World View: German paper outlines vision for EU defence union

Document’s untimely leak plays into Brexiters fears of EU subsuming Nato role

A Berlin leak to the Financial Times this week has given a new twist to the Brexit debate that will not have been welcome in either Downing Street or the supportive chancellor's office.

A draft German White Paper on security and defence, due for release after the British referendum, speaks about continuing apace the EU move towards a defence union. Not today or tomorrow. Still, it is a bit like the commitment in the broader treaties to “ever closer union”: even the expression of such aspirations is toxic in the British debate.

The paper outlines proposed steps to gradually co-ordinate Europe’s patchwork of national militaries and embark on permanent co-operation under common structures.

The draft is largely a reiteration of well-known German and Benelux views. But any suggestion of placing British troops under European command was bound to be grist to the mill of the Brexiters in the British media as an attack on sovereignty and gallant Nato. And what made particularly good copy was the suggestion that this was a "secret" plan deliberately hidden from the British public.


At the European level, the paper calls for “the use of all possibilities” available under EU treaties, which is a reference to the Lisbon treaty’s elaboration of the idea of defence union and new defence commitments.

It also calls for establishing deep co-operation between willing – note “willing” – member states; creating a joint civil-military headquarters for EU operations as well as a council of defence ministers; and better co-ordination of the production and sharing of military equipment.

In reality, the joint HQ is already there, although operating on an ad-hoc basis, and much work is already under way on defence industry harmonisation.

Deploying troops

The context of the paper is important. Domestically it reflects Germany’s continued , gradual shaking off of second World War-associated inhibitions about the use of its military both abroad and at home. There have been domestic discussions about the possibility of deploying troops in response to terrorist attacks or threats to law and order, and the draft paper proposes ending the current ban.

In recent years, German troops have also begun to serve in military combat operations under the aegis of the EU or Nato, engagements that mirror the more recent decision by Japan also to allow its forces to serve in defensive operations abroad.

With Germany, there remains an understanding that projecting military might and hard power abroad needs the cover/legitimacy of an EU authority to be acceptable. There are still many places, not least around the EU where German troops under any flag would not be acceptable.

At the European level, the German paper will serve as an important but hardly decisive input into a foreign and security strategy paper now being prepared by the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini. This is due to be presented to the European Council in late June. (It will probably not even be discussed if, a week beforehand, the UK votes for Brexit.)

Defence issues will be part of Mogherini’s update of Javier Solana’s 2003 strategy, but the paper will be far broader, concerning the EU’s place in the world and the range of challenges to its foreign policy. It is said to urge a careful expansion of defence union competencies in deference to British sensitivities about Nato, although the more gung-ho Germans insist they only intend to complement Nato’s work, not replace it.

Territorial defence – the defence of the EU's external borders – remains, and will remain, entirely a matter for Nato. And the EU, which has been involved in 37 security missions since 2003, including recent operations in Mali and against piracy, will increasingly involve itself in a range of missions, from anti-terrorism to blocking people and drug trafficking, to countering cyberwarfare, to traditional peacekeeping and enforcing.

First steps

“The creation of a European army is a long way off, but it is a strategic necessity to implement important steps to pave the way towards it now,” wrote Roderich Kiesewetter, a Bundestag foreign affairs committee member, in a recent paper.

The member states have been invited to make submissions to the Mogherini drafting process. Ireland , with Austria, Sweden, and Finland, remains committed to a more limited vision of voluntary defence co-operation, resolutely refusing to sign up to a binding mutual defence commitment. As is our treaty right.

Ireland is understood to have made a submission that stresses the need for a foreign policy driven by values rather than commercial or political interests. And it argues for placing the collective security remit of the UN and the imperative for UN mandates at the centre of its policy.