Skip to Content

EU Poll Report - Features

United we fall: a European army is a really bad idea

Who would be in charge? What would they be fighting for – and in what language? This is an idea doomed to failure, says an Iraq war veteran

24 March 2018

4:00 AM

24 March 2018

4:00 AM

Nato is Europe’s first line of defence and in my view the only hope. Talk of a European army has increased of late, and if one were to contemplate the inevitable end state for the ‘European Nation’ ideal, then it is a logical evolution — for Europhiles.

Of course, there have been effective European armies in the past. Two have reached the gates of Moscow, only to be forced to retreat — with disastrous results. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was very much a European affair and almost every part of Europe was represented in Hitler’s SS, with the Charlemagne (1st French SS Division) being the last to fall defending the Führerbunker in Berlin.

Oddly, it was the end of the Charlemagne that gives us a clue to the psychology that has dogged Nato. The French General Leclerc was presented with a handful of French survivors of the Charlemagne Division and enquired: ‘Why are you wearing German uniforms?’ He was challenged with: ‘And why are you wearing American uniforms?’ He had them shot on the spot. Resentment of US involvement in Europe has always run deep.

The European Corps, or Eurocorps, has existed since 1993 with five European nation contributors, but with the Franco-German Brigade at its heart. It has deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo and to Afghanistan in 2004 and 2006. Haven’t heard of it? Neither has the enemy. They tended to stick close to the base in Kabul International Airport (KIA), known to the UK and US as ‘the Olympic Village’ because of the tendency of most residents to spend their days lounging around inside the perimeter in national uniform or tracksuits.

With the US having to pay 70 per cent of Nato’s budget, one could imagine a more joined-up European effort would be welcomed. But the point is that, in many ways, Eurocorps exists not to bolster but to supplant the US presence, though this is denied. US frustration at European defence efforts is understandable.

The European army efforts in Afghanistan have been lukewarm — if one were being generous — and its performance in Iraq was not that good. The German contingent in Regional Command North had to be back inside its bases by 6 p.m. each evening due to political pressures from home, which meant that the Taliban would idle around by day and terrorise by night. When the Germans decided to join the counter Isis coalition in Syria in 2015 by deploying airpower, it transpired that 29 of their 66 Tornado aircraft were not airworthy. Such is the deep commitment to defence in German politics. The French, on the other hand, have mounted several successful international interventions and served as an ally in others. But the point is that these were French efforts. And therein lies the rub.

Any European army would fall under the unelected career politicians of the EU whose ability to make a decision has to be seriously questioned. While it could, in theory, exist, it would achieve little more than that mere fact of existence because of the indecision and complexity within the EU itself. If anyone is in any doubt about that, contemplate the European Police (Eupol) presence in Kabul. Each officer has access to an armoured Mercedes ‘G Wagon’ 4×4 and driver escorts, but rarely leaves the compound.

I recall one occasion when my company was helping the US set up a Network Targeting and Exploitation Centre (NTEC) for the Afghan National Police Special Branch. There was Eupol interest in becoming associated with this cutting-edge project. Eupol said it could bring money into it in order to gain access, but warned that it would take a while for all the various nations to agree. It took six weeks. Finally, the great day arrived and the Eupol representative announced that the EU would contribute $2,000 to the project. What did we think? The US colonel in charge noted that the project was costing $5 million. He invited them to check out with the guardroom as they left the compound.

The point is that with its countries having different equipment, different terms of service (some professional, some conscript), varying amounts of national commitment and a myriad of different constitutional relationships with their militaries, Europe is a hodgepodge. What would happen in a national disaster, never mind a real war? What arrangements would be in place to assist the police if facing terrorists? In the UK we have Military Aid to the Civil Power (MACP) and Military Aid to the Civil Authority (MACA) for such eventualities. The French have GIGN, Germany GSG 9, Italy the Caribinieri… Who would coordinate all of that? In France the clashes between the National Police and GIGN are legendary. For instance the GIGN guard the President, while the National Police guard his wife.

And then there is the scale. In the UK and the US we spend large amounts on logistics. The ratio of logistics to fighting soldiers ‘teeth to tail’ is always a worry to senior leadership. Many European armies have no such problem. They are very much ‘come as you are’ parties.

At one time I was operations officer of 22 SAS during a Nato Special Forces (SF) deployment. At the conclusion of a successful combined operation, some of my opposite numbers in the SF of European nations expressed their ambition to lead the next outing so that it would be their commander standing in front of the map giving orders.

I gently explained that they would be most welcome to do so provided they could muster all the helicopters, fuel, tents, rations, beds, showers and so on — and of course the map to stand in front of. That was in 1997. Since then, it has still always been a UK or US colonel who was tapping the map.

What really scuttled the Euro SF hope to lead, was access to that vital ingredient of any SF operation, the best intelligence. The UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are part of the intelligence community called ‘Five Eyes’, probably the most effective intelligence alliance in the world. As ever, those with the least intelligence scream the loudest about ‘intelligence sharing’. The Europeans have nothing like it. Even in Nato the leakage is worrying. I used to remind my chaps in 22 SAS that the marking ‘NATO SECRET’ was an anagram for ‘Not a Secret’. On UN deployments, ‘UN SECRET’ meant exactly what it said — un-secret. So any European army would be reliant on its own, modest, intelligence effort.

And finally, who would be in charge? What would they be fighting for, and in what language? Napoleon and Hitler led successful European armies because their volunteers believed in them and what they represented. What of modern Europe? Could Jean-Claude Juncker inspire an army to the gates of Moscow? I think Nato is safe enough. But if Nato is supplanted by a European army, so are the Russians.


Colonel Tim Collins OBE is a former officer in the British Army. He is best known for his role in the Iraq war and his rousing eve-of-battle speech in March 2003.

Show comments