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CSDP: what is it good for?

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Sven Biscop asks his readers to look back at and question the original raison d’être of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

This commentary appeared in European Geostrategy on 31 March 2015.

(Photo credit: European Council, © European Union 2004-2014)


CSDP: what is it good for?


Does anyone remember the original reason why the European, now Common, Security and Defence Policy (first ESDP, now CSDP) was created?

It was certainly not so that the European Union (EU) could have just one or two battlegroups on stand-by. Ever since the battlegroup scheme was launched, it has been a dominant theme in the deliberations on the CSDP. And it risks remaining so for a long time, for it presents a problem that cannot be solved. No matter how much the EU tries to perfect the scheme, the actual deployment of a battlegroup will always be a matter of coincidence: when a crisis occurs, does it fit the interests and political will, and the financial means, of the Member States whose forces happen to be on stand-by? Unless common funding is established and command authority over the battlegroups on stand-by is transferred to the Council, which could then decide on deployment by a majority vote, this is an insoluble conundrum. And thus the debate can go on and on – the perfect excuse not to have to talk about the actual objective of the CSDP.

At the inception of the CSDP, Member States were much more ambitious. ‘To develop an autonomous capacity to take decisions and, where NATO as a whole is not engaged, to launch and conduct EU-led military operations in response to international crises’: this was the purpose agreed upon by the European Council in Helsinki in 1999. The definition of the ‘Petersberg Tasks’ in the Treaty on European Union made clear that this included peace enforcement, i.e. war, alongside classic peacekeeping, military assistance, evacuation, and humanitarian support. To this end, the European Council defined the Headline Goal: the ambition to deploy up to a corps-size formation (50,000 to 60,000 troops), within one or two months, and to sustain it for at least one year. However, the Headline Goal was last heard of during the 2008 French EU Presidency and has been completely overshadowed by the battlegroups. But even if the battlegroup scheme worked as desired, would that really greatly increase the EU’s capacity to act? In which of the crises going on at the time of writing (Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali…) would deploying a battalion-size battlegroup make a difference?

Clearly, the original raison d’être of the CSDP needs to be brought back to the attention of today’s political, diplomatic and military decision-makers.

Unfortunately, ambiguity about the raison d’être was precisely the mechanism that made the CSDP possible in the first place. The CSDP is a Franco-British creation (something which the latter need to be reminded of more than the former). In 1998, at their annual bilateral meeting, held that year in St. Malo, the UK and France agreed to try and stimulate capability development by launching a European scheme. For Britain, the primary framework in which strategy would be set and decisions made on when and where to use those capabilities remained NATO. France believed that European capability development should also lead to autonomous European operations, outside the framework of NATO.

Rather than eventually resolving itself, that fundamental ambiguity has continued to handicap the CSDP, which has never enjoyed the full support of all Member States. The end result is that it has never reached its full potential in either dimension: capability development or operations.

An elaborate process was conceived to fulfil the Headline Goal, and the European Defence Agency (EDA) was set up to urge Member States to invest in collective solutions for the priority shortfalls. But by depriving the EDA of the budget to initiate projects itself, capitals have ensured that capability development remains an almost entirely bottom-up process, nearly completely reliant on national initiative and hence protective of national industrial interests. Even so, the CSDP remains the most promising avenue for collective European capability development. The European Commission can be increasingly involved, certainly in research but even in actual (dual-use) projects. Today though that promise is evident more because nations’ performance in other frameworks is even more meagre than because of the CSDP’s own achievements. Collective capability development has never been NATO’s forte. Instead, the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) generates national targets, while the organisation’s Smart Defence initiative never really took off. Pooling and Sharing between Member States in regional clusters complements but cannot replace the EDA’s efforts, for no cluster can achieve the critical mass required to develop strategic enablers. EDA projects have started (on air-to-air refuelling, satellite communication, drones and cyber defence), but for these to produce new platforms and more capability, many more Member States will have to invest a lot more money – and these are just some of the priority shortfalls.

Elaborate institutions were also established to allow the EU to launch military operations and civilian missions – but not an operational headquarters, hence command and control of the military operations has to be outsourced to either NATO or a Member State. Nor has the EU been endowed with even sufficient planning capacity for the permanent prudent planning that would be needed to translate excellent intelligence and awareness into policy options for the full range of EU external action, civilian and military. The result is a decision-making structure that certainly works for operations planned long in advance and even, if Member States want it to, for rapid reaction. But that structure’s lack of planning capacity means that it is not in itself systematically proactive enough to make the EU the platform of choice for addressing urgent security crises. Indeed, when force has to be used, Member States, even those who regularly stress that the CSDP covers the full spectrum of military operations, rarely choose to deploy under the EU flag, but systematically opt for NATO or coalitions of the willing when fighting is expected.

In the end, it boils down again to the issue of the raison d’être: What do the nations of Europe really want to be able to do in security and defence? And how much of that do they want to do through the CSDP?

While Europeans themselves may remain undecided, the United States does not. Seen from Washington, there is only one potential strategic competitor for the US: China. Hence the ‘pivot’ of American strategy. That pivot hinges on Europe: the more Europeans can take care of their own business, the more confidently the US can focus on Asia. And there is no want of business, as both Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhood are in turmoil. Therefore the US does not only want Europeans to contribute to conventional deterrence under NATO’s Article 5 and to American-led crisis management operations. In non-Article 5 scenarios around Europe, Washington expects Europeans themselves to initiate and lead crisis management in their periphery, preferably at an early stage, when a crisis has not yet escalated and can still be contained without relying too heavily on American assets. In other words, those Member States that are still seeking to please the US by curbing the development of the CSDP would be well advised to note that Washington is now actively promoting at least regional European strategic autonomy, i.e. crisis management without the US in Europe’s own neighbourhood. Under which flag they do it, the US does not care, as long as they do it. So whether it be NATO, the CSDP or an ad hoc coalition that takes charge, it will increasingly have to be Europeans who take the initiative.

The strategic situation thus ought to compel Europeans to revive their original ambition for autonomy and to reassess the role of the various foundations of the European security architecture: the EU and its CSDP, NATO, and the nations. Ultimately there is only one security architecture and the issue is not which part of it does what, but whether what has to be done gets done, with maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

The EU is best placed to answer the big strategic question: which responsibilities does Europe want to assume as a security actor outside its borders? For that is a function of overall foreign policy, including trade, development and diplomacy as well as defence, which only the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), in close coordination with the Commission, covers in a comprehensive manner. This much is certain: Europeans must take the lead in stabilising their own broad neighbourhood, stretching out into the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and even the Gulf, and into the Caucasus and perhaps Central Asia – for if they do not, nobody else is likely to do it for them. That includes their maritime borders, but as a global trading power Europe must also contribute to global maritime security, notably in Asia. And as a defender of a rules-based international order, it must contribute when the United Nations decide to act if the rules are broken.

For the same reason – the comprehensiveness of its external action – the EU ought to be the default platform for crisis management in an actual contingency: to assess what is happening, to decide how important it is, to settle what has to be done, and to forge the coalition that can do it. When military action is decided upon, parts of the NATO command structure will often be called for to conduct the operation.

The military capabilities which these responsibilities for autonomous non-Article 5 scenarios require should also be defined by the EU. The CSDP mechanisms are more than fit for that purpose. At the very least, Europeans ought to be able to achieve the Headline Goal autonomously within their neighbourhood, i.e. to be able to deploy up to a corps relying on European enablers only. For most Member States this implies revising upwards their national targets as to how many troops they want to be capable of deploying and sustaining. Why is it that so many capitals seem capable of thinking only in terms of projecting companies instead of battalions? Those companies will not suffice to generate a corps.

This European level of ambition for autonomous action should be incorporated into the NDPP, so that a capability mix can be designed that will allow the European allies and partners / EU Member States to meet both their collective defence obligations and their expeditionary requirements. These capabilities can then be developed and acquired through collective European projects under the aegis of the EDA (certainly for the strategic enablers, which will be a welcome boost for the European defence industry) in combination with radical pooling of assets in regional clusters so as to eliminate all redundancies. Ensuring operability among Europeans and between European and other Allies and partners through manoeuvres is again a task for NATO.

Finally, NATO’s collective defence of course remains the ultimate guarantee of Europe’s security. But it should be seen as such: an ultimate guarantee. Before considering what reassurance they can seek from the US, Europeans ought first to think of what contribution they want to make to global security. All of this will require a profound strategic debate among Europeans. But the world will not stop while they deliberate. Ultimately, the raison d’être of the European security architecture and of the CSDP in particular is not its ability to talk about security, but to deliver security.