NEW YORK — The European Union does not need its own army, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis told BuzzFeed News, jumping into a debate that has split Europe's leaders.
"I have been a minister of defense, and I can say my personal opinion is that we don't need a European army," Vējonis said during an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. "We need to strengthen our national armies, yes. Because the largest part of EU countries are NATO members, we are investing a lot in [the] strengthening and development of our national armies."
Discussion of an EU army has revived since the United Kingdom, which stood against a more integrated defense policy, voted to leave the European Union. On Sept. 8, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini revealed a new set of plans to move the idea forward, including establishing a headquarters in Brussels to coordinate future and present military and civilian actions and utilizing rapid-reaction units more.
Mogherini, who has insisted that her proposals don't constitute an EU army, said that post-Brexit there is a “general consensus on the need to move forward in this field.”
Latvian officials, including the foreign minister and prime minister, and those of other former Soviet states have been skeptical, fearing the European initiative would compete with NATO — the military alliance they rely on, particularly at a time when Russia is resurgent.
"The situation in Ukraine opened the eyes of many leaders of countries, not only in the EU but the whole world," Vējonis said, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Vējonis, who has been president since July 2015, said the US had been a "driving force" in responding to the Ukraine crisis and provided the first soldiers to help shore up Latvia's defenses, deploying 150 soldiers to each of the three Baltic states. The US has been criticized for not doing enough to aid Ukraine in responding to the Russia-backed rebels in its east and assuage the worries of other countries that fell within Russia's sphere of influence during the Cold War.
In March, NATO leaders agreed to station up to 4,000 troops in the Baltics and eastern Poland.
Russia has particularly tried to stoke Russian-speaking populations around the former Soviet Union, including through propaganda directed at them. Vējonis dismissed that concern, however, saying of Latvia's Russian-speaking minority, which numbers 200,000 in a country of 1.9 million: "They are very loyal."
Vējonis also said the refugee crisis posed a challenge to the country: "I think it's not necessary to establish a special European army, but at the same time we have to work together to strengthen the borders of our EU," particularly on the union's southern border, which saw the brunt of refugee arrivals.
Vējonis declined to comment directly on the US election but did allude to one of the most controversial statements made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who threatened to not come to the aid of NATO countries who didn't pay their dues.
While not explicitly linking to Trump's statement, Vējonis was quick to highlight his country's commitment to achieving the 2% of GDP spending on defense target that NATO countries have previously agreed upon. "All NATO member states, and all EU members states who are part of NATO, must follow this goal," he said.
Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has implied that the United States would not help a NATO ally in need should it not reach its GDP spending goals, would need to adhere to the terms of NATO if he was elected, Vējonis said.
"We believe that any leader who will be elected ... any leader who will lead the US must follow already agreed things," he said. "We signed this agreement, we ratified this agreement, it means we must follow responsibly all points, to all articles in this agreement, because we are serious countries."
But when asked if there was any fear at all that Trump would attempt to remove the US from the North Atlantic Treaty, which set up NATO, Vējonis hedged. "It's difficult to say," he responded.