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Explainer: Irish MEPs have been raising concerns of a future 'EU Army' - but is it likely to happen?

Claims around the potential for an EU army have been prominent in the election debate

The Irish Defence Forces on exercises in the Glen of Imaal.
The Irish Defence Forces on exercises in the Glen of Imaal.
Image: Defences Forces

ONE OF THE major issues of contention between various candidates in the European elections has been the question of defence.

Particularly, claims and counterclaims over the potential for the EU to have its own army.

This is not surprising given that Irish neutrality has been one of the main strands of debate in issues relating to Ireland and the EU for many years.

Sinn Féin has been among the most vocal parties on this issue, with MEPs Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada both speaking about moves towards a common military force.

What are the facts?

Much of the impetus for the new debate about European defence arises from Ireland’s membership of Pesco – the EU’s permanent structured cooperation arrangement that 25 states have signed up to.

Pesco allows member states increase greater co-operation of their defence forces.

Those in favour say it will allow for more efficiency and better equipment as defence forces purchase and develop resources together.

Those opposed point to the inclusion in the European command centre and joint training as a step towards a common army. They also point to an increase in defence spending.

To underpin Pesco and other joint-security initiatives, the European Parliament recently passed a €13 billion European Defence Fund for 2021-2027.

Security analyst Tom Clonan says that Pesco “makes sense” for many reasons but added that having an ongoing conversation about the Irish Defence Forces is healthy.

This, he says, is because the role of the Irish Defence Forces has changed hugely in the last 20 years, something which has gone almost “unnoticed” by many Irish people.

He points to Irish troops in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-led Partnership for Peace programme and the EU mission to Chad which was led by Ireland.

On Pesco, he says she sees the benefits of EU militaries working together.

In America, you’ve one armoured personnel carrier programme, for the Army, Marines etc. One weapons system, one tank system whereas in Europe you have 17 different armoured personnel carrier programmes. That’s research and manufacturing, duplicating, replivateing, and it just costs billions. So the European Defence Agency and Pesco were designed to cut out all of that duplication of spending

“So they can say a country like Sweden can concentrate on small arms, Britain can concentrate on tanks, France on aircraft and in that way we get a better spend.”

Germany: West Balkan Summit in the Chancellery in Berlin Macron and Merkel have both expressed support for a European army. Source: PA Images

Pesco is not mandatory and EU member states Denmark and Malta have not signed up, neither, unsurprisingly, did the UK.

Pesco itself does not constitute an army and French President Emmanuel Macron has been vocal in his desire for what he has termed “a true European army”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also supportive of the plan and defence ministers from 10 European countries met recently to discuss the potential for a joint force outside of Nato.

Ireland was not among the countries represented.

Lisbon Treaty

However, any move towards this European force being an actual ‘EU army’ would likely be blocked given that EU member states effectively have a veto over such matters.

The Lisbon Treaty says that the EU will work towards a common defence policy but any common defence would require unanimous approval.

“The common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides,” the treaty states.

Should this occur, the treaty says that this be adopted in member states “in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements”.

In Ireland’s case, the passing of second Lisbon Treaty referendum effectively blocked the country from signing up to such a “common defence”.

Article 29.9 of the Irish Constitution says:

The State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that common defence would include the State.

‘If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…’

While the Constitution says Ireland could not sign up to a common EU army and that any such army would therefore likely be blocked, opponents claim Pesco is doing this by stealth.

Writing in TheJournal.ie last year, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan MEP said it was a “redefining of what the European Union was set up to be” while Ní Riada has described it as “the foundation stone of a single EU Army”.

Lynn Boylan described it as a case of “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck it then it is a duck.”

Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune rejected this, however, stating last week that any claims about the potential for an EU army are false because of treaty provisions.

“There is no EU army, there will be no EU army. It is in the Lisbon Treaty which we voted for in this country, a protocol specifically recognises Ireland’s neutrality and also says there will be no EU army,” she told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.

But even if Ireland may be blocked from joining an EU army, a debate still remains about whether there are moves towards it – and who is pushing that way.

This is the debate has been ongoing between Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in recent weeks.

For Clonan, he says it is inarguable that the French and German leaders are pushing in this direction and that whatever happens we should ensure we stay out.

Right now the world is becoming more destabilised. We have Trump in the White House, we have Putin in Moscow who’s quite dangerous and mischievous in the Baltic states. We have Britain crashing out of the EU, we have Angela Merkel and Macron sharing their desire to have a European army.

“I think right now is the time for Ireland to take a really, really deep breath and not be joining anything. This is not the right time to be joining things.”

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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