On Armistice day, the 11th of November this year, 60 heads of state and government gathered in Paris to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. At the centre of attention, the gang of four: Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin. Much has been said about Merkel’s and Macron’s mournful speeches: apparently, they offer an antidote to the jingoistic rhetoric of Trump and Putin. But for all their grief and sorrow, no doubt genuine and justified, it is their actions that should matter more. It is easy to appear peaceful and progressive when sitting next to two quasi-dictators, but the fact remains that France and Germany are among the top four weapons exporters in the world. Only Russia and the US export more. The fact that any of these four are allowed to represent ‘us’ at a celebration of peace, points to a very crooked understanding of the very concept of peace.
Macron might claim that Europe has miraculously been at peace for 70 years (ignoring, for example, the Yugoslav Wars, the Troubles and the Basque conflict) while selling weapons to the murderous regimes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Between 2008 and 2018, French weapons exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to over 11 billion euros. Macron has only been in power since April 2017, but he shows no sign of wanting to reverse this trend. Germany is no different. Since the Khashoggi-affair, Germany has suspended its arms exports to Saudi-Arabia but continues to sell weapons to countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Neither of these countries’ leaders have recently ordered the killing of an internationally known journalist, but just like US-ally Saudi Arabia, the UAE has a hand in creating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Since the start of the conflict in 2015, tens of thousands of people have died. It is estimated that in 2017 alone, more than 50 000 children have died in Saudi-led (and Western supplied) bombings, or due to malnutrition and disease. Twenty-two million people in the country are in dire need of humanitarian aid, and most of all: peace. Egypt’s Sisi, on the other hand, is responsible for the bloodiest urban massacre of civilians since Tiananmen Square. On 14 August 2013, Egyptian security forces led by General Sisi violently dispersed two peaceful protests, killing at least 817 people.
Yet, both France and Germany recently ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the sale of weapons to countries that might use them to violate human rights. This has not stopped or even reduced weapon sales. In fact, France’s weapon exports to Egypt have significantly increased since. Germany’s exports to Egypt grew 500% between 2016 and 2017. In any case, Merkel and Macron do not seem to be satisfied with only selling weapons, they want Europe to flex its own military muscle. To this end, they have voiced their support for the creation of an EU army. In Macrons words: ‘Europe must not accept a subordinate role in world politics’. Ostensibly, this European army would be in service of peace and human rights, but we should all know by now that ‘humanitarian’ military interventions rarely, if ever, work as intended. Perhaps, as the leaders of the top European weapon-exporting countries, Merkel and Macron have realised that if they want to simultaneously respect the Arms Trade Treaty and keep their precious, job-creating arms industries, they must create a perfect army to sell weapons to that never violates human rights. One should not be too hopeful, howe- ver, because as Macron recently reiterated, the Western partnership with Saudi-Arabia is not merely economic, but strategic. As long as the global economy runs on oil, Western countries will support whoever guarantees its low price. Smooth operators such as Ma- cron might not say it outright, but luckily for us, Trump will. Being questioned on the US’ relationship with Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi killing, Trump talked up the importance of Saudi investment and thanked them for lowering the price of oil.
What is the real reason, then, for this project? There has been a sense of unease in the EU, ever since the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. With the strongest military power of the EU leaving, and Trump’s ‘America First’ attitude to military affairs, this is completely understandable. Add in a sense of impending doom caused by catastrophic climate change and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, a fear of EU disintegration, maybe some lobbying from the European arms industry, and there you have it: the perfect political atmosphere for increased militarization. Naturally, the project has its critics: Donald Trump calls it ‘insulting’, Federica Mogherini, The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is also against, but no real criticism of the project itself has reached the mainstream discussion. Mogherini says that no one is considering it, Trump does not want anything competing with NATO, and the rest call it unrealistic. But what would a common army mean for Europe? How would EU foreign policy change if it had an army?
The controversial answer to these questions is that the EU is already a military actor. It is currently engaged in six military operations, including those in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic. In these military ope- rations (excluding those at sea), EU troops ‘assist’ local and UN combat troops. This usually consists of training local troops and protecting civilians. According to their mission statements, their primary role is not to kill, but that is not the primary objective of any modern army engaged in counter-insurgency warfare. The objective of counter-insurgency warfare is to defeat or contain a rebellion, using both military and civilian means. This is generally done by isolating the ‘enemy’ from the wider population, and ideally, by addressing the root causes of the insurgency. This kind of warfare is more about legal reforms, setting up checkpoints and interrogating enemy fighters and less about shooting or bombarding ‘enemy strongholds’. By offering military advice and training in these countries, the EU is engaged in counter-insurgency warfare, even if no European ever pulls the trigger. If this was not morally ambiguous enough, the EU intervention in Chad in 2007 coincided with a French military operation in the country, agreed upon in a bilateral agreement with Chad. The EU force, consisting of mostly French soldiers, had a peacekeeping mandate, but its neutrality was called into question due to the difficulty of distinguishing these EU troops from the French military.
The EU’s border management is also highly militarised. This is most visible in Operation Sophia, which is an EU Naval Force mission to wage war on human trafficking on the Mediterranean Sea. The mission has saved many lives, but it has also been criticised by many NGOs for not complying with its own human rights criteria. The main accusation has to do with the non-refoulement principle in international law, which stipulates that rescued persons cannot be returned to their port of departure unless it is deemed safe, nor can they be brought to a third country. Part of Operation Sophia consists of training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, and in a sense, externalising border work to a country at war. Anyone ‘rescued’ by the Li- byan Coast Guard is returned to Libya, which has been consumed by civil war since 2014. Furthermore, the EU’s border management policy has been criticised for not providing enough legitimate channels for migration. The lack of such channels has forced many desperate people to attempt to traverse the Mediterranean Sea, leading to tens of thousands of deaths since 2015. This has not stopped the European Commission of using the mission in its uncomfortably self-congratulatory propaganda videos. The militarization of border work is especially worrying if it becomes a long-term “solution”, as it may crowd out more effective policies that address the root causes of forced migration. Clearly then, Operation Sophia does save lives, but it does so in a highly ineffective and hyper-visible manner. It is almost as if the EU is more interested in PR than actually stop- ping mass drownings at sea.
So if the EU is already a military actor, the calls to create a ‘true European army’ are not motivated by any sense of genuine fear or unease about the security situation. Rather, the European army is a symbol. It symbolises European Unity and progress in the face of real and constructed threats. It symbolises a peculiar conception of peace through war, and it symbolises European defiance against the untrustworthy anglos in the age of Trump and Brexit. This is important because politicians such as Macron and Juncker rely on the progress of European integration for legitimacy. The idea that more integration is always good is so prevalent, that the content of integration is not as important as the fact of integration. And as it seems, a European army is the only avenue of integration available. Even Hungary is in favour!
What is crucial about this whole discussion around a European army is the framing of the threats that Europe is facing. It is important, because these threats serve as arguments for increased, if merely symbolic, militarization. From Macron’s radio interview and the EU’s current military operations, it is clear that Russia is seen as Europe’s “conventional” military rival. This is not to say that there does not exist a deep paranoia about Russia’s “asymmetric” information warfare tactics: fake news, twitter bots et cetera, but there is a clear difference in the military capabilities of the Russians and the other “threats”. The other threats seem to be Isla- mic State-affiliated militias, and “human trafficking”. The truth is that neither of these can be defeated militarily. The “war on terror”, as we should have learned by now, is a self-reinforcing vicious circle. What these regions need is not European military intervention, but peace. The same goes for “human trafficking”. As long as people face the violence of abject poverty at home, many will be forced to leave. States and human traffickers then take advantage of these vulnerable people. There is simply no way to stop this with an army (or navy). Furthermore, the use of the term “human trafficking” might as well be a trick by the EU to make it seem like they are not also waging war on refugees and other migrants. The militarization of border operations is a worrying trend, but in matters of migration, the EU’s economic and diplomatic power is more effective. In many trade deals the EU has signed with African countries, the EU has insisted on including a clause restricting migration towards Europe. Effectively, the EU is externalising its border management to third parties, and limiting our exposure to the inherent violence of border work. The EU will strike deals with Erdoğan or even Gaddafi, if they agree to restrict migration to Europe.
As long as migration continues to be seen as a threat to “Europe”, the EU’s foreign policy will continue to reflect this. The EU will continue to support the most brutal regimes if they promise to keep the brown people away. The EU will continue to supply these regimes with weapons and surveillance technology, and the Mediterranean Sea will remain a mass grave. As long as these migrants do not reach “our” shores, the EU, or any Member State will do nothing to help these people. In fact, they will try to make their lives harder. When Gaddafi was still alive, and Berlusconi was relevant, their governments signed a deal that allowed the Italian coast guard to return anyone found at sea to Libya. The Italian Coast Guard would even do this if the boat had reached Italian waters. This goes against the principle of non-refoulement, and is a violation of international law. At the time, Libya did not even recognize the legal status of refugees, and they would simply return everyone to their countries of origin, no matter how dangerous the situation there. If there was any ambiguity about a person’s origin, they would drop them off on the other side of the southern border, in Niger. This EU approved policy directly helped the human traffickers the EU claims to fight, as the people stranded in Niger with no money or other means of survival were at the mercy of smugglers and human traffickers. Italy is currently on trial for these alleged human rights violations, but this has not stopped Prime Minister Salvini of restarting this criminal programme of so-called ‘push-backs’.
A European army would clearly be ineffective in responding to the purported threats in a humane manner. As it stands, the EU’s actions outside of its territory already violate its own values and foreign policy aims of promoting human rights, the respect of international law and the rule of law. A “true” army would also be a colossal waste of resources. If the IPCC report is true, and we have about 12 years to try to stop climate change, we do need an army. Not an army equipped with guns, but with the tools and knowledge required to transform our economy to rely on renewable energy and not fossil fuels. This would also mean that Europe would no longer be so dependent on oil states, and we could stop bending over for Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example. An energy independent EU could have a much more credible foreign policy, as they would not have to fear German homes going cold if they criticise Putin too harshly for his illegal war in Ukraine.
Military investment at a time like this is incredibly short-sighted. Not only is the US army the most polluting organisation on the planet, but it also suffocates human potential by killing and destabilising the lives of thousands and thousands of people. What is acutely needed is not war, not weapons, but peace and global cooperation. If Macron is so desperate for Europe to remain relevant in the world, maybe he should stop talking about the EU army and start taking climate change seriously. Instead of militarising Europe’s borders, we should accept that forced migration is a result of the uneven geographies of wealth and security, in part created by European colonialism, and not an attack on Europe. With this in mind, Europe cannot isolate itself, geographically or temporarily, and it must face reality. Europe is in debt to the rest of the world; it is time to pay it back. Reparations in the form of climate action, a genuine commitment to peace by ending all military operations, an end to violent borders and an end to weapons manufacturing would be a good start.