The Paradox of EU Defence Policy

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Polish, EU and NATO Flags, courtesy Pawel Kabanski/Flickr

This article was originally published by European Geostrategy on 9 March 2016.

There is a paradox at the heart of EU defence policy. On the one hand the strategic demand for a more active and effective EU defence policy has been growing in recent years, mainly due to the increasing number of complex security crises in Europe’s neighbourhood. On the other, political interest in member-state capitals in EU defence policy has been declining. If this strange dichotomy continues, it will demonstrate the increasing irrelevance of EU defence policy for international security, and will hamper the ambition of the EU global strategy to have a full-spectrum set of foreign policy instruments and more comprehensive foreign policies.

Growing strategic demand

It has become obvious to say that the EU faces a number of security crises in its broad neighbourhood. This is not to say that the EU does not have global security interests, it does, for example maritime security in East Asia. But its role in East Asian security is likely to remain mainly a non-military one. In contrast, the EU’s extended neighbourhood is currently very turbulent, and crises there are causing a number of internal security challenges, such as the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks.

Just as interesting is how this confluence of crises may evolve and how long-lasting the crises may be. Russia, for example, is likely to remain a major security headache for many years to come. Beyond its annexation of Crimea, aggression in Eastern Ukraine and enclaves in Moldova and Georgia, in many respects Russia is a declining power. Its population numbers are falling, and the Russian economy is much too dependent on energy exports, while the combination of EU sanctions and low oil price has caused real economic difficulties for Moscow. In this respect, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe is masking its structural fragility.

The Middle East and North Africa is experiencing a number of conflicts – in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya – against a backdrop of intensifying regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, Middle Eastern disorder is likely to continue for many years to come. The structural factors that contributed to the 2011 wave of protests known as the Arab Spring will likely intensify in the coming years. These factors include rapid demographic growth, economic stagnation and resource shortages, the combination of which will likely cause more instability in the future. In addition, the broad space stretching from West Africa via the Sahel to the Gulf to Central Asia (including Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa) contains a majority of the world’s fragile, failing or failed states.

In other words, the EU will have to tackle a wide range of evolving external security challenges across its extended neighbourhood well into the future. But the EU’s neighbourhood is not just the EU’s neighbourhood. It is the neighbourhood of major powers like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Increasingly it is India and China’s neighbourhood too, in part due to their growing imports of Middle Eastern oil. A key change, however, has been increasing ambiguity over the US role across the EU’s neighbourhood. Washington, understandably, has been more and more preoccupied with the rise of China, and more and more unsure of how involved its wishes to be in resolving the various conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

As a thought exercise, it is worth considering what would Europeans – in this case Britain and France – have done if the US had decided not to be involved in the 2011 military intervention in Libya? Prior to that war, the Pentagon did not show much enthusiasm for joining such an operation, even if in the end the Obama administration decided to ‘lead from behind’. But what if during the next major crisis requiring a robust military intervention the US decided to neither lead nor be behind? France, as illustrated by its robust interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, has tried to fill this strategic vacuum to some degree in recent years. But so far, EU support to French efforts, for example in Mali, has been limited to training and capacity-building missions.

The French invocation of the EU’s mutual-assistance clause (Article 42.7 in the EU treaties) following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris further illustrates this dilemma for EU defence policy. France called on EU governments to help it counter the terrorist threat from ISIS, including with military means. The UK has joined the anti-ISIS bombing campaign in Syria (it already did so in Iraq), and Germany is playing a much stronger support role to that mission (which is not an EU operation but a coalition of the willing), sending a frigate and reconnaissance jets. But other EU governments, at the time of writing, have not yet rushed to relieve French forces elsewhere for example via EU or UN operations in Mali or Lebanon.

Declining political interest

It is true that the EU has carried out more than 30 operations through its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) since 2003, and that all bar two of these (in Afghanistan and in Aceh, Indonesia) have been carried out across the EU’s extended neighbourhood. It is also true that the EU usually works on the ground with other organisations (i.e. the African Union, NATO, the United Nations) and countries (such as Turkey). But the overall picture of EU operations is one of impressive quantity but not nearly enough quality. Most EU peace operations have been civilian, and rather small support missions (some would say insignificant). Only a few EU missions (such as in Bosnia, Chad and the counter-piracy operation off Somalia) come close to matching what NATO or the UN has been doing in recent years. Moreover, some 24 of the 30 or so EU operations were initiated before 2009, and the pace and size of new missions has dropped considerably since then.

EU defence policy was conceived as a crisis management policy when it was formally launched at the Cologne summit in 1999, in theory to be able to do everything but territorial defence. But these days EU defence policy seems to do everything but crisis management. Even though the strategic demand for EU action has been growing, political interest in national capitals in acting through the EU’s defence policy has been declining. This is the paradox of EU defence policy. There are at least four reasons for this.

First, different European capitals have different political priorities, given the other major challenges the EU is currently enduring, namely managing refugee flows and stabilising the Eurozone. Before the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, many Europeans were weary and wary of foreign military interventions. This is understandable given the mixed experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya since 2001. Plus, fewer resources are available for external missions: according to the most recent figures from the European Defence Agency, EU defence budgets decreased by around 15 percent between 2006 and 2013, and the average number of soldiers EU governments sent abroad fell from about 83,000 in 2006 to just over 58,000 in 2013. One piece of good news is that in early 2016 (in his Annual Report 2015) the NATO Secretary-General announced that the decline in European defence spending has now stopped.

Second, Europeans suffer from a serious lack of strategic consensus. Some EU governments are more focused on territorial defence, others on expeditionary operations. In relative terms, only France and the UK can immediately do both simultaneously, and even they are struggling due to reduced resources. Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine bolstered this emerging divide by reinvigorating NATO’s core task of defending its members’ territory. In contrast, external missions are the oxygen of EU defence policy, because in practice that policy forms part of EU foreign policy and plays no role in defending European territory from attacks by other states (albeit the EU can play a useful military role in protecting European homeland security, as shown by the EU’s counter-smuggling and search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean). In other words, EU defence policy is not a defence policy in the traditional sense. Combined with pre-existing public weariness of foreign wars and diminished defence budgets, the Ukraine crisis has been a shot in the arm for NATO but a shot in the leg for EU defence policy.

Third, there is an emerging geographic divide between those governments focused on the challenge of Russia and those concentrated on the threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa. Compare, for example, the 57-page 2014 Polish national security strategy, which contains half a sentence mentioning the Middle East, with the 2015 Italian defence white book, which identifies the Mediterranean region as a priority. It would be wrong, however, to assume that all those governments looking Eastward care only about territorial defence—consider Sweden’s robust reconnaissance role in NATO’s 2011 Libya intervention. Nor would it be right to think that those looking Southward care mainly about projecting force abroad. Greece, for instance, has contributed little to international operations in recent years.

Fourth, there have been big divisions between the ‘big three’ – France, Germany, and the UK – which collectively account for almost two-thirds of EU defence spending, so what they do or do not do has an enormous impact on EU defence policy. In recent years, Germany has been reluctant to use robust military force abroad, Britain has been reluctant to act militarily through the EU, and France has been stuck in the middle (which is part of the reason it has sometimes acted alone). However, British, French and German defence policies are starting to show some signs of real convergence. Each of them has recently promised to increase defence spending in the coming years, reflecting the difficult security crises that Europe faces today. All three have made important contributions to NATO’s reassurance measures to allies in Eastern Europe, such as participating in Baltic air policing. And all three have deployed forces to help fight Islamist terrorists in Africa and the Middle East.

EU defence policy, however, has not yet directly benefitted much from this tenuous meeting of minds in Berlin, London and Paris on defence matters. The EU is not militarily involved in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, nor in deterring Russia in Eastern Europe. Plus, this slowly emerging Franco-British-German convergence would be disrupted by a British exit from the EU – an event that would also greatly damage the credibility of EU defence policy.


For these four reasons, despite unanimous political support from the other 27 governments following the French invocation of the EU’s mutual-assistance clause in November 2015, there has been no common EU military response to fighting ISIS. Nor does it currently seem likely that substantially more military resources will be sent to useful EU operations elsewhere, whether to relieve French forces today or to help stabilise countries like Libya tomorrow. Atlanticists, moreover, should not gloat over the EU’s military weakness, because the European part of NATO depends on the same (un)willingness and (in)ability of the organisation’s members to act: 22 EU countries are also members of the Atlantic alliance. A weak EU defence policy means a weaker NATO.

It was not meant to be like this. When EU defence policy was formally launched in June 1999, the idea was that Europeans would up their military game by reforming their armed forces to be able to act without American help if necessary. Back then, the 15 EU member states could deploy and sustain only around 7–8 percent of their armed forces externally. Sadly, the same ratio holds true for today’s 28 EU countries. If, alongside responding to terrorist attacks and tackling human trafficking, the combination of a revisionist Russia, Middle Eastern disorder, and US ambiguity does not encourage EU governments to commit to deeper European military cooperation, what will?

Daniel Keohane is an Associate Editor of European Geostrategy. He is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zürich. Previously he was Research Director at FRIDE and a Senior Research Fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

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