian airlines, the so-called ‘tourism agencies’ which are engaged in the process of bringing migrants, and in enlarging the list of prominent bureaucrats. But we think it’s not enough. As I’ve mentioned, sanctions are supposed to cover the main goods exported from Belarus. One of the main sources of income of the Belarusian regime are exports of fertilizers. A lot of them are sold to Western countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. Sanctions against fertilizers deprive Lukashenko of resources and instruments to survive. Other sanctions may include the access of Belarusian institutions to different international events related to sports, culture, science and politics. Lukashenko has the support of a large part of the society. Let me remind you that Lukashenko has been in power for 27 years. He was able to attract a large number of people and provide them with a good life in exchange for supporting the regime. So we have to send them a message that there will be a price to pay for supporting this regime’s policy.


In fact, only the UK has helped Poland by sending soldiers. What kind of help did Warsaw expect from Berlin?

Well, the problem is that according to the European treaties, only member countries are responsible for border security. So we don’t have the grounds for expecting any support. Even British soldiers are providing rather technical support. We can’t deploy them on the Polish side of the border and make them responsible for the protection our borders. It is worth noting that the UK is not even an EU member. So we can’t expect German border guards to protect our borders. It’s only the responsibility of our border guards and our military. But of course there are a lot of other things that need to be done. As I’ve said, more economic sanctions; more political pressure on Lukashenko, Russia and Putin. Other countries can also provide electronic devices to help us protect the borders. We can buy more drones, cameras, sensors. So this kind of support that would be appreciated.


The EU arguably lacks determination, leadership and political will. Some countries don’t want to provoke Putin. Maybe it’s too late to save the EU, maybe it is better to start paying attention to regional (perhaps even security) alliances with Ukraine and the Baltic states?

This is a very long and complicated story which is called "the prospect of creating a defense identity of the EU". Everything started at the beginning of the 1990’s, after the end of the Cold War. The EU started discussing the possibility of a military force for mostly peacekeeping operations, including monitoring missions in situations where NATO troops – with the participation of US troops – are not able to participate. After the Cold War ended, we expected more and more problems related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So we expected that the presence of NATO troops ­– and especially American troops – would be unacceptable for Russia on the territories of the new republics. That’s why the idea was to create some kind of a European defense or monitoring missions purely consisting of European forces. But it never happened.

In 1992, we created the idea of Petersberg missions with humanitarian, rescue, conflict prevention, and peace-keeping tasks. Then in 1996, there was the idea of Berlin Plus - using NATO troops under the EU-led Command. Then the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Forces] mechanism emerged [essentially, a deployable multinational task force generated and tailored primarily for military operations not involving the defense of the Alliance’s territory, such as humanitarian relief and peacekeeping].

It has continued like this for almost 30 years. We may say that something like "the defense identity of the EU" is like a yeti: everyone is talking about it, but no one has seen it. 20 years ago, we created battle groups. Every year there are at least two to three units in the EU which are on the alert and ready to be used somewhere. However, they have never been used because we do not have a political mechanism how to decide who is supposed to use them and how to use to. So this is the problem.

Why do we still have no EU army?

First, because we have no common definition of threats. For countries like Poland, we have different threats in mind than countries like Portugal. If you do not have a common definition of threats, you cannot create forces to challenge these threats.

Second, there is a problem of funding. In particular, Western countries pay less and less for their military forces and the modernization of their troops. They can’t even fulfill obligations in NATO. If they cannot do it in NATO, how can they find additional funding for creation additional forces to be served for the EU? Moreover, the next problem, I would say, is with the political military command. We do not have a common foreign policy because we have to decide on the foreign policy, especially security policy, by consensus, but not by the majority voting. And we don’t have a consensus on these issues.

Third, there is a problem of headquarters. Who is going to supervise and determine how to use these forces? Even if we create groups of 5,000 or 50,000 troops, who is going to command these forces and decide where and how to use them; on which part of the border; against whom? Against Lukashenko, or migrants who are floating from Libya across the sea to Italy or Greece? So, there are a number of issues. What is the relationship between an EU military and NATO supposed to be? Are they supposed to cooperate, subordinate, or engage each other in a complimentary manner? The number of issues can multiply these questions and answers. This is a problem. Therefore, in order to have EU military forces, we have to change treaties and answer all the questions I have just mentioned in a new treaty. But there is no political will inside the EU for a new treaty.


At the beginning of 2021, 14 countries agreed to create the Rapid Deployment Capacity joint brigade of 5,000 soldiers, to be supported with ships and planes by 2025. Does Poland support the idea?

We do not object that the EU is supposed to have some military potential. We oppose the conditions. It can’t be a competition with NATO. It can’t be a competition with or exclusion of the US. In addition, this kind of foreign troops or funds for these European troops cannot be at the expense of NATO. Some years ago, for instance, the EU decided to create an instrument which is called PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] – a cooperation of military industries. I convinced my government – at the time I was still Minister of Foreign Affairs – to join this initiative. If I am not mistaken, in 2017 I signed an agreement to join PESCO. So we are not objecting to it. Nevertheless, as I have already said, there are some conditions: no duplication and competition with NATO and the US – just cooperation.


What do you think about the EU’s own military doctrine called the Strategic Compass? Recently Josep Borrell said that it can be adopted next spring. Do you agree, for example, with France, Germany, and others that the EU has to be more independent from the US in security and military terms?

We don’t like the word "independent". We prefer that the EU cooperates with NATO and the US. Because when it was not the case in the 20th century, we were in danger. We won WWI only because the US came to rescue Europe. The same happened in WWII. The same happened after the end of the Cold War with the Balkan countries. Europeans were not able to resolve the Balkan wars without Americans. And now we have a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and Russian conflict with Georgia, and another frozen conflict in Transnistria. And Europeans can’t solve these conflicts. In the case of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, France and Germany created a Normandy format and Minsk peace process. These two instruments have existed for seven years without any success or lasting outcome. I think we have to stick together with NATO and the US, because without Americans we will not solve anything. Hence, as I have already mentioned, Poland supports the idea of having some kind of joint EU military potential, but not completely alienated from the cooperation with NATO and the US. 


After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it became clear that it is not possible to rely solely on the US security umbrella. Should the EU have its own forces to deploy for missions abroad?

That’s a good question. A couple of weeks ago when I was visiting Washington DC, I also asked them what the EU’s position in the war on terrorism should be, after the US pulls out troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is not willing and able to engage in Syria. Well, the answer was a little bit arrogant, I would say: "that’s your problem. You have to find out the way according to your own national and European interests". The problem is that the Biden Administration is currently occupied with their own domestic problems. This Administration is limiting foreign activity everywhere in order to concentrate more on social and other domestic issues. Of course, this inactivity is being used right now by Lukashenko and Putin.

Let me come back to the first part of our discussion, when you asked me what they are doing and why now. They are doing this right now because according to the laws of physics, nature abhors a vacuum. Therefore, if there is a vacuum created by the inactivity of Americans, this is an excellent area for Russians to be active. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t rely on Americans. Of course, Putin was going to use the situation of US pulling troops out from Afghanistan, and will now test the commitment of the US towards our part of Europe, even though these situations are completely different. Afghanistan was under American protection and did not have an Alliance with the US. We, on the contrary, are a part of NATO and a close US ally. Furthermore, we are covered by the security mechanism guaranteed in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which is the fundamental basis of NATO. We enjoy the presence of American troops and military bases in Poland; hence, we do not question the commitments of the US to protect our part of Europe so far. 


If the EU had its own army, would it help somehow to resolve the migration crisis?

It depends on the mandate of such an army. According to the European treaties, the protection of the borders of each Member State of the EU depends on the Member itself. We do not have any obligations of the EU institutions to protect the borders. Therefore, it is difficult to answer this question. As I have mentioned before, a new treaty is needed. According to this new treaty, the mandate and prerogatives of the institutions should be redefined. So far, it is impossible to think about someone else protecting our borders, since it is solely the national responsibility of each European country.

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