Josep Borrell believes moment has come for expeditionary force but idea faces opposition from EU members
Josep Borrell said the ‘deficiencies’ in the EU’s autonomy from the US had been exposed in recent months. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian-Daniel Boffey in Brussels
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will “catalyse” the EU to establish its own permanent military force, the union’s foreign policy chief has said, despite years of fruitless debate and opposition from member states.
After a meeting of EU defence ministers, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said the moment had come to establish an active EU expeditionary force, described by some senior European politicians as an army.
Repeated attempts have been made to encourage military cooperation between member states, often attacked as an example of nation-building by critics. But Borrell said the “deficiencies” in the bloc’s autonomy from the US had been exposed in recent months.
European governments failed to persuade the US to delay its military withdrawal from Kabul airport to ensure the safe evacuation of its nationals and Afghans who had worked with the western powers.
EU officials have noted that it required just 5,000 troops to secure the airport but that the Europeans had been unable even to offer that level of contribution.
Borrell said EU impotence during the crisis should be a “wake up call”. He has been backed in his calls by the European council president, Charles Michel, and the EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton.
“It’s clear that the need for more European defence has never been as much as evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” Borrell said. “There are events that catalyse the history. Sometimes something happens that pushes the history, it creates a breakthrough and I think the Afghanistan events of this summer are one of these cases.”
The lack of investment in defence by EU governments and concerns about undermining Nato have been the main obstacles to establishing a united European military wing.
In 2007, two EU battlegroups of 1,500 troops were established, filled on a rotating basis by member states, but they have been consistently undermanned and they have never been deployed, mainly due to disputes over funding.
General government expenditure in the EU’s 27 member states on defence stood at 1.2 % of GDP in 2019 compared with 3.4% in the US. Diplomatic sources said Borrell’s comments were irrelevant to the “political reality” in EU capitals.
“We have been here before – and which leader is going to allow their nationals to be killed in the name of the EU?” asked one senior EU diplomat. “What problem is this reaction force meant to solve? Does [Borrell] seriously entertain the idea the EU would be able to step into the void the US left?”
The lack of capability of EU military has only been exacerbated by the loss of the UK, the largest spender on defence within the bloc when it was a member state.
Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit negotiator, had declined to talk about foreign policy cooperation during talks over a trade agreement, although some in the cabinet are keen for efforts to be renewed in light of developments in Afghanistan.
The EU member states have been looking at developing a 5,000-strong intervention force that would train together and have the logistical capacity to deploy.
It had been reported that Borrell wanted 50,000 but he denied it on Thursday, insisting that 5,000 would be sufficient to make up for US “disengagement” from its world role.
“They need to wake up and take then their own responsibilities,” said Borrell of the EU’s capitals. “This is nothing against Nato or the US alliance. It is a way of getting stronger and facing our responsibility and mobilising our resources to face the challenges that we will have to face.”
“The EU is not a credible substitute for what Nato represents,” said Kristjan Mäe, head of the Estonian defence ministry’s Nato and EU department. “You will not see any appetite for the European army amongst member states.”