Egmont Institute logo

An EU global strategy for foreign and security policy… and even defence

Post thumbnail print


EU global strategy may help to curb growing defeatism and populism in Europe… says Jo Coelmont.

This commentary appeared in European Geostrategy on 10 October 2015.

(Photo credit: woodleywonderworks, Flickr)


An EU global strategy for foreign and security policy… and even defence

Events, dear boy, events, such as the flow of migrants and the need to forge a diplomatic solution to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, are revealing day after day that last June the European Council took some decisions of the utmost importance. Indeed, under the heading security and defence, Heads of State and Government called for a renewed EU Internal Security Strategy, for an EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, and for a more effective, visible and results-oriented Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

In layman’s terms, this time Europe’s political leadership called for an end to the dichotomy between internal and external security and between hard and soft power. They finally lifted the taboo on developing a genuine EU global security strategy. Clearly it is about turning the EU mantra of the comprehensive approach into reality. Indeed, a comprehensive approach not underpinned by any strategy is nothing but an hallucination. Aspiring for autonomy to defend one’s values and interests solely with instruments of soft power (or, for that matter, solely instruments of hard-power) is an hallucination as well.

A global strategy: an EU competence?

A global strategy allowing EU Member States to act collectively rather than to (re)act individually may at first glance sound like another naive plea by the near-theological believers in an ever closer Union. Some experts are of the opinion that a security strategy, in particular when defence is a part of it, is at the core of national sovereignty and thus in no way within the competence of the EU, as it is not a state. Often those same experts do recognise that at present even the ‘big three’ are too small to act as global powers. At present, global actorness is indeed reserved for states that have the size of a continent – or for a political construction that represents a continent. A call to preserve the national sovereignty of EU Member States is also a call for, at a minimum, a European approach.

What is it good for?

A strategy is in the first place an organising principle. The EU, the sue generis construction par excellence, is a rather complex Union: counting twenty-eight Member States, a Commission with supranational competences, a parliament, a court of justice, a series of institutions and agencies, and an impressive collection of policies and sub-strategies, all dealing with aspects of security. The envisaged Global Strategy is first of all to ensure unity of effort among all these stakeholders.

What kind of strategy?

It is crucial therefore that all stakeholders have ownership of the Strategy; this starts with the Member States. Equally important is to get European citizens onboard, as in general they have high expectations if not demands towards the EU with regard to the protection of their security. All this is to say that either the Global Strategy will be attractive and offer clear incentives to act collectively, or it will simply become ‘another EU document’. The latter would soon see the Union reduced to an ordinary bureaucracy. In such a scenario its Member States would become mere objects of world politics, while other states, and even some non-state actors, would reshape the international system at their convenience.

What content?

The EU Global Strategy will in the first place have to define the political level of ambition of the EU as a world actor. It will however not be sufficient to formulate an attractive narrative. The Strategy will have to give clear guidance on how henceforth challenges and threats will be dealt with. And the overall challenge is no less than to (re)shape the international system – the rules of the road – and to ensure that it remains consistent with Europe’s overall interests and values.

Therefore the new Strategy must be broad in scope. The nexus between internal and external security calls for a wide range of policies to be considered, from emergency aid, humanitarian assistance, development, cyber, migration, energy, environment, trade, financial and industrial relations, up to civil and military crisis-management operations, and even contributing to collective security and collective defence together with partners.

As to the key principles of such a Strategy; those put forward by the 2003 European Security Strategy are still relevant. It is indeed not about creating a European empire, but still about a stronger international society, a world of well-governed democratic states. That is, it is about multilateralism, acting preventively, becoming more active, more capable, and more coherent. As to crisis management operations, it is about working with partners, worldwide, favouring a comprehensive civil-military approach.

The new EU Global Strategy needs however to add clear guidance to act accordingly. This strategy should not remain too generic. For each and every EU policy involved it is to provide clear guidance on who has to do what, where, when, how and with what means. This is, after all, the essence of strategy.

Defence: the indispensable catalyst?

The ‘D’ in CSDP matters! The mere fact that the European Council in December 2013 coined the slogan ‘Defence Matters’ makes it clear that there is a common problem henceforth to be resolved at the level of Heads of State and Government. It is interesting to note that in the meantime the views of Member States on CSDP and, in particular, on European defence are changing fundamentally. Three aspects are of the utmost importance.

In the early days of European defence, the Union launched a series of military and civil-military crisis-management operations that were not that much inspired by strategy as by altruism. The final outcome had little if any direct impact on the daily lives of European citizens. The moment ‘austerity’ entered into the equation, questions were raised as to whether the EU could not do without military interventions, or leave this up to the Americans. Alas, this appeared to be no valid option. At present, the way the Europeans intervene or abstain from intervening with military means in any given violent crisis, be it in the EU’s neighbourhood or further afield, does have a direct impact on all Member States and their citizens. This is a noticeable pivot. At the same time, the message Europeans receive from Washington on crisis-management operations is “dear friends, sometimes, you will be on your own”. A second noticeable pivot.

Until recently a fundamental lack of consensus among Member States on the use of force was often invoked as a showstopper to set up any kind of credible European defence. Here also, a pivot is in the making. There is a fast growing consensus among, dare I say, most if not all Member States to consider the military, under certain circumstances, as the indispensable catalyst to ensure that the political objectives of all other EU policies can ultimately be met. There are indeed no military solutions to wars or other violent conflicts. However, at times, the political and diplomatic chemistry will not work without a catalyst, able to operate preventively as well as during and after a crisis.

The military: who is to do what, where, when and how?

Where and when to deploy on the ground is in the first place a political issue. To a large extent so is the question of how to act. However, to be successful in military operations, preparedness, robustness and strategic patience to achieve the desired outcome are of the essence. Preventive action and rapid reaction are crucial. This entails the development, in tempore non suspecto,of military partnerships with countries in areas of particular interest for the EU. To ensure durable results, post-conflict peace-building is often inevitable. In any case imposing an end date on an operation will not do the trick. Strategic patience is required until local authorities are able and willing to guarantee a secure environment. Moreover, a robust mandate and ditto rules of engagement and adequate capabilities are simply a precondition to launch any operation. The strategy is to leave no doubt on those aspects.

Asking the question on who is to deliver the troops is asking the question of solidarity among Member States. The recent past has shown that often so few do so much in the name of so many. Moreover, the Member States having the honour to send the troops also had the honour to pay the bill. If we are looking for a strategy that will survive over time, the principle of ‘costs lay where they fall’ is to be abandoned in favour one based on ‘costs shared by all’. A mechanism whereby military contributions will be considered as a ‘payment in kind’ (which could even lead to reimbursements) is to be developed. Security is indivisible, costs are not.

And with what means?

Preventive action and rapid response do require some institutional changes. At first you need a permanent planning capability and some permanent civil-military and military Headquarters (HQ). An EU Operational Headquarters is quite different from all existing national and NATO Operational HQs (OHQ). On the one hand, an EU OHQ will be larger in scope, since it needs to be in permanent contact with the many relevant actors within the Union and indeed in the Member States. On the other hand, embedded in the existing EU structures, it will be in need, to put it mildly, of considerably less personnel than for instance the one of NATO. A close look will reveal that the actual structures within the Union are already offering more than the skeleton of such an EU OHQ. A pragmatic approach, in step with the development of the EU Global Strategy, seems commendable.

To properly conduct military crisis-management operations the EU is also in need of some joint Force Headquarters (FHQs). Some of them are readily available to the Union. Others, needed for more complex operations, are not although they all exist on European soil. To a large degree these FHQs are manned and financed by EU Member States. However, since they are part of the NATO command structure, these FHQs are far from being immediately transferable to an EU command structure. Duplication is out of the question. The way out is to copy the concept of the EUROCORPS HQ. This HQ is declared by all participating nations to be available to NATO and the EU alike. To copy this concept is easy to state, difficult to implement, however doable over time. This probably would require some opting-out arrangements, if some of the participating nations prefer, as well as some actions to preserve the overall operational capability of the HQ. However, if managed carefully, this endeavour would generate more unity between NATO and the EU. It is eventually to replace the Berlin Plus agreement.

Having Rapid reaction forces in the inventory is a second prerequisite. The Battle Group (BG) concept is good, however not good enough. In specific circumstances it is a valid first-entry force. But it is far from being ‘a one size fits all’ concept, as recent history has made clear. A BG corresponds more to the level of ambition of a middle-sized European country. For the EU there is a need to have Rapid Reaction Forces at the minimum the size of the Helsinki Headline Goal, to be reinforced with a dedicated reserve of about the same size. This also is a clear strategic level of ambition to taken onboard.

How to get those means?

Expecting to gather, even at twenty-eight, all of the required assets while avoiding duplications and resolving all shortfalls without having a common approach has for decades now proved to be simply impossible. The way out is a rather permanent and structured cooperation (PESCO) among Member States. However, the kind of PESCO needed to underpin the EU Global Strategy with the required military capabilities is quite different from the one envisaged by the European Convention, back in 2003. The time has come to set up a more pragmatic PESCO.

Constituting armed forces is indeed the strict competence of Member States, as is the decision to deploy them. In this respect the development and regular review of national White Books on Defence remains essential. But in a European context these should not be seen as the end of a national process, for they offer a solid base for starting multilateral negotiations. In this context there is indeed a need to draw up a ‘European White book on Defence’; not to compete with the national White books though. On the contrary, this EU White book is but to inspire and stimulate efficiency and effectiveness through multination cooperation wherever possible.

The forum to finally start harmonising defence planning among Member States and to forge programmes for joint procurement is the European Defence Agency (EDA). Moreover the EDA is uniquely placed to offer a series of incentives to participating Member States through an innovative kind of PESCO. Whenever the Commission is in need of dual-use capabilities, it could be considered as a full partner. Together with the Commission the EDA is to find ways to provide participating Member States access to EU R&D funding. The Agency, being in close contact with Member States, their programmes and projects, is well placed as a partner for the Commission when developing policies to support Europe’s defence industry. In cooperation with the European Investment bank, the EDA can look for financing arrangements with favourable loan conditions and tailor-made payment schedules. As to the industrial aspects, the Commission, in cooperation with the EDA and with Member States, has a crucial role to play by forging an appropriate industrial policy to ensure – at the minimum – European autonomy to develop all crucial military capabilities in line with its political level of ambition. Let us not forget that a strategy without means is another hallucination.

In the end?

Forging a genuine EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, to include defence, has never been so urgent – and never so feasible. Confronted with Europe’s dramatically changed environment, such a strategy is also a precondition to ensure internal security. It is moreover to answer the expectations of the many European citizens who still believe in the Union. And, it is also to curb growing defeatism and populism.

At first glance all this may appear to be too revolutionary or simply naive. In retrospect it will probably be considered as having come in just in time, as was the case for all the other policies and (sub)strategies developed so far within the Union. What is really crucial is to ensure that the Global Strategy does not materialise too late.