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CSDP: there is something there that was not there before

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In the third concluding article in our “The CSDP: National Perspectives” series, Jo Coelmont argues that while ‘CSDP fatigue’ is in fashion a number of significant developments make the Policy as relevant today as it has ever been.

This article was published on March the 26th 2015 in European Geostrategy.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


CSDP: there is something there that was not there before



Europe is facing two major, intertwined, crises. First, the financial and economic crises have led to a policy of austerity and to an inward-looking group of member states and European Union (EU). Second, the return of geopolitics has put Europe’s neighbourhood in flames. After the crisis in Ukraine, and in particular after a series of remarkable (side) actions taken by Russia to harass specific European countries, the first reaction of Europeans was to lean on NATO. Yet, if the Union, as the world’s leading trade power, is about the economy, it is also about international stability, security and indeed defence. Nevertheless, sharing ‘CSDP fatigue’ is apparently more fashionable than pooling efforts to ensure that the CSDP is upgraded. Still, we ought to keep in mind that all EU policies have been forged in crisis situations, especially after an initial repli sur soi generated sufficient frustration to seek more Union. As for the CSDP – which is in hibernation at the moment – there are now more than half a dozen things out there that were not there before, which constitute an urgent wake-up call.

‘Events’. The major security crises we are witnessing at present are but symptoms of the new historical era we have just entered: one that is characterised by a major power shift. History teaches us that such an era goes hand-in-hand with a series of conflicts. It is no longer just about some ‘events, dear boy, events’, popping up in a system of crystallised international relations. This is the return of geopolitics, promising decades of turmoil and even war. History also teaches us that the only way out is ever more structured international cooperation. A return to a concert of ‘sovereign’ national states forging ad hoc coalitions along the road will generate no greater results (or catastrophes) than in the past. Today, dealing with geostrategic issues is the prerogative of countries the size of a continent or of political constructions representing a continent. Therefore ‘towards an ever closer Union’ no longer sounds like a religious psalm. It is a call for realism and a pragmatic approach to forge a unity of effort.

‘The indispensable partner’. The US security strategy is characterised by its continuity. The recently published 2015 National Security Strategy, while pointing to ‘power shifts; increasing interdependence; and ongoing power struggles in several regions’ makes pretty clear the US ambition to remain the primus inter pares: militarily, politically and economically. It is also made clear that to that end the US needs to look for ‘capable partners’. Europe is seen as ‘the indispensable partner’. But the US call for partnerships stretches to countries and allies ‘from Asia to Europe’. The 2015 NSS further stipulates that the US ‘is and will remain a Pacific power’ and will continue to look at Asia as ‘the’ region offering in the future ‘historic’ opportunities, without ignoring ‘the risk of escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific’. With regard to Asia, the US is not pivoting but simply keeping its strategy in line with the new realities out there. After all, the world’s economic centre of gravity is on the move, away from Europe. Still, Europeans may enjoy a privileged relationship with the US, however no longer a unique one.

NATO is still considered by the US as an instrument that contributes to its national security. Now that the Alliance is again focussed on collective defence, the US has recently provided ‘reassurance’ as to its Article 5 commitment towards us Europeans (and indirectly towards its Asian partners). For collective defence, NATO is indispensable to the US and vital to Europeans.

As for crisis management, it is clear that the US will act, but selectively. The US has no intention of trying to solve all of the world’s problems any longer. That goes for the Middle East, for Africa and even for some of Europe’s problems. Through NATO the US is not only looking at European countries to participate in crisis management operations. Indeed, through its partnerships, the Alliance is offering a unique forum to forge interoperability with a series of countries from across the world. However, such a network of partnerships may well pave the way to systematically set up ad hoc coalitions outside NATO. This is not without precedent. Is NATO shifting from an Alliance to an instrument?

The main threat to EU member states is to lose NATO because of their weakness, individually and collectively, due to a (so far) persistent reluctance to forge a CSDP that is able to set up military operations autonomously and to effectively complement the Alliance in the more civilian aspects of crisis management.

‘Frustration’. So far CSDP military operations, and civil missions for that matter, have but occasionally generated durable solutions. As for the military operations, on the ground the military objectives have been reached each and every time, which is quite unique in the world. However, the lack of a comprehensive approach, in particular the absence of an economic follow up once the military phase ended, explains the absence of lasting results. Regarding the more civilian or civil-military missions, in particular those oriented to security sector reform, they were generally limited to administering a homeopathic dose when actually the real stuff was needed, with the known results. Politically this gives the impression of a CSDP acting on the basis of a (well-intentioned) boy-scout approach as opposed to a comprehensive strategy. The net result is frustration all over.

Additional frustration stems from the fact that member states still remain unable to solve the commonly identified shortfalls in military capabilities, from not being able to develop an adequate cost sharing mechanism, and from the inability at the EU level to act preventively because of the lack of planning capabilities and inadequate arrangements to set up an Headquarters.

At the time, shared frustrations about what happened – or did not happen – in Yugoslavia led to the European Security and Defence Policy. Later, member states, though politically divided over the war in Iraq, were united in common frustration at having no impact on events, and they thus created the CSDP. At present frustration of the same magnitude is rising, which calls for change.

‘Use of force’. A persistent lack of consensus among member states on the use of force is often invoked as a reason why considering any further development of the CSDP is pointless. However, convergence is underway. At first, for the so-called neutral, the CSDP has always been judged as being completely in line with their policy. These countries, with their experience in UN Blue Helmet operations, provided valuable contributions to CSDP operations right from the start. Germany, one of the big member states, in a relatively short timeframe has taken historical moves, from restricting their military to operate only in the framework of NATO’s Article 5 to taking part in crisis management operations in the context of NATO and the EU alike. At present, Germany is taking the lead in projects aimed at improving multinational defence cooperation through the Framework Nations Concept. Key in this concept is the assurance that when push comes to shove everyone will show up. All this to say that on conflict prevention, crisis management and peacebuilding – the raison d’être of CSDP – there is a growing consensus to see the military in given circumstances as ‘the’ catalyst for implementing a comprehensive approach to EU external action.

‘A process’. In 2012, after taking part in NATO’s Chicago summit, followed by the G10 and G20 meetings, the then President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, took the initiative to put defence on the agenda of its meetings. The December 2013 European Council meeting can already now be qualified as a historic one for several reasons. For one thing, defence is now Chefsache. Top-down steering is henceforth to complement the bottom-up approach. Secondly, the Commission is on board. An important step to integrate the internal and external dimensions across the spectrum of security and defence has thus been taken. Together with the EDA, the Commission is to develop policies to support the European defence industry. As for dual-use systems, in the future the Commission may often be a customer among others. Specific programmes to address strategic capability shortfalls will henceforth be discussed at the level of Heads of State and Government. In short, a Defence Matters process has started. And in the EU process matters.

‘A strategy’. Moreover, the European Council introduced a remarkable novelty by tasking, albeit using rather opaque language, the High Representative with developing nothing less than a European Strategy on Security and Defence. The first steps to that end will be taken in June. A strategy may sound as an academic luxury, but it is in the first place an organising principle. It matters, in particular in the area of security and defence. We know a strategy without capabilities to be but a hallucination. On the other hand, expecting to be able to gather the required capabilities without having a strategy is an illusion. The many white books, strategies or concepts on security and defence developed within countries and defence organisations, such as NATO, exist for a reason. At the EU level a strategy is needed to resolve the outstanding issues at the political-strategic, the operational and capabilities levels. As an organising principle a strategy is indispensable to do away with turf battles within and among the Commission, the External Action Service, the EDA and indeed member states. An EU strategy is in the first place about ensuring unity of effort at all times, for instance regardless if a crisis emerges in the East or in the South.

In preparing this June meeting of the European Council, the High Representative is said to favour a broad approach, looking beyond the CSDP. Rightly so, after all the CSDP is but one of the EU’s foreign policy instruments, next to so many others ranging from humanitarian assistance, development, cyber, and energy to trade. For all these policies a strategy is to define: who is to do what, where, when and with what means. The question about the how was answered by the 2003 Security Strategy: comprehensively. In short, this strategy in the making is the unique instrument to ensure comprehensiveness. Comprehensiveness at last.

‘Taboos’. Until recently, developing a security and defence strategy within the Union was rather taboo. Agreeing to disagree on strategy was considered wiser. From history we know that political taboos point to very sensitive and most important issues. Such a taboo may crystallise a status quo for long periods until its sudden death unleashes completely new policies. The reunification of Germany is a case in point. At the moment, talking about a European Army is still taboo, at least in some political circles. Is this just an illusion cherished by the few remaining diehard believers in the finalité politique of European integration – or is this a unique way to restore the sovereignty of the individual member states at a level consistent with the magnitude of the common problem to be resolved? Time will tell. However, either we will pragmatically and gradually forge more unity in European Defence, or, at a point in time, the sudden death of one the very last taboos in the Union will force us to adapt all at once – hopefully before any catastrophe has occurred.

The ingredients for making a CSDP fit for purpose are all out there. The first promising steps have already been taken. CSDP fatigue is doomed to evaporate rather soon.