BRUSSELS - The president of the European Commission has urged fellow EU leaders to build up the bloc’s military capabilities in order to take a more active role in defence and security crises.

An EU force could be “part of the solution”, said Ursula von der Leyen in her annual State of the European Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that the bloc needed the “political will" to intervene without a US-led Nato, added the Commission chief, who announced that an EU defence summit will be held in France next year.

Her argument that “it is time for Europe to step up to the next level” by developing an EU military is by no means a new one. Indeed, her call has been met with “huge scepticism, even exasperation” at the resurfacing of “an idea that has long been discussed”, said BBC Brussels correspondent Jessica Parker.

So what are the arguments for and against an EU army?

‘Defending EU values’

The hypothetical EU military would supersede the existing Common Security and Defence Policy, which entails collective self-defence among member states, and would go beyond the proposed European Defence Union, the body that oversees security and defence decisions.

In 2015, then European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also called for an EU army, to ensure the bloc would be “taken entirely seriously” as an international force.

Pushes for an EU-force appears to have played out well with the public. A 2017 Eurobarometer poll collated by Statista found that 74% of respondents in the Netherlands and Belgium supported the idea. In France and Germany, backing for the proposal stood at 65% and 55% percent respectively.

However, support was markedly lower in many of the EU’s traditionally more neutral countries, including Austria (45%), Ireland (46%), Finland (42%) and Sweden (40%). In the UK, only 39% of survey respondents were in favour.

Addressing MEPs in Strasbourg this week, von der Leyen argued that “there will be missions where Nato or the UN will not be present but where Europe should be”.

The concept of an EU army would be debated during next year’s summit on European defence, she added, and discussions will be held about “why this has not worked in the past”.

Not without Nato

The UK government spoke out against the formation of an EU army following Juncker’s 2015 intervention. A Downing Street spokesperson said that the UK was “crystal clear that defence is a national - not an EU - responsibility.”

Then PM David Cameron had previously “blocked moves to create EU-controlled military forces”, reported The Guardian, and had said that while “defence cooperation between member states” was “desirable”, it was not “right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and all the rest of it”.

The argument that an EU military would be an overreach of the bloc’s influence is central to opposition to the formation of such a force.

Merkel’s 2018 comments to the European Parliament in favour of an EU army “drew some loud boos from Eurosceptics”, Politico reported, with then Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage “saying her remarks made him even happier” that the UK was leaving the bloc.

Other critics of the proposal include Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has warned that an EU force “cannot defend Europe” without Nato assistance.

Stoltenberg told the AFP news agency earlier this year that he supported “EU efforts on defence”, because “more defence spending, new military capabilities and addressing the fragmentation of the European defence industry” is “good for European security, for transatlantic security, for all of us”.

“All these efforts - as long as they complement Nato - we welcome them,” he continued, “but the EU cannot defend Europe. More than 90% of the people in the EU live in a Nato country. But only 20% of Nato’s defence spending comes from Nato EU members.”