Can 28 national armies be pooled to form a 'European army', as recently proposed by European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker? The short answer is no, but maybe in the future.

Juncker's European call-to-arms is by no means unprecedented. In voicing the eternal dilemma between national interests and the need for Europe, with its particular geography and history, to transcend the state, Juncker is a very typical European. As with many Europeans, he straddles both sides.

As prime minister of Luxembourg, Juncker saw nothing wrong in crafting a 'beggar thy neighbor' tax policy for multinational companies who were only marginally active in his tiny fiefdom. As EU President  and a candidate of the European People's Party which won EU parliamentary elections in May, Juncker correctly perceives the most glaring shortcoming in EU-building today: scattered hard power capabilities that are having a negative effect on the projection of European soft power as well.  In his new book, Is Europe failing? (not yet translated into English), the former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer dwells in detail on this crucial point.

The barriers to remedy this hard power dilemma of the EU are threefold.

First, there is NATO. Some of the most important EU members are NATO members as well. However, those who are not NATO members have a technical and political compatibility with the alliance, should Europe be attacked. The most likely scenario is the continued existence of NATO, alongside whatever security policy structures the EU will eventually build, with a certain division of tasks 'in area' (EU) and 'out of area' (NATO). Indeed, that is already something of a reality: some EU members had troops in a NATO framework in Afghanistan and in an ad hoc European context in Africa.

The most important point regarding NATO, however, is the changing attitude of the US towards European defence. Only 10 years ago, non-NATO supranational defence structures in Europe were anathema to the Pentagon. Now it is the opposite. Washington would be delighted if Europe shared more of the ever-increasing burden of propping up 'our' world order.

The second barrier is the degradation of national defense budgets, particularly in Western Europe. Even the United Kingdom is employing very creative bookkeeping this budgetary year, to come up with the 2% of GDP reaffirmed by all member states at last year's NATO summit in Wales

Third, defence and security cut very close to the central tenets of national sovereignty. Once you integrate your national defence into a larger grid of both decision-making and equipment procurement, you cede an important part of national independence. There must be considerable incentives to do this, and to explain such a fundamental decision to your own democratic base.

Yet that is probably what we will begin to see in Europe now, if only under the threat of new front lines drawn by an increasingly hostile Russia, and led by a unpredictable strongman with an impressive record of broken treaties and promises in the name of 'national glory.'

In the parlance of traditional international relations teaching, the EU is still mired in the large grey area between being a supranational organisation and a 'US of Europe,' and will likely remain there for the foreseeable future. However, as an international institution sui generis, the EU will find a way – because it has to –  to increase European defence capabilities.

But the first steps towards an integrated EU military are being taken, and they might be the hardest of all: the pooling of defence industry potential.

The EU is littered with partly, or often entirely, state-owned defence companies, which are generally regarded as having long and proud traditions. This makes them less dependent on commercial pressures to merge, but also more susceptible to political will. Thus, state-owned defence corporations are a pretty reliable bellwether as to the resolve of European governments for serious integration.

Closely following an eventual integration of production would be the next step: the allotment of specialisations. To put it bluntly, not every country needs its own air force, nor heavily-armored infantry units. Aside from a Democratic Union about which I have written before, a Defence Union would be another indicator of the progress (or not) of the European project.

If that were to happen, Europe may well have, on top of its famous telephone number, a common fire horn and a  respective brigade, too. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rock Cohen.