BERLIN, March 27 (UPI) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union should aim to create a common army within the next 50 years, an ambitious and at the same time controversial plan.
"We need to get closer to a common army for Europe," Merkel last week told German daily Bild.
Proponents of an EU army cite the greater efficiency for such a multinational force: The EU's member states have some 1.9 million soldiers -- 50 percent more than the United States -- and spend roughly $250 billion a year on military means, yet the effectiveness of these armies is one-tenth of the U.S. military.
A European army could save a significant amount of money, with smaller states focusing on individual military components, rather than having to build up a full military arsenal. And then there is of course the greater political clout a militarized EU would have, some say.
"We will not become a global player if we don't have a common military," Günter Verheugen, the EU's industry commissioner, told German news channel n-tv.
The first meaningful steps toward an EU army were taken in 1992, when the war in the Balkans handed Europe's leaders a wake-up call that the EU needed a common military positioning. At the time, the body in Maastricht, Netherlands, created the concept of the European Security and Defense Policy, which was concretized seven years later. In 1999 the EU decided it was willing to embark on joint humanitarian, rescue, peacekeeping and war missions.
Several EU brigades have been created in the past years, starting with the multinational Eurocorps, a force that consists of up to 60,000 soldiers drawn from the armies of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Spain.
The latest EU military project has been the implementation of the EU Battle Groups, highly mobile rapid intervention units with roughly 1,500 soldiers each that can be deployed independently from NATO. The EU wants each battle group to be able to be launched within 10 days from command. The first two have been ready since earlier this year.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the battle groups were only a first step.
"We want to continue on this route during our presidency, and create the necessary preconditions for naval and air forces, to in the long run get to a European army," Jung told n-tv.
Several costly military projects have been tackled by pooling resources, such as the Eurocopter military helicopter or the Eurofighter jet plane.
The 27-member body in the past has successfully launched numerous stability and peacekeeping missions, with the most media-heavy being in the former Yugoslavia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most recently, in Lebanon.
Nevertheless, the EU still has a long way to get to a joint army, and several hurdles plaster that route.
One is the lack of political unity when it comes to military missions; the most visible spat was during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which virtually divided Europe in half.
London, one of Washington's closest allies, has been traditionally suspicious of an EU army that some fear could compete with U.S.-dominated NATO.
Henning Riecke, an EU expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said an EU army should not be directed against NATO.
"A European army would need political unity. ... NATO has capabilities that the EU doesn't have; what NATO does in Afghanistan could not be done by an EU army, so the need for cooperation would still exist in the future," he told United Press International in a telephone interview. "What the EU needs is a set of clear common policies to create a military union that exists alongside NATO without being a competitor."
Europe, Riecke added, is multifaceted as it takes into account its partnership with Russia as well as its alliance with the United States, and also banks on civil reconstruction efforts that go along with a security mission.
Peter Schmidt, a European security and defense policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based think tank, told UPI that an EU army would also need a fortified political basis.
"It's difficult to form a real army without a state," he said.
Merkel also told Bild that the EU Constitution, a political dream for 2009, will not mean that there will be a European federal state. "We will maintain the diversity of the nation states," she said.
A new EU Constitution would likely turn the 27-member body into something in between both models, and if successfully adopted, such a constitution would surely ease the way to an EU army, both experts said.