Sea power: not a concept many would associate with the EU. Yet it was put to the fore at the very start of the Maritime Security Conference organized by the EDA, the Luxembourg Presidency of the EU, and the Ministry of Defence of Cyprus in Nicosia on 12-13 November, which I had the opportunity to attend (and on which I offer some personal reflections). And rightfully so, for maritime security is vital to European interests. But it begs the question: Does the EU really aspire to sea power? Does the Union even want to be a power at all?
At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Lord Nelson, when ordered to abort the attack that his part of the British fleet was about to undertake, famously put his telescope to his blind eye, declared not to see any signal, and pressed ahead anyway. (And, fortunately for him, won a brilliant victory, or our hero would have risked execution, pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire said of the British and their admirals). European admirals today seem to be in the opposite position: with both eyes wide open they scan the horizon with their binoculars, but no orders are in sight. What is European strategy?
In Search of Strategy
Since 2014 we do have an EU Maritime Security Strategy, which opens with the statement that Europe has “strategic interests” in “the global maritime domain”. What follows however is less a strategy (i.e. ends, ways and means) than a set of operating principles, without defining clear objectives. It is striking that both in the document and at the conference all refer to a global challenge, but when it comes down to action, we mostly limit ourselves to the regional: the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa. As if the Indian Ocean and the Pacific were none of our concern. Of course, foreign and security policy to a large extent will always be determined by events. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and especially the tragedy of the refugees in the Mediterranean evidently absorb the attention today. But they cannot be our only focus, certainly not as a driver for future capability development – unless we want our navies reduced to a coast guard. Asking that question of an admiral produces as predictable an answer as asking of a cavalryman whether he wouldn’t rather be in the infantry, digging trenches.
To convince our publics and parliaments of the continued need for a blue water navy that can operate across the entire spectrum, our navies need arguments. That means: a definition of a longer-term, more comprehensive level of ambition, geared to the global challenges to maritime security. Fortunately, the debate about a new EU Global Strategy, to be adopted in June 2016, provides an excellent opportunity to do just that: to anchor the Maritime Security Strategy in an overall strategy.
One of the key questions to be addressed by the Global Strategy is which responsibilities Europe wants to assume as a security provider. The question is not whether Europeans will act upon these under the EU or the NATO or an ad hoc flag, but what Europeans are resolved to do alone, if necessary, under any flag. That is a question of grand strategy that can only be addressed at the EU level. The answer can subsequently guide efforts in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and NATO alike.
I see four responsibilities, all of them with important naval implications.
First, our armed forces have a role in contributing to the internal and border security of the EU. Part of that role is saving lives. The EU naval operation in the Mediterranean alone will not solve the refugee crisis, and it is important to state that it won’t. Just as important is that it is saving thousands from drowning, and that has to be stated as well. Obscuring its aims for political reasons has never helped any military operation, nor in the end any political leader. Besides, deploying European navies will directly reduce the burden of search and rescue on our merchant vessels. The answer to the demands of border security is not to turn our navies into coast guards, for once abandoned, the higher-end capabilities will never come back. Navies that are capable of higher-end operations are capable of lower end operations as well, as one part of a comprehensive approach integrating navies, coast guards and police.
Second, Europe has to take the lead in maintaining peace and stability in its own broad neighbourhood, including the adjacent waters, for nobody else will automatically do that for us. While the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden are on the radar screen, more efforts and means must go into implementing the already decided strategy for the Gulf of Guinea. Europe’s role must precisely be to act early, before a problem escalates. The Black Sea ought not to be a black hole in European strategic thinking: the crisis in Ukraine should have demonstrated its importance once and for all. The deployment of the French carrier Charles de Gaulle (with the Belgian frigate Leopold I among its escort) from Toulon to the Persian Gulf in the framework of the campaign against the IS is a clear demonstration that, alas, not all security problems in our broad neighbourhood can be solved by lower-end engagement (such as capacity-building).
Third, Europeans have to contribute to preserving the freedom of the global commons, including space, cyber space, and worldwide maritime security. One of the greatest challenges to the latter is the escalation of tensions involving one or more of the great powers. For sure, European diplomacy is the primary instrument to avert this threat. But such diplomacy can be underpinned by naval assets, not just to assert the importance that Europe attaches to maritime security in, e.g., the South China Sea, but as an active tool to create confidence- and security-building measures by engaging in exchange of expertise, joint education, training and exercises, and even patrolling, with local partners. ASEAN is a key partner for the EU, but to increase confidence inclusive partnerships can be sought, than encompass China rather than encircle it. Our cooperation with the navies of China, India, Japan and many others in the Gulf of Aden provides the surest base for such creative partnership.
Fourth, we need an effective UN because without it, our own operational effectiveness is limited, as shown by the limits placed on operations in the Mediterranean by the absence of a Security Council mandate. For the collective security system of the UN to be effective, Europe must contribute more, not only when the UN acts in areas of direct interest to Europe, but beyond.
No one can assume responsibility without capacity. With ongoing operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean, Europe’s naval capabilities are already severely stretched. If the future Global Strategy confirms the truly global outlook that the Maritime Security Strategy opens with, it will need to be translated into realistic but real military requirements. The idea is gaining ground that the Global Strategy will have to be followed up by a white book or similar document (in effect an update of the existing Headline Goal), which would therefore have to contain a strong naval chapter.
One thing is certain: for navies as for the other forces, far-reaching pooling and sharing will increasingly be the only way of maintaining and hopefully increasing significant capabilities across the spectrum. Far-reaching must be read as integrated: a combination of permanent pooling of assets and of dividing tasks between countries will generate real synergies and effects of scale, as Belgian-Dutch naval cooperation has proved. But pooling and sharing has no sense if there is no will to use the resulting capabilities. The EDA has successfully created the maritime surveillance tool MARSUR. If our navies when deployed on EU operations in the Mediterranean don’t use it, how will they convince their political masters of the need for more investment?
Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop is director of the Europe in the World programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and teaches at Ghent University and at the College of Europe in Bruges. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.