Written by Eleonora Santonocito (Ambassador for Italy) and edited by Manuel Torres Lajo


The historic idea of an European common army dates back to Le grand dessein de Henri IV (Henry’s IV of France’s Great Design, 1638), written by the Duke of Sully. He imagined an army of common defence whose costs would have been equally divided among its member states, in the framework of an European Confederation. This idea would be further developed over the following centuries, in particular after the birth of the Comité International pour la Fédération Européenne (CIFE) in 1943, which put forward a proposal for a European federalist union that included  the creation of an European defence army. Hence, the European Defence Community was envisaged by the ECSC Treaty (1952), but the project failed after French voters did not approve it in a referendum (1954).

Despite the European Community’s strong economic influence post-WWII, its political and diplomatic power has not matched that level, and it relies on others for its security and defence, particularly the U.S. (Csernatoni. et al., 2023). In fact, the aim of this article is to analyse how the European Union (EU) is currently struggling to maintain its prominence in the perspective of the intensifying conflicts around the globe, specifically after the various crises that it had to face since the birth of the European Community. Therefore, after briefly investigating the history of the European Community, the emphasis will be on its strategic alliance within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and how it impacts on European citizens’ opinion. As a result, it will be demonstrated how crucial it is to execute the Common Foreign and Security Police (CFSP) in order to re-align its position in a more strategic manner, especially given the rising conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, which may alter the global geopolitical balance.

The Common Foreign Security Policy: a historic timeline

In the aftermath of WWII in Europe, with rebuilding ongoing and the Cold War emerging, a new agreement on a common strategic defence was required. The answer was the Treaty of Brussels (1948), signed by the United Kingdom, France and the Benelux. Six years later, the Western European Union (WEU) was created as a platform for consultation and conversation on security and defence in Europe. It remained the primary one until the late 1990s, alongside NATO, with the adoption of the so-called “Petersberg Tasks” by the Ministerial Council of the WEU in June 1992 (EUR-Lex, n.d.), at the start of the Balkan wars (1992-1995). They were seen as a solution to face the conflict in Eastern Europe in absence of a unified army, since they established the circumstances under which military units could be deployed from the whole spectrum of their conventional armed forces. In fact, it was within the Balkan wars framework that NATO conducted its first major crisis response operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 (NATO, 2023). These tasks were eventually incorporated into the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), which defined new organisations and tasks for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), but did not establish a common defence strategy,

That same year, at the European Council in Cologne, Member States reaffirmed the Union’s willingness to develop autonomous action capabilities backed up by credible military forces (Quill, 2008). Later, the “Berlin Plus” arrangements established the groundwork for NATO-EU crisis management cooperation in the context of EU-led military actions that allow NATO’s collective assets and capabilities to be employed (NATO, 2023). In 2009, the Lisbon Treaty came into effect, marking a significant step in the development of the CFSP. The treaty introduced the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as the primary framework for Member States to cultivate a European strategic culture in security and defence.

Further CSDP developments were undertaken by Former High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS)  in June 2016. Additionally, the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, finalised by year-end, outlined measures completed by the EUGS, as part of a larger package that includes the European Defence Action Plan and the implementation of the Joint Declaration made in Warsaw (Council of the European Union, 2016). As envisaged by the EUGS, in 2017 the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) enabled member states that are willing and able to work together to plan, develop, and finance projects aimed at enhancing shared capabilities, hence improving the operational preparedness and contribution of their armed forces (PESCO, 2023).

The European Peace Facility (EPF), adopted in 2021, enhances the European Union’s ability to provide security to its allies and citizens. This off-budget tool is designed to strengthen the EU’s capabilities in preventing conflict, promoting peace, and bolstering global security. Additionally, it permits the financing of operations under the CFSP, with military or defence implications (Council of the European Union, 2023).

Most recently, in 2022, the EU Strategic Compass, which incorporates all aspects of security and defence policy, gave a consensus assessment of risks and challenges faced by the EU. The document offers specific proposals and a clear implementation plan to immediately enhance the EU’s capacity to defend its citizens’ security and respond effectively during crises (EEAS, 2022).

The current CFSP and NATO as a strategic partner

NATO is the world’s foremost military alliance, comprising thirty-one member states, with twenty-two also belonging to the EU. Finland recently joined in April 2023, and Sweden’s membership is in the final stages of approval after the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023. NATO’s accession policy, known as the “open door” policy, is rooted in Article 10 of its founding Treaty (1949).

The essence of NATO is encapsulated in Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty, where member states commit to aiding any member that faces an armed attack. This assistance may involve military force, aligning with the right to individual or collective self-defence as outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. The European Union also adopts a similar principle through Article 42(7) of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU). Therefore, whenever NATO conducts a mission, member states deploy soldiers and equipment to be under NATO command – the so-called “NATO forces”. In this sense, member nations have agreed to spend 2% of their respective GDPs on defence by 2024 (Clark, 2023). Nevertheless, not every member state always achieves this: for instance, Germany’s defence budget remains below NATO’s target (Martuscelli, 2022), even though its new defence Minister Boris Pistorius has called for reaching that level (Karnitschnig, 2023).

When talking about the current geopolitical balances, the war in Ukraine plays a fundamental role in NATO’s reputation. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2023 among its member nations, the existence of the military alliance is believed to discourage Russia from extending its military campaigns to other neighbouring nations. This is particularly true for respondents in France, Hungary, Spain, and Greece. Additionally, 93% of the Polish respondents said NATO is a good thing. Additionally, major economies like the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States view NATO as a beneficial alliance. (Faga, Pousher & Gubbala, 2023).

In light of the challenges in Ukraine and the Middle East, there is renewed discussion about the possibility of establishing a common European army independent of allied forces, a view not always in line with NATO. In May 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a survey conducted by YouGov and the European University Institute revealed increased support for an integrated European army, particularly in Britain, Sweden, and Finland.Despite this, the survey also highlighted that Europeans generally perceive NATO as crucial for their national defence. In this regard, it is essential to examine how the public debate on the prospect of a European army is growing as a result. According to Eurobarometer (2023), the vast majority of EU citizens (77%) are in favour of a common defence and security policy.

In October 2023, the EU conducted its inaugural live military exercise involving units from Austria, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. The week-long exercise encompassed operations across sea, air, land, space, and cyberspace. Plans for the next round of exercises are in progress, with Germany expected to lead the second edition, scheduled for the second half of 2024 (Tidey, 2023).

On the other hand, NATO is further restructuring collective defence following the war in Ukraine, including new regional defence plans, changes in command structure, and the establishment of high-readiness forces. Nonetheless, the European members of NATO ought to be much more involved in putting these reforms into practice. In this sense, it is that Europe remains strategically impotent (Karnitschnig, 2023): as aforementioned, Europe still leans on the US for security. Data from Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy reveals that the US has committed over €43 billion in military aid from January 24, 2022, to February 24, 2023, surpassing the combined military spending of all European countries. Despite rhetoric about standing alone, European countries still allocate over half of their military equipment expenditures to US equipment, with some, like the Netherlands, spending as much as 95%.

This outlook reveals how the EU still appears as a “EU pillar in NATO” (Coelmont, 2023), leading to wonder whether the recent developments in the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza may actually constitute a turning point for the possible formation of a common European defence army. For now, it is certain that there are divergent views within EU member states. For instance, the statement made by Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Bazczak, that the European army is fictitious while emphasising NATO’s leadership role in European defence in a meeting with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (TVP World, 2023).


In current times, NATO remains a key player in addressing significant emerging conflicts, exemplified by its substantial support to Ukraine in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. NATO Allies have pledged €500 million for Ukraine’s critical needs and committed an additional €100 billion in military aid. Similarly, in the aftermath of increased violence in the Gaza conflict since October 2023, NATO has affirmed its Allies’ commitment to providing practical support to Israel as it addresses the situation (NATO, 2023). In this sense, it would also be crucial the position of the EU compared to the US, since the prominence of the latter in the NATO framework is still noticeable and influences the whole international politics. The European inadequacy in addressing the 2023 Israel-Hamas war is highlighted in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-10/22, where the US and most NATO member states, including Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, voted against or abstained from supporting a humanitarian truce. This pattern repeated in the 12th December 2023 UNGA Resolution, resulting in the adoption of a non-binding resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (Al Jazeera, 2023).

Despite calls from national leaders, such as Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani advocating for a strengthened CFSP and proposing the formation of a EU combined army for peacekeeping and conflict prevention (Reuters, 2024), the EU struggles to detach itself from NATO leadership. As long as this dependency persists, the establishment of an autonomous defence branch and the EU’s leadership in a potential European Common Army remain improbable, despite positive public perceptions.



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