In July members of NATO alliance formally invited Macedonia to join its ranks. However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance will not accept Macedonia as a member unless it finalizes an agreement with neighbor Greece to change its name to North Macedonia, to address Greek concerns that its name implies a claim against the Greek region of Macedonia’s territory and ancient heritage.
Yet, US top lawmakers start to question the whole issue of NATO further enlargement.
Addressing Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul referred to last year’s accession of Montenegro to NATO. “I think there has to be some discussion,” Paul said. “Do we want everybody in NATO? Is there no limitations to who we’ll put in NATO? Does it dilute the value of NATO? Is it provocative?”
US President Donald Trump has long criticized NATO claiming the military alliance benefitted "the EU far more than the US", calling it "obsolete" and insisting Germany owed "vast sums of money to NATO". At last week's NATO summit in Brussels he continued to demand EU nations pay more for the collective security they receive from the US.
Trump's main issue with NATO is that EU partners do not meet the 2% GDP spending targets. While he focused on Germany (1.22%) and Italy (1.15%), only four countries apart from the US currently meet this funding level. During the summit Trump suggested contributions be raised to 4%, and afterwards promised payments would soon be increased.
Trump also criticized Germany for being too dependent on Russian gas, repeating an attack made earlier this year: "They want to protect against Russia, and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we're the schmucks paying for the whole thing".
None of this was unexpected. In 2011 US defense secretary Robert Gates saw "a dim if not dismal future" for NATO. Even Mr. Trump's more popular predecessor Barack Obama spoke out against "free riders". And in many ways US irritation with Europe is seen elsewhere: EU support for the Iran deal, a perceived hostility to Israel, and a lingering feeling the EU was "set up to take advantage of the US" and "kill us on trade".
While many credit NATO with reducing French-German rivalry after Word War II, blocking the threat of Soviet expansion, and providing military security for Eastern Europe, more voices are being raised to question if NATO is the most productive form of cooperation for the future.
The issue then remains: how realistic is an independent pan-European defense force? If the US is going cold over NATO, could some form of European army become a reality?
The Centre for European Reform (CER) believes such an army is unlikely. Although there is a European Defense Agency, an EU Battle Group and a European Air Transport Command, control over national armed forces remains under the control of national governments. There are small scale combined military forces including Nordic Defense Cooperation for Scandinavian countries, and units comprising French, Germany and Dutch troops. These are, however, limited in scope and size.
There is no supra-national defense authority to coordinate military action. As a result, the CER notes, just one nation could veto it. Since each nation has its own risk and defense cultures this has meant no such joint forces have ever been deployed. Arguments over budgets and cost allocation have also blocked development.
EU states have different defense priorities. Ireland values its neutrality, and points out the EU Lisbon Treaty makes no provision for joint military activity. While calls by France, the strongest EU military power, to form a united force are criticized as plans to support its own ventures, particularly during its interventions in Mali. British MEP Geoffrey van Orden dismissed any EU army as "a French foreign legion paid for by the Germans".
Plans for an EU army were originally drawn up after World War II, only to be blocked in 1954 by France. However, the hostility of Donald Trump, the perceived threat from Russia, and the loss of the British military after Brexit have all added weight to calls for strengthening a combined EU force.
In Germany a 2017 survey among 200 senior defense figures showed the majority saw some combined EU force as preferable to NATO. The think tank Friends of Hope also conducted a poll indicating 51% of Germans approved of a joint EU army with its own budget.
Austerity cuts among EU governments have also focused minds on cost-savings and efficiencies: with Germany announcing in 2017 that it did not have enough frigates to engage in NATO, EU and UN missions. And that it would take 15 years to return spending on the military to pre-crisis levels.
The European Council for Foreign Relations states "Germans are worried the US under Trump may start a war and drag NATO and thus Germany into it". While Christine Molling of the German Council for Foreign Relations notes "The US has been moving out of Europe and more towards Asia... It's become harder to define common interests between Americans and Europeans".
President Macron of France spoke in 2017 of an EU military force of "a smaller group of countries that have common analysis and procedures" for both armed and humanitarian goals. Other defense sources in France have noted that following Brexit "a multilateral project makes sense when everything is being broken up".
Military analyst Paul Taylor told Deutsche Welle in December 2017 that after Brexit more progress was made towards an EU army in 12 months than in the previous quarter of a century, as Britain was seen as the most resistant to military collaboration.
In his latest state of the union address, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for a European Defense Union by 2025, claiming "we need it and NATO needs it". The first steps towards this were taken in 2018 when Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was founded to increase EU-wide participation in specified military projects including surveillance, cyber threats, strategic command and armoured infantry.
May 2018 also saw the announcement of a $20bn budget towards further military integration. MEP Guy Verhofstadt confirmed this project would "reduce duplication and increase efficiency". He added the EU nations spent only around 45% of the US military budget, and such low levels of spending were not suitable.
Despite practical issues, political differences, budget constraints and a lack of any well-defined end objective, the momentum towards greater EU military integration is growing, even if in baby steps. The extent to which this military force complements or replaces NATO will depend on ongoing US-EU tensions. But the level of political will to create such a force is the highest it has been for decades.