Why Europe’s proposed new army is a problem for Canada

The proposal of a new defence mechanism is understandable, given Europe’s relationship with the US, but it puts Canada in a tricky position, writes Michael Petrou.

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November 28, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive at the Elysee Palace after the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, in Paris, France, November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

French President Emmanuel Macron’s call earlier in November for a “true European army” is understandable, misguided and reflective of a shift among Canada’s closest allies that should worry Ottawa. 

In the run-up to Armistice Day commemorations marking 100 years since the end of World War I, Macron said Europe must be able to defend itself without relying on the United States. Speaking about cyber security, he said: We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”

That Macron would lump together America, China and Russia as potential adversaries of Europe was foolish, and that he did so on the eve of Armistice Day was insensitive. Despite the episodic tensions and even flare-ups of mutual contempt, the bond between America and France is a long one made stronger by the tens of thousands of Americans who have died fighting for French liberty in two world wars.  

French, if not always European, military self-reliance has been a goal of French presidents since Charles de Gaulle. More recently, in 2000, then-French President Jacques Chirac called for a European defence force independent of NATO, angering British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who always prioritized NATO as the foundation of European defence.

It’s not just French politicians who have periodically pushed the idea. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker endorsed a European Union army in 2015. He’s reportedly “pleased” it has been revived by Macron. A spokesperson for the commission noted it was Juncker’s idea in the first place.

It would be tempting to write off this latest call for a European army as more meaningless posturing — perhaps even, as American President Donald Trump claimed, an attempt by Macron to distract French voters from his plummeting approval ratings.  

But the Trump presidency has changed the transatlantic relationship, and has therefore forced Europe to more seriously reconsider how best to protect itself.

With the United States disengaging from some of its previous collective security and defence commitments, “there’s a sense of urgency within Europe that Europe perhaps needs to do something,” says Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada.  

Trump views alliances as, at best, transactional, and he doesn’t think most European nations pay their fair share in defence costs. If they don’t — and, on that point, he’s mostly right — why should America protect them?

The answer is that alliances, NATO in particular, are not trade pacts or business deals. They are about something deeper and more persistent — mutual security, yes, but also solidarity and friendship. The more pragmatic answer is that a peaceful, united and strong Europe that is able to deter Russia, secure its borders and, when necessary, project force alongside Canada and the United States, its NATO allies, is in America’s interest.

These arguments don’t persuade Trump, so Macron has come to the seemingly logical conclusion that Europe needs to look after itself. He has received tentative support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We need to take our fate into our own hands,” Merkel said in a speech to the European Parliament, adding that “Europe should also work on the vision of one day creating a genuine European army.” 

The problem is that as much as a strong transatlantic alliance is in America’s interest, it’s even more so in Europe’s. Russia isn’t going to send little green men into Wisconsin. Latvia can’t be so sure. Preventing that requires a credible threat of a military response that would make Moscow conclude the risks of such adventurism are too high. And that threat depends on NATO.

According to Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, Merkel’s comments reflect a similar German frustration with Trump’s isolationist bent. But Germany, he says, also places more value on its military alliance with America than does France. And Eastern European nations, he says, consider America’s security guarantee through NATO to be “primordial.”

“They wouldn’t want to see that commitment weakened. And some of them might be concerned that Macron’s comments have contributed to a heightening of tension between the Trump administration and its European allies in NATO.” 

The fact that a European army would not receive enthusiastic support from several European nations, especially those in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that cherish their membership in NATO, will frustrate plans to get the project off the ground.

But building a European army doesn’t mean undermining NATO, its proponents argue. “This is not an army against NATO, it can be a good complement to NATO. Nobody wants classic ties to be called into question,” Merkel said. 

European nations don’t spend as much on their militaries as does America. Most European NATO members are not on track to meet a 2014 agreement to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defence by 2024. Paris says that beneath Macron’s call for a European army is a recognition that Europe needs to shift more resources toward defence, and if he’s able to galvanize some European nations to do so, that’s a good thing. “The world is getting more dangerous, and liberal democracies need to strengthen their capabilities,” he says.

But fragmenting overstretched resources further by investing in a separate military organization does risk weakening NATO, Merkel’s assurances to the contrary. This doesn’t help Europe or America. And it is particularly troublesome for Canada.

Canada also under-funds its military. It has no plan to meet its two percent pledge and has a severely under-resourced air force and navy, among other shortcomings. For decades, Canada has been able to get away with this. It recognized that its security and global influence depended on alliances, mutual defence and multilateralism. 

“Fragmenting overstretched resources…does risk weakening NATO, Merkel’s assurances to the contrary. This doesn’t help Europe or America. And it is particularly troublesome for Canada.”

That’s why Canadian prime ministers of all stripes have cultivated close ties with the United States. That’s why Canadian government talking points about “qualitative” contributions to NATO, while politically convenient, are also truthful. Canada invested much in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and paid a heavy price in lost lives. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this summer that Canada will extend its commitment to NATO’s mission in Latvia by another four years, and will increase the number of troops it deploys there. Canada will also lead a NATO training mission in Iraq for its first year.

Contrast that with Canada’s involvement in the United Nations mission in Mali. After campaigning to “restore Canada as a leader in the world,” it took Trudeau most of his first mandate to find a United Nations mission to which Canada would contribute in force, and having settled on Mali, Canada has confirmed it will leave the over-stretched mission a year after joining it. It seems Trudeau has concluded strengthening NATO furthers Canada’s vital interests. Renewing Canada’s commitment to United Nations peacekeeping operations was a useful election slogan, but is ultimately less important.

But now both the United States and its European allies are turning inward — the latter because of moves by the former — and therefore risk turning away from NATO, the alliance that unites them. In such an outcome, Canada is left less enmeshed in strong alliances that have always been key to its security and influence.  

“If Europe ever did solve its collective action problems around actually getting a European armed forces together, it would be a huge problem for Canada, because Canada would be on the outside looking in,” says Leuprecht. 

“One of the reasons why Canada can punch above its weight with its interests and on collective security is precisely because it can work through NATO, and because it has disproportionate clout within NATO.

Even a unified European military that worked within NATO would diminish Canada’s influence, Leuprecht says: “The Americans and the Europeans would figure out what the mission looks like, and the Canadians would be reduced to being hangers-on. It would be a real strategic predicament.” 

“Canada has historically found ways to act as something of a bridge between the United States and its European allies. But that chasm is pretty wide right now,” says Paris. “The trends now are disquieting. The weakening of these international institutions and these historic alliances are sobering at a moment when external challenges are rising.”

There is no immediate crisis. A European army will not be stood up tomorrow. NATO remains the strongest military alliance the world has seen. But there is a shift under way. America and Europe are turning toward self-reliance. Canada may find itself more alone as a result.