It may strike as odd coming from this author, but this is no time for grand strategy. As the European Union enters a new cycle, it’s overarching priority in the world should be action.
The last five years have been formative as far as European foreign policy goes. They have set the foundations for a European defence union. Whereas the EU acronym soup of recent defence initiatives may appear obscure to outside observers, for a Union that has historically struggled to inch forward in this field, they are huge. Furthermore, the outgoing Commission and High Representative have triggered a fundamental change in the way the EU works in the world. While institutional silos still exist, joined-up foreign policy making and an integrated approach to conflicts are now part of the European foreign policy lexicon, and to an extent practice too.
For my parents, Europe was an ideal: it meant peace after the unspeakable death and destruction brought about by two World Wars. Europe was a dream, admittedly a minoritarian dream, whose power fostered the longest era of uninterrupted peace on the continent, first in Western Europe, then expanding eastwards after the end of the Cold War.
For me, Europe has been the opportunity of a lifetime: from the thrill of interrailing as a teenager, to my studies in the UK, my first job in Belgium, my wedding in Spain, up to the relief of not having to switch off data roaming every time my flight landed in the Union. For me, and for many, Europe has been a luxury.
Much like Europeans do not fully grasp the angst generated by prospects of Western-incited regime change in Russia, Russians dismiss far too easily how toxic in the EU is Moscow’s political and financial backing of European extreme right-wing movements. Both are viewed as direct threats to existential interests. So long as that deep-seated mistrust regarding each other’s destructive intent toward one another prevails, channels for cooperation will remain limited, and cooperation at the global level will be ad hoc and transactional.
When it comes to European defence, more has been achieved over the last year than in the past decade. Some would go as far back as 1950, the fateful year in which the French Pleven Plan on a European defence community was rejected by the French themselves. In turn, the Union’s founders devised a roundabout to make war on the continent unthinkable: the integration of coal and steel, which kicked off the functionalist logic at the heart of the European project six decades ago. Seventy-seven years later, talk about a European defence union is rife within and beyond the Brussels bubble. But what does such a union consist of? Why is it coming about now? And how should Italy position itself in this process?
The EU Global Strategy (EUGS) presented by High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini to the European Council in June 2016 triggered renewed work on a security and defence union. As noted by the EUGS: “The EU Global Strategy starts at home”: the first priority for the EU’s role in the world is the security of the Union itself, achieved through systemic defence cooperation. The implementation of the EUGS in its first year concentrated heavily on security and defence. The establishment of a permanent headquarters – a military planning and conduct capability in Eurocratese –, and the preparatory work to activate a coordinated annual review on defence between member states, or a permanent structured cooperation between a group of member states (PESCO) are all mentioned in the EUGS. These are necessary tools to travel the long and bumpy road towards a European security and defence union, which would feature more systematic defence cooperation as a first step, potentially going all the way to a common defence, as allowed for in the Lisbon Treaty.