When the leaders of the G20 met in Buenos Aires on Friday, one of them arrived unfashionably late. German Chancellor Angela Merkel missed the first day of the conference and only just made it to the opening dinner. That was because her Luftwaffe (air force) jet encountered severe technical problems shortly after take-off from Berlin.
Merkel’s jet had to turn around over the Netherlands, was unable to dump its excess fuel because of the technical failure, and then performed a very hard landing in Cologne. For 70 minutes, passengers could not even disembark because the brakes were so hot firefighters were standing ready to intervene.
A frustrated Merkel had to spend the night at a hotel in Bonn because the spare air force jet was parked in Berlin with no alternative crew available. In the end, she managed to connect to Spain and boarded a regular Iberia flight to Buenos Aires. At least she did not have to fly Economy.
What sounds like a slightly amusing story from the life of a German chancellor is highly symbolic in the context of European defence policy. Europe’s middling defence capacity is no match for the continent’s lofty political ambitions.
It was French President Emmanuel Macron who, in early November, called for the creation of a “true European army”. A couple of weeks later, Merkel added her support to the idea in a speech to the European Parliament. “We have to work on a vision to establish a real European army one day,” she said in Strasbourg.
It all sounds rather grand and ambitious. The cold hard reality is a different story.
It would be unthinkable for a US President to miss an international conference because of technical difficulties. If there was no Air Force One, there would probably be an Air Force Two, Three, Four and Five waiting in the wings.
That a German chancellor can get stranded that easily speaks volumes about the state of her armed forces.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Europe deluded itself that the end of the Cold War would result in an automatic peace dividend. Spending on defence was slashed – with unforeseen long-term effects. Unlike cuts in health, education or policing, reductions in military capacity do not become immediately visible.
This was because Germany overdid its defence shrinking. During the Cold War, the Bundeswehr (German military) commanded the largest conventional army in Western Europe.
That was unsurprising as Germany would have been the first battleground in any East-West conflict. Thirty years later, little of that capacity remains. As a shadow of its former self, the Bundeswehr has become the kind of army pacifists would love.
When Germany reunited in 1990, its military comprised some 585,000 soldiers. Reunification treaty obligations reduced that number to 370,000. Today, it stands at just under 180,000.
Of course, today’s military challenges are different from those of the Cold War. Standing armies may no longer have the same strategic value they once had. Yet the problems run deeper.
According to media reports, none of the Luftwaffe’s 93 aged Tornado fighter jets can be deployed because they have not been updated to NATO’s current standards. German news magazine Der Spiegel reported earlier this year that not one of Germany’s six remaining submarines is available. News magazine Focus said only 99 of 244 Leopard II tanks – and only 21 of 75 helicopters – were combat ready.
It is fair to say the Bundeswehr has become not so much a laughing stock as a military pitied by its own people.
When US President Trump exhorts his fellow European NATO members to lift their defence spending to 2 percent of GDP, most continental Europeans would agree. It is obvious you cannot organise a serious military force on less than that amount.
Yet in practice, not much has followed from Trump’s admonishments. Indeed, Trump is not the first US President to remind the Europeans that they cannot free ride on the US forever. Even Barack Obama, not the most hawkish of US leaders, kept asking the Europeans to please, please increase their defence contributions.
After two years of Trump, the Europeans are still not there. But at least they are talking. They are good at that.
It is in that context we have consider Macron’s and Merkel’s commitments to a “European Army”. It is window-dressing pure and simple. It sounds great but only distracts from the sad state of European defence.
First, the political realities of Europe mean that a European army would never happen in any politician’s lifetime. There just is no consensus for it. Which means it is safe to pontificate about it. Second, the reality of Europe’s defence capacity is so pitiful that talking about pipe dreams of a European defence policy is much more appealing. And third, if Europe was indeed that keen on international defence cooperation, then NATO already exists and thus there is no need to replicate it within the EU.
But more than that, a European army suffers from the same conceit as European Monetary Union. The EU is not a nation state but a group of (quite different) countries. To pretend that they can all be united behind a common defence policy is as illusory as was the idea to force them all into the corset of the Euro.
Even such theoretical considerations aside, given the practical state of one of Europe’s largest militaries such as the Bundeswehr, how could a European army magically solve the continent’s defence problems?
Maybe if Germany ever fixed its military deficiencies, there might be a point in thinking about a European army.
At the very least, it would make it easier for German chancellors to attend future G20 summits.
Until then, a European army is just another European illusion. It would be more sensible to buy Iberia shares.