Is there something happening in European defence?

By Mario Laborie Iglesias 


Here is a look at the prospects and major challenges for the EU’s common security and defence in 2016.

EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), an integral part of its common foreign and security policy, should, at least in theory, constitute the most obvious manifestation of the political will of EU member states to promote European values ​​and interests, and contribute to peace and security worldwide.

However, since its founding in 1999 and for various reasons, CSDP has remained as a second-line priority for European leaders. Little prepared for the use of hard line power, the economic crisis and the downward trends in defence budgets may partly explain this situation. Consequently, although there have been notable advances – 18 missions and civilian and/ or military operations currently up and running – CSDP is, at the moment, far from the situation envisaged in the Treaty of Lisbon, just at a time when the context of security for Europe is deteriorating rapidly.

Indeed, at present the EU faces the greatest threats and risks since its inception. Major changes in the geopolitical environment which are destabilising the new international order that emerged after World War II; the old and new armed conflicts close to European borders; the euro crisis; a new wave of jihadist terrorism; and, above all, mass immigration, which is calling into question some European principles that seemed firmly consolidated, seem to be sufficient arguments to explain the breadth and complexity of the current strategic environment.

As these challenges increase, there is a growing demand for European nations to develop a genuine common security policy involving greater and more efficient cooperation over military capabilities. The idea is that no country can cope alone with the aforementioned challenges, and integration in defence is not only a beneficial alternative, it is crucial for the development of the European project.

As these challenges increase, there is a growing demand for European nations to develop a genuine common security policy involving greater and more efficient cooperation over military capabilities.

The mandate of the European Council in December 2013 and changes in the political leadership of the European institutions, which began after the parliamentary elections in May 2014, promoted the beginning of a process of reviewing CSDP’s parameters. In June last year, the heads of state and government of the Union once again urged the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, to continue with the evaluation of changes in the strategic world context, and to identify their implications, challenges and opportunities for the EU.

In this context, some initiatives are expected to see the light over the course of 2016. First, the European Council in June should seek the approval of the Global Security Strategy (GSS), with a view to a first submission to foreign ministers at their meeting in Amsterdam in early February. The GSS, which is being drafted by various EU institutions, in close coordination with the Member States, is aimed at enabling “the Union to identify a clear set of objectives and priorities for the present and future.” The basic concept is that the EU should harmonise their mechanisms, resources and policies to promote their values ​​and interests globally, while the security of European citizens is guaranteed.

In September 2015, Federica Mogherini proposed to supplement the future GSS with a number of sub-strategies, one in particular devoted to the defence sector. This could take the form of a long-awaited White Paper to clarify the political will of States to develop its defence at European level. This sub-strategy should clarify issues such as the level of ambition of the CSDP, interaction with other international organizations – especially with NATO, which also has a summit in Warsaw next July, with important implications; the strategic concept of the use of European military forces: concrete measures for the integration of forces; the definition of common strategic capabilities to be developed; or the way to simplify the process of decision-making and financing military operations and missions. However, despite its importance, so far, European bodies have not made any statement on the official launch of the White Paper and the chances are that it will have to wait for the approval of the GSS.

For its part, the European Commission is developing the so-called “European Agenda for Security”. In line with the commitment of its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, a “Plan of Action” to strengthen markets and European defence industries has been included within the 2016 working programme. That plan, which aims to ensure an effective EU response to security threats during the period 2017-2020, should replace the Internal Security Strategy adopted in 2010.

Nevertheless, it is the states, through the European Council, who have the last word in the field of security. The role of the Commission is to facilitate cooperation between EU countries to tackle cross-border security issues. Thus, the Action Plan on defence envisages action in various domains and recognizes three priorities: the fight against terrorism and the prevention of radicalisation; the containment of organised crime and combatting cyber threats. This plan, which is expected to start next autumn, will involve different services within the Commission and shall be implemented in close cooperation with the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). Therefore, it is imperative to seek the necessary coherence in the planning and execution of this ambitious project.

Also taking into consideration this European Agenda for Security, in 2017 the Commission plans to launch a preparatory action (PA) on research related to the CSDP. Adopted by the European Council in December 2013, PA is a response to the need to preserve scientific and technological knowledge in defence of the Member States, and to maintain and improve the long term competitiveness of the European defence industry. Given that common research programmes are essential for the promotion of certain military capabilities, the intention is to insert a subject area on CSDP within the next multiannual financial framework: 2021-2027. This initiative made substantial progress in 2015, a year when consultation procedures and ways of participation for the countries concerned were laid down. For 2016, it is expected that the Council and the European Parliament approve its budget and management structures are put in place.

In view of the above initiatives, it appears that something is moving in European defence. However, there are several limitations that prevent the construction of a European foreign policy capable of meeting the security challenges. First, a pragmatic and integrated European spirit is required to develop a CSDP that would go beyond the individual interests of each nation, however it is precisely the extreme complexity of defining common interests which, until now, has weighed down the progression of common European defence.

There are several limitations that prevent the construction of a European foreign policy capable of meeting the security challenges. First, a pragmatic and integrated European spirit is required to develop a CSDP that would go beyond the individual interests of each nation.

But undoubtedly the main obstacle to the further integration of European defence comes from the intransigence on the part of some Member States over ceding sovereignty to EU institutions.

In other words, for the above initiatives to succeed, European countries must be willing to develop new forms of cooperation on the basis of strategic convergence. At the same time, concrete measures and deadlines are needed for better and more efficient integration over defence. Thus, without real political will and leadership, CSDP will continue inevitably to be conditioned by national policies. The challenge is twofold: first, to address the gap between ambitions and capabilities; and secondly, to identify approaches so that the sovereign decisions of each Member State are respected, but at the same time, guaranteeing the right level of solidarity among EU member countries.

It could be concluded that foreign and CSDP action is inextricably linked. That is, an effective foreign policy requires that European leaders clearly identify the strategic priorities and the role the CSDP must perform. Soft power tools are very valuable but European citizens must realise that without military capabilities it is not possible to be a global player which preserves our vital interests. With this in mind, President Juncker indicated several months ago that “Europe is primarily a soft power. However, in the long run, even the most powerful soft power cannot act without having, at least, some integrated defence capabilities.”

All announcements and initiatives cited in this text indicate an awareness of the need for action. But it is worth noting that political and strategic documents are vital only if they are translated into action. The Commission will struggle to promote common defence due to restrictions imposed by its treaties and the refusal of European leaders to share some areas of national sovereignty. Therefore, it is basically up to the leaders of the EU Member States to boost measures which will enable CSDP to make decisive inroads.

In summary, the overall Global Security Strategy, along with a possible White Paper on Defence; the Defence Action Plan and the Preparatory Action on CSDP-related research, will be the key points debated on in European security and defence which countries and citizens will inevitably have to deal with in this crucial year that has just begun.


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