Aleppo, Damascus. Bodies strewn in the streets, gutted neighbourhoods, indiscriminate shelling. Unbearable stories and images that take us straight back to the darkest hours of Sarajevo and Grozny. The killing of whole cities. And no one seems to lift a finger.

The United States is in the midst of an election campaign. As for the Europeans, they couldn’t intervene even if they wanted to.

This European impotence is not only influencing the future outcome of a conflict that has settled down into a long, drawn-out fight; it has contributed to transforming a political conflict into a totally asymmetrical military conflict. The “Potemkin democracy” of Russia has exploited the absence of America and the impotence of Europe.

Europe’s “soft power” is naked. Europe is waiting for November, like it’s waiting for Godot, hoping that the United States will get a move on or that the insurgents will prevail. Little is clear. What is clear is that, looking beyond Syria, Europe must emerge from this unsustainable strategic impossibility.

The question of the strategic weakness of the European countries cannot be viewed solely in the light of the ability (or lack of it) to carry out peacekeeping or peacemaking missions: it goes right to the heart of the tectonic movements that are preoccupying the global strategists. The United States have not only grasped this, but have responded by shifting the centre of gravity of their security policy from the Atlantic to the Pacific and by demanding that the Europeans shoulder greater responsibilities. The latter have responded to that with a new formulation: “spend less and spend better”, or “intelligent defence”.

A common military instrument

If, beyond the matter of money, defence goes to the heart of the sovereign prerogatives of nations, we can leave defence in the strict sense up to the member states and NATO, including the issue of nuclear deterrence, and focus on the consensus that already exists within the Union: “Europe is to uphold the so-called Petersberg Tasks (peacekeeping, peace enforcement and humanitarian missions), while NATO, and therefore the member states, are responsible for keeping the strategic balances,” wrote Jean-Jacques Roche last January.

It is not a matter of merging the armies (or sections of them) of the various member states, but rather of creating alongside them, ex novo, a common European army, with its own staff, its recruitment system, its military schools, its military bases, and its intelligence agencies.

If one assumes an enhanced cooperation that initially ten member countries would join (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal), each transferring 0.2 percent of their GNP – that is, 8 to 20 percent of their respective defence budgets – to a common European army, the annual budget of the latter would amount to almost 18 billion euros. If we add in the British, that budget would exceed 21 billion euros. This is no little sum, considering that it should for the most part be devoted to the projection of force.

A common military instrument would oblige Member States to discuss and decide conjointly whether or not to participate in peacekeeping or peacemaking missions, and to debate the terms of these missions. The instrument would thus help to define a common foreign policy. It would also let Member States finance programs that they are no longer able to manage by themselves. Finally, the common army would let the national armies of participating states benefit from services they are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain on their own, such as surveillance capacities and satellite communications, protection against bacteriological, chemical and nuclear threats, air and sea battle groups, and intelligence-gathering.

If the approach is a “community” one, the political responsibility for the organisation and functioning of this army should lie entirely with the President of the European Commission and a EU Commissioner for security and defence. It would then be up to them to decide whether or not to engage the common army in peacekeeping or peacemaking operations. This decision would be subject to the double approval of the European Parliament and the Council of States participating in the enhanced cooperation. Through the latter, the member states – in particular, the most populous countries among them – would retain a good control over the numbers and very good political control over the decision to use force.

A rare conjunction

This common army would be integrated into NATO as a strategic reserve under terms to be defined by all the members of the Atlantic organisation. The enhanced cooperation would be open to all the EU countries that accept that this common army is an integral part of NATO.

Some would argue that, in the this time of crisis, the EU has other things to worry about. This attitude, though, dismisses the fact that creating such a common European army could bring political credibility to the European project as a whole, including its economic players.

Moreover, the EU budget would, at one stroke, grow by more than 20 percent. The common army would also bring gains from ripple-out effects, in terms of the economic development resulting from the creation of the single currency, in building the main infrastructure in the countries in the south.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Wolfgang Schäuble, the strong man of her government, French President François Hollande, the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, and Mario Monti, Donald Tusk and Mariano Rajoy, the prime ministers of Italy, Poland and Spain – rarely has Europe seen the conjunction of many leading figures with affirmed European convictions. If one adds a British prime minister known for his pragmatism, there are certain reasons to believe that the time is right. The window of opportunity, though, is narrow. Elections will be held next spring in Italy, and then it will be Germany’s turn.

All this has led us far from the tragedy underway in Syria, no doubt. Because even if Europe decided – at last – to tackle head-on the issue of its security policy, it would need time before it became operational. That’s certain. Nevertheless, we can reasonably assume that this European assumption of responsibility could have immediate effects on these countries that today are blocking all initiatives for action by the international community to stop the deadly politics of the Syrian regime.