At the beginning of April 2023 the third and final combat brigade of the Royal Netherlands Army has finished the integration into one of the German army’s divisions. The Dutch 13th Light Brigade consisting of 3,000 soldiers was merged with the German Army’s 10th Armoured Division. The final step of the Common Army Vision creates an infantry with a combined strength of 50,000 troops, of which around 8,000 is coming from the Netherlands. The total manpower of both countries’ armed forces is about 89,000, of whom 24,000 are Dutch. The integration of the two countries’ armed forces is the first example two EU or NATO nations have effectively combined their militaries. The project of Dutch-German integrated armies signs a whole new approach of European security. Can it be the forerunner project of a Common European Army?
The start of the Dutch-German army integration dates back to 1995, since when the two countries have been working closely together to create the first rapidly deployable German-Dutch Corps. In 2014 the first brigade of the Dutch army (11 Airmobile Brigade) was integrated to the German Rapid Forces Division, followed by the combination of the 43 Mechanised Brigade of the Netherlands with Germany’s 1st Armoured Division in 2016. The third Dutch combat brigade has been integrated recently, in April 2023. The merge does not include the Dutch Special Forces units yet. The German Sea Battalion, which has about 800 servicemen and women, consists of a naval protection force, mine-clearance divers and boarding soldiers, was also integrated into the Royal Dutch Navy between 2016 and 2018.
The success and merits of the recent Dutch-German integration are still being evaluated, but the leadership of both countries is committed to close cooperation and further integration. According to Martin Wijnen, the commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, the cultural differences between the German and Dutch armies may pose some challenges. Kajsa Ollongren, the Defence Minister of the Netherlands has also acknowledged the differences, and added: “at the end, there are more similarities”.
This more progressive approach reflects in the intergovernmental meeting in Rotterdam, where Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte consulted with the participation of several ministers of their governments. After the meeting at the end of March 2023 both cabinets expressed further engagement in bilateral relations.
Germany’s 10th Armoured Division already includes the Franco-German Brigade, which is a special military brigade of the Eurocorps, founded in 1989. Eurocorps was the first initiative to integrate European armies, founded by France and Germany. Later Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain have also joined, but the project has not been developed since the mid ‘90s and fully integrated, multinational armies haven’t been established either. Although the Franco-German Brigade contains French infantry regiments and German infantry and artillery battalions, only the staff in Müllheim Base and the Logistic Battalion is mixed (bi-national). The recent accession of Poland in 2022 to Eurocorps may revive the project involving associated members such as Austria, Italy, Romania and Turkey.
The question of a common European Army has been on the agenda for decades now. In some area such as cybersecurity, health security, counter-terrorism and border protection close cooperation has been reached by the EU and NATO member states, but the question of a common European defence union is not a likely to be answered in the near future. The mismatch between EU and NATO memberships seems to be one more obstacle in the way. The disagreement of the EU member states and their different interests resulted in for instance the ambiguous Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union (2007). This article forms the basis of the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Paragraph 7 also stipulates that member states are obliged to provide assistance to any other member state if it becomes a victim of armed aggression. Article 42 of TEU is thus similar to NATO’s Article 5 with two major difference. The first is the presence of the United States in NATO. Being in an alliance with the strongest army in the world shifts EU member states’ focus from CSDP to NATO. The second difference is Article 42(7) lacks the operationalization that NATO has. It means that in case of an attack against a member state, all aid assistance should be organized bilaterally between the attacked country and the other member state. Which means a slower, more complicated and less comprehensive reaction reducing the chance of a successful response. Until now, in the shadow of NATO, there was a lack of political will on the part of the member states to further develop and restructure the CSDP.
The deepening of the Common European Security and Defence Policy re-appeared at the end of 2021 and at the beginning of 2022. In November 2021, in his speech at Humboldt University Berlin, Sauli Niinistö, President of Finland, also responsible for leading Finnish foreign policy, expressed his desire for a more developed and comprehensive security and defence cooperation for Europe. Outlining the French presidency of the Council of the EU in January 2022, Emmanuel Macron addressed the topic of “strategic autonomy” of the EU. He stated that the EU must have the capability to block attempts to destabilize Europe. The French intention to create a new “security framework” was clearly articulated at the beginning of their presidency.
The expression of the Finnish and French desires must be interpreted in the context of the threat of the Russian army gathering at the Ukrainian border at the time, which turned into a full scale war between Russia and Ukraine later, in February 2022. The re-appearance of war in Europe shocked the continent and changed the attitude towards the discourses of armament and security in all EU member states. The EU’s historical decision to buy arms for some €500 million was also a direct consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland and Sweden submitted their applications to join NATO in May 2022 and their accession protocol began in July 2022, meanwhile Germany heavily increased its military budget up to 2030. Finland’s application was accepted and their accession had been ratified by every NATO member states, somewhat fulfilling their desire to be part of a serious European security organization. Paradoxically, the war in Ukraine hindered the EU to reach the goals of a common security framework, but at the same time it convinced European countries about the necessity of re-militarization. Although the NATO member states, which will be further strengthened by the accession of Finland and, probably, Sweden, can feel relatively safe, the common European defence policy will remain relevant in the future.
The accession of Finland to NATO definitely strengthens the alliance and creates new opportunities in shaping common European defence. The EU keeps struggling with its security and defence policy, in spite of the willingness of its leading member states (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Spain) to create a new, clarified security framework. A closer and more comprehensive cooperation in some areas (cybersecurity, border protection) is expected, but a common European army is still unfeasible on the EU level. However, as a first step smaller integrated or semi-integrated armies on a regional level are achievable.
The merge of the Dutch and German armed forces not only highlights a successful close military cooperation on a regional level but also can be viewed as a key component of a Common European Defence Policy. Integrated armies could deliver high operationalization what NATO has, and would facilitate the possibility of a successful, coordinated response.
Another main obstacle of a common European army is the sovereignty of a member state and its army. Regarding the Dutch-German integrated army, Kajsa Ollongren said, “It won’t impact the sovereignty of the Dutch army”. If the sovereignty of the armies can be maintained both in the Netherlands and Germany, even after a full integration, this case can be an example for other regions (for example Scandinavia, the Mediterranean countries) as well, regarding military development.
Baazil, Diederik. ‘Dutch Military Merges Its Land Combat Units With Germany’. Bloomberg.Com, 30 March 2023. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-30/dutch-military-merges-its-land-combat-units-with-germany.
Bouemar, Victor. ‘EU Collective Defence: What Does France Want?’ Clingendael spectator, 29 September 2021. https://spectator.clingendael.org/en/publication/eu-collective-defence-what-does-france-want.
Bundesregierung. ‘Intergovernmental Consultations in Rotterdam | Federal Government’. Website of the Federal Government | Bundesregierung, 27 March 2023. https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/germany-netherlands-2181674.
Darroch, Gordon. ‘Netherlands to Integrate Last Brigade into German Army This Year: NRC’. DutchNews.Nl (blog), 1 February 2023. https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2023/02/netherlands-to-integrate-last-brigade-into-german-army-this-year-nrc/.
De La Baume, Maïa, and Jacopo Barigazzi. ‘EU Agrees to Give €500M in Arms, Aid to Ukrainian Military in “Watershed” Move’. Politico, 27 February 2022. https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-ukraine-russia-funding-weapons-budget-military-aid/.
Derix, Steven. ‘Nederland en Duitsland bundelen hun landmachten’. NRC, 31 January 2023. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2023/01/31/nederland-en-duitsland-bundelen-hun-landmachten-a4155834.
Deutsche Welle. ‘Macron Calls for New European Security Pact’. dw.com, 19 January 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/macron-proposes-security-pact-to-make-europe-a-power-of-the-future/a-60482625.
Hoffmann, Lars. ‘German Armed Forces To Integrate Sea Battalion Into Dutch Navy’. Defense News, 5 February 2016. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2016/02/05/german-armed-forces-to-integrate-sea-battalion-into-dutch-navy/.
Mil, Duncan. ‘Dutch-German Military Merge’. Graphic News. Accessed 11 April 2023. https://www.graphicnews.com/en/pages/44132/military-dutch-german-military-merge-1.
Ministerie van Defensie. ‘13 Light Armoured Brigade Completes Integration between Dutch Combat Brigades and German Divisions - News Item - Defensie.Nl’. Nieuwsbericht. Ministerie van Defensie, 30 March 2023. https://english.defensie.nl/latest/news/2023/03/30/13-light-armoured-brigade-completes-integration-between-dutch-combat-brigades-and-german-divisions.
Thomas, O’Reilly. ‘The Netherlands To Fully Integrate Military With Germany’. The European Conservative, 13 February 2023. https://europeanconservative.com/articles/news/the-netherlands-to-fully-integrate-military-with-germany/.
Virkkunen, Henna. ‘The EU’s Mutual Defence Clause? Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union’. European View 21, no. 1 (1 April 2022): 22–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/17816858221089370.