By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has again reiterated her desire to see a unified Europe field a military force that could protect Europeans without outside assistance. Although Merkel has spoken of a European army over the past year and a half, French President Emmanuel Macron recently created waves by loudly backing the idea.
Macron has gone so far as to claim that a European defense force could “protect us against China, Russia and even the United States of America.” Merkel, for her part, simply wants a European force to complement NATO and provide a balance to U.S. influence in Europe.
At issue for both politicians — besides their increasingly low popularity — is that they represent two nations that are far apart in terms of policy. However, both nations still support the structure of the European Union.
Besides their inability to agree on financial issues, immigration quotas, Brexit and budgetary crises in Italy and Greece, Berlin and Paris are united in their determination to maintain the EU at all costs.
Europeans Are Tired of the Status Quo
European voters have demonstrated over the past decade that they are tired of the status quo and have elected anti-establishment candidates who are not afraid to push back on demands by the EU leadership. Despite the continuous, sometimes begrudging adherence to the Maastricht treaty, the members of the EU are simply not on the same page.
Although many nations are members of NATO, their spending on military matters is paltry at best. The notion that France and Germany would be willing to underwrite another military bureaucracy without a clear idea of how such an endeavor would be led seems rather improbable.
France Has a Long History of Self-Interest
France and Germany are not only contending with the modern issues pressuring the EU, both are fighting history in their desire for a continental army. Following the Hundred Years War with England, France consolidated its territorial holdings when England was forced off the continent. France then became the continental power in Europe.
Although Paris would face a strong contender from the House of Habsburg, France had contiguous land and a common language and culture, giving it a distinct advantage. Once their Habsburg foes took control of the Holy Roman Empire, France pursued a policy of undermining the Habsburgs at every opportunity.
The architect of this French policy of strictly following national interests as opposed to ideological proclivities was Cardinal Richelieu, a Catholic prelate who dared pursue raison d’état in lieu of the church. Richelieu famously quipped, “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter; the state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never.”
It was with that mindset that France pursued its self-interest to prevent a true, unified challenger on the continent. Following Richelieu’s death, raison d’état ebbed and flowed over the years with varying success which nearly led Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of all of Europe 200 years later.
By 1866, Napoleon III, forced to reckon with Bismarck’s move to unify Germany under his leadership, launched the ill-fated Franco-Prussian War in which France was rapidly defeated.
The German Position
In 1871, however, France’s worst fear was realized with the unification of the German state. Under Otto von Bismarck, Prussia pushed to unify the German states into a modern unified nation-state. Think of it as a quasi-resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire, but with German rulers governing ethnic Germans and without Vatican suzerainty.
If the French were unnerved by a challenger on the continent, Berlin had two reasons to worry. One was having a French neighbor to the west that very nearly conquered Europe and the other was a Russian behemoth to the east.
Making matters worse for Germany was the lack of any natural barriers to slow foreign military encroachment into German territory. Germany, however, had a unique economic strength. Berlin managed to rapidly build an economy through the efficient use of central planning and applied this economic miracle to its military organization. It’s quite remarkable that the new German nation-state managed to match the economic might of Great Britain in a mere 30 years.
Unfortunately, Germany didn’t have the imperial holdings abroad that many of its competitors on the continent did; that fact translated into a higher economic risk for Germany. In a prolonged war, Germany would ultimately be at a disadvantage unless it struck first.
In 1914, Berlin did just that, using as a pretext to declare war the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a member of the Habsburg dynasty and the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. But the first World War didn’t go according to plan. It left the German nation devastated and defeated.
By 1945, Germany had been defeated a second time and divided between east and west. Reunification would have to wait until 1990, while the U.S. still handled much of its economic and security.
As a result, Germany continued to push for greater integration in the EU, leading to another economic boom. But the boom collapsed in 2008 with the Great Recession. Germany had reformed and built its economy on European integration. Although Europe was mostly integrated, the continent was hardly united.
Enduring French – German Disunity
Currently, France and Germany have a common interest in preserving the EU, but for very different reasons. While Germany has tethered its economic well-being to the EU, France is looking at the EU as a vehicle to reestablish its role as a continental leader. The joint push by Paris and Berlin for yet another cooperative military endeavor could find common ground, but it would only be temporary.
If the motivations behind a common interest were to differ, then divergent paths would be inevitable. And if history is any guide, France and Germany have many differences.
In any case, this drive toward a European army may be short-lived. Chancellor Merkel is stepping down at the end of this term due to recent election setbacks, while President Macron’s approval numbers have fallen to the mid-twenties and may not have yet reached the bottom. If Macron’s approval ratings continue to drop, he will be out of office soon enough, and this current drive toward a European army will die with his departure.