'We should work on the vision of one day creating a real European army," said German chancellor Angela Merkel to the European Parliament this week. "The times when we could unconditionally rely on others are over." Her words echoed those of French president Emmanuel Macron who called for a "true European army". In the new field of cyber warfare, he added, it is necessary to protect Europeans against China, Russia "and even the United States of America". European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed Merkel's remarks but US president Donald Trump attacked them.
These statements are undoubtedly important, but more for registering Franco-German rhetorical determination to take major geopolitical changes seriously than indicating any immediate intent to create a European army. Realistically, that is far away – laughably so, many experts believe – because existing armed forces in the EU lack inter-operability, strategic capacity, and have fragmented budgetary and industrial structures. What integration they have is channelled through Nato, which binds them into a military alliance with the US with a mutual defence clause.
The Nato alliance is growing apart as the US focuses more on China and Asia and less on Europe. It is also under pressure from Trump's bombastic nationalism. His demand that European states pay more opens up the case for European defence and security autonomy in response. Real steps have been taken in that direction with the creation of Pesco, permanent security co-operation, which commits 25 EU states, including Ireland, to work together on 17 possible military tasks. A European Defence Fund, an annual review of defence budgets and a peace facility signal a more comprehensive effort to create a European structure complementing Nato's.
Geopolitical change in Russia, the Middle East and Africa presents Europe with new security and diplomatic problems quite distinct from those that animated Nato during and after the cold war. So does the transformation of technology which gives us cyberwars, artificial intelligence and the threats of climate change, including forced mass migrations. The case for greater European security and defence cooperation is unanswerable in the face of these changes. That requires much more political debate and argument than they normally receive, including in Ireland.
This country shares security concerns with its partners but, like them, has its own traditions and strengths as a guide. Ireland’s military neutrality has an honourable contribution to make. It is protected constitutionally and by treaty from being bounced into unwanted defence co-operation without a referendum. That is no reason to refuse to discuss these issues in a mature and vigorous fashion.