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Uncertain reform call meets structural rigidities: The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy in 2016

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Christian Deubner assesses how a strengthened and more binding integration of the external security and defence policies of the EU Member States could improve their security in the Union’s more dangerous geopolitical environment.

(Photo credit:  European Council, © European Union)


Uncertain reform call meets structural rigidities:
The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy in 2016

A strengthened and more binding integration of the external security and defence policies of the EU Member States in the coming years could improve their security in the Union’s more dangerous geopolitical environment. For that to happen, the Member States would have to introduce tangible, qualitative steps involving more mutually binding common decision-making and increased solidarity in their Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

In the past five years new challenges have emerged, resulting from Russia’s aggres­sions in the east of the European continent and from failing states, civil wars, insurgencies and extremist Islamist terrorism to the south and south-east – especially in Afri­ca and the Near East. Even if these challenges themselves are unlikely to reach Europe, their conse­quen­ces do – and they demand a reinforcement of the EU’s external security and defence policy.

But are these game-changing challenges incentives for the EU Member States?

In confronting these challenges, Member States have, as of autumn 2016, retained the choice between either unilateral responses – alone or with an ally – or cooperation. When Member States have opted for cooperation, they have not always preferred the CSDP. In the event of armed aggression against the territory of EU Member States or their allies, the Treaty of Lisbon in combination with the NATO alliance com­pels Member States (except for the neutral states: Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden) to opt for a NATO-coordinated response. Member States have chosen alternative cooperation formats only when faced with other types of armed challenges to their own territory or when taking international security measures. Some Member States frequently join UN crisis management missions. Others chose CSDP cooperation.
As a result, they choose NATO to deal with the Rus­sian challenge to their collective security. Regarding challen­ges in Africa or the Near East, even with high-intensity conflict potential, France and sometimes the United Kingdom had and still have a strong preference for unilateral action – often working with the United States. When reac­ting to the largest-scale chal­len­­ges in the south, as in the D.R.Congo, the South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Ivory Coast, the Member States chose (or chose first) the UN cooperation for­mat (the UN putting 49000 soldiers alone into those countries, with an average share of ca. 5,5% coming from EUMS, in 2015).
Only for the least dangerous crisis-management operations with a low level of expected violence, limited dimensions and (increasingly) with civilian objectives and instruments, have Member States – or rather the willing among them – chosen the CFSP/CSDP cooperation format. Furthermore, they devoted relatively small forces to these efforts com­pared to their contributions to NATO, the UN, or their unilateral operations.

Given this variety of approaches it’s clear that “Europeanising” security and defence would not only require more mutually binding decision-making and solidarity in CSDP, but also that Member States opt much more systematically for CFSP/CSDP cooperation struc­tures. The capabilities formerly directly dedicated to the other options would then flow towards this option.
However, as of summer 2016, the game has not changed, and each of the established co­operation formats continues to function. The CSDP still succeeds in putting into action the kind of missions that the EU Member States actually want. In spite of the CSDP’s weaknesses, no procedural or institutional inno­va­tions have come about.
That absence of change can be explained by the Member States’ double adherence to NATO and CSDP aided by a habit of free-riding on the United States’ European engagement, by the unilate­ra­list preferences of France and the UK, but also by the enormous difficulty of forging true cooperation between community foreign policy and intergovernmental security and defence policy. There remains a fear of casualties and the slowness of demo­cra­tic decision-making in Member States, and the difference in the external risk apprecia­tion of the southern and the eastern Member States. What’s more, doubts remain about the true requirements of any reform, and about Member States’ willingness to face the consequences.

But simultaneously, political elites’ appreciation of these facts has evolved over the past one-and-a-half years. In autumn 2016, with the crisis in the Near East deepening further and the crisis in the Ukraine dragging on, and with African migration increasingly moving into elites’ focus, they now more readily admit to common concerns, and to the urgency of CSDP reforms. Both the Brexit vote and US president-elect Donald Trump’s remarks about a more conditional US defence promise to European allies have certainly added to that changing appreciation of elites.They perceive more incentives, especially given that security policy is increasingly at the forefront of EU citizens’ minds and that public opinion is swinging towards more acceptance of EU cooperation in securi­ty and defence. Elections in France and Germany are also approaching. The desire of elites to be seen as problem-solvers on that front is a first incentive to action. The second is a need to compensate for the frustrating EU malfunctions in trade diplomacy (see the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada), euro governance, and the Schengen domain, by announ­cing new advan­ces in the national core power domain that is defence.

Given past experiences, this only appears feasible if Member States know what they want: either militarily stronger CSDP missions, deployable at shorter notice, for higher intensity conflicts, and more ambitious work on the root causes of threats, or a more cohesive and powerful “European Pillar” in NATO – or both at once. I will outline the three contradictions that must be overcome in this process and the difficulties facing each.

The first is the contradiction between the EU and NATO as vectors of defence cooperation; the second contradiction lies between the civilian and the military elements of the EU’s CFSP/CSDP; and the third contradiction between military unilateralists and advocates of common action in security and defence policy.

  1. The contradiction between the EU and NATO vectors – The most easily under­stood and widely shared aim of the reform advocates of the so-called “European Army” is probably putting more military power into the hands of CSDP leaders. This vision has very different aspects, depending on the eventual nature of that “army’s” mission: to protect/defend the EU Member States’ national territories, or to reinforce the forces available for CSDP missions to Africa and elsewhere. For the first vision, one cannot imagine the Member States putting their armed forces under CSDP command to improve their territorial defence. Why should they infringe on the Lisbon Treaty and endanger the alliance with the United States and Canada? But they could still create a military “European Pillar” within the Alliance which would coordinate their contributions to NATO debates and missions and also to the UN. A reinforcement of Members States’ expeditionary forces, on the other hand, appears to be in full conformity with the Treaty and the Member States’ alliance obligations. It is altogether feasible if and when the EU Member States choose it.


  1. The contradiction between civilian and military efforts – It would be hard to fuse the civilian and the military components of the EU’s CFSP/CSDP into better, more binding structures of cooperation. The civilian components are community-led Foreign Policy Instruments like long-range planned and funded deve­­lopment or neighbourhood policy. The military components are military measures conducted in intergovern­men­tal – and often national parliamentary – mode. They are frequently used in response to unplanned contingencies and depend on national funding. In the end, both civilian and military efforts must cooperate within one comprehensive ap­proach to a given crisis, with priority given to the longer-term civilian development objectives. Much still remains to be done to attain that goal. Till now, only ad hoc measures have been envisaged.


  1. The contradiction between military unilateralists and advocates of common action – The development of more integrated planning and operations remains challenging due to the clash between France, with its long ingrained unilateralist and interventionist orientations – and, incidentally, the largest armed force in the EU – and other Member States who instead aspire to more effective and more closely knit teamwork. Role expectations and behavioural patterns differ between the two sides and will be extremely difficult to fuse into trustful and effective common planning, proving even more intractable, perhaps, than devising modes of operational leadership.
    The creation of new military–civilian headquarters illustrates that difficulty. To get a feeling for the ground still to be covered after that first step, one only needs to picture a scenario in which the French military have to prepare contingency plans for interventions in Fran­ce’s African “pré-carré” with their EU comrades in a Brussels EU HQ – and not in the Etat Major des Armées in the Îlot St. Germain in Paris.

In accepting the Global Strategy of the High Representative in June 2016, the Member States expressed approval of a ‘shared vision’ and ‘common action’ in this contested policy domain. But as yet, they have not even found a consensus about what kind of tasks they want or need to add to their CSDP.

Given these uncertainties and difficulties, it remains a matter of speculation how the political impe­tus of 2015–2016 will play out and how far governments will ultimately be willing to move beyond the status quo.

Christian Deubner (Dr.habil.), member of the Scientific Council of FEPS, and former head of the research division EU/Europe in the SWP Berlin.


This article draws on the principal results and arguments of the author’s recent report for the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS), “New Developments of EU External Security Policy”, published online in June 2016 :