An Evaluation of the European Defence Integration Process

by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

Since 1945 the European defence integration is a matter of dispute. Many ideas to establish a European defence system separate from NATO have been presented, but none of them have been particularly successful (Howorth, 2017, p. 14). The European Defence Community (EDC) is a perfect example: The project failed due to the absence of the United Kingdom and the failure of the French parliament to ratify the plan (Howorth, 2017, p. 18). But why were so many projects fruitless? The answer to this question is pretty complex.

First of all, the Europeans disagree with the extent of the European defence integration. How much sovereignty and autonomy should nation states give up in favour of a supranational project? In 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the EU Commission, announced his vision of a “European army” (Kucera, 2019, p. 2). His idea initiated a polarizing debate about the future of the European defence policy (Kucera, 2019, p. 2). The overarching idea that underlies this project is a “transfer of national sovereignty onto a supranational institution” (Kucera, 2019, p. 3). This caused scepticism as many politicians feared the loss of autonomy and some Eurosceptics even perceived national security policy as “raison d’être of a state” (Kucera, 2019, p. 5). Ever since, European defence integration projects are difficult to implement. 

The majority of projects that have been presented thus far suffered from the problem that the extent of commitment and implementation depends on the individual members of the EU. I would like to provide two examples: Firstly, the Global Strategy introduced by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and secondly the PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) project.

Global challenges and threats do not stop at national borders and therefore require a common respond. The Global Strategy recognizes these security threats (e.g. terrorism and climate change). However, the Global Strategy is rather “aspirational” than “transformative” (Arteaga, 2017, p. 4) as the commitment to the strategy remains voluntary. The non-binding nature of the Global Strategy increases the risk of non-compliance and thus raises questions about the effectiveness of the project (Arteaga, 2017, p. 4). Members of PESCO also have the right to decide to which extend they would like to implement the measurement proposed by the project (Jopp & Schubert, 2019, p. 135).  PESCO states are currently engaged in 34 projects “in the areas of training, land-based formations, naval and airborne systems, cyber defence (…), capacity building projects or space systems” (Jopp & Schubert, 2019, p. 130). Nevertheless, it remains uncertain to what the degree its member states will commit to the project in future as nothing is obligatory (Jopp & Schubert, 2019, p. 135).

However, the Brexit initiated again an intensive debate about the future of the European security. The retreat of the UK implies that the EU loses a member state with important military capacities as the UK is not only a nuclear power, but also member of the UN Security Council (Svendsen, 2019, p. 994).  Nonetheless, some scholars see the Brexit as “window of opportunity” (Jopp & Schubert, 2019, p. 122) as Europe is forced to think about alternatives in terms of their defence policy.

Since 1945, the Europeans actually rely on the United States in terms of their security. Over the course of time the EU basically lost the motivation to think about own defence possibilities as bandwagoning became part of the political habit (Howorth, 2017, p. 19). Due to current political developments as Brexit and Trump’s unreliable commitment to Europe’s security, demands on “greater European strategic autonomy” (Schreer, 2019, p. 10) have received more attention.

Additionally, the increased scope of the global challenges (e.g. climate change) forces Europe to take action. The security threats afore mentioned are not manageable for a single state. Therefore, a supranational military organization coping with all the potential security gaps is certainly a desirable vision in order to maintain the peace in Europe (Kucera, 2019, p. 19). 

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash



Arteaga, F. (2017). European defence between the Global Strategy and its implementation. Real Institut Elcano. 2-18.

Howorth, J. (2017). European defence policy between dependence and autonomy: A challenge of Sisyphean dimensions. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 19(1), 13-28.

Jopp, M., & Schubert, J. (2019). PESCO and new methods of intergovernmental integration. L’Europe en Formation, 389(2), 121-139.

Kucera, T. (2019). What European army? Alliance, security community or postnational federation. International Politics, 1-18.

Schreer, B. (2019). Trump, NATO and the future of Europe’s defence. The RUSI Journal, 164(1), 10-17.

Svendsen, Ø. (2019). Brexit and the future of EU defence: a practice approach to differentiated defence integration. Journal of European Integration, 41(8), 993-1007.