M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

The Future of European Security

Challenges and Opportunities

EU Security

By Adérito Vicente

Since the 1990s, EU member states have committed themselves to deeper and more structured security cooperation. Simultaneously, European defense budgets have shrunk, and military capabilities have reduced[1]

In December 2016, the European Council endorsed an implementation plan[2] that established a new Level of Ambition for the development of EU security and defense policy. Thus, building on the EU Global Strategy, the plan focused on three strategic priorities: a) responding to external conflicts and crises; b) building the capacities of partners; and c) protecting the EU and its citizens.

Hence, concrete actions (e.g. PESCO, MPCC, European Defense Fund) to achieve these goals and elements of a shared strategic culture have emerged, but substantial division remains among member states. As a result, the EU as a global actor has been rather ineffective in tackling these strategic priorities. 

In the wake of the ongoing severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Europe became one epicenter of this virulent disease and has closed borders and turned indoors. It strives to mitigate the outbreak and minimize the likelihood of economic fallout. Thus, the pandemic crisis created challenges not just for the Union itself but also revealed vulnerabilities within its foreign and security policy on a number of fronts.

First, the new situation affected and significantly exposed the EU’s (in)ability in responding to external crises. It is true that Brussels increased its capability to contribute with Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions’ operations as an essential but limited part of the EU's integrated approach to external conflicts. Nonetheless, and in spite of the progress already made by EU member states and institutions over the last years to improve the Union role as a security provider and global actor, the reality is that Brussels is incapable of preventing crises within and near the EU borders. These include Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the Ukrainian crisis, among others.  

Perhaps the challenge exists primarily in the mandate of the CSDP itself. This common policy enables the Union to take a role in ‘cherry-picking’ peace-keeping operations and to promote a vague and holistic approach in conflict prevention but neglects seriously the EU’s ability to protect as such and its member states. The latter is still granted collectively by NATO and individually by states. In analyzing European defense at a national level, Marco Wyss and Hugo Meijer, in their Handbook of European Defence Policies and Armed Forces, demonstrate that there is a strategic cacophony prevalent across Europe and an ultimate failure of EU supra-national approaches to defense.

Moreover, the present pandemic crisis augmented a now widely perceived crisis of solidarity between southern European and other EU member states such as the Netherlands. The former accuses the latter of leaving their healthcare systems depleted of resources due to the tough austerity measures imposed during the 2009-2011 debt crisis. Regardless of whether this is true, such a perception undermines European solidarity. For example, recently after a tense video conference with his European counterparts about a ‘coronabonds' proposal to prevent a new euro debt crisis, the Portuguese prime minister said that “either the EU does what it needs to be done or it will end”.[3] The risk of further disintegration persists in Europe. 

Second, this crisis of solidarity also casts a shadow on the EU’s attempts to build up its strategically autonomous security and defense capabilities. If member states cannot depend on one another for assistance in combating a virus, how can they do so in fighting an aggressive external power? The problem, of course, is the alternative. For example, currently some EU member states will have the same concerns as the United States as Europe’s sole security provider.

Despite Washington’s continuous commitment to NATO, there is a perception among EU diplomats that the Trump administration is not very pleased with the notion of Europeans investing in their own security without the lofty inclusion of American defense contractors; creating extra divisions within the transatlantic community.

Third, unlike the US, which already has a 2.2 trillion dollar coronavirus rescue package to fight COVID-19, the EU has been rather slow and unresolved in supporting a “corona-era Marshall Plan”. The Solidarity clause, introduced by Article 222 of the TFEU, provides options for the EU and EU countries to act jointly: to prevent the terrorist threat in the territory of an EU country and to provide assistance to another EU country which is the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. At the moment, it seems that the EU is unable to act jointly in a consistent manner in either case. 

At the same time, EU countries and their citizens are vulnerable to other external threats: Europe’s dependency on Chinese manufacturers and Russia’s disinformation. In fairness to the EU, according to an internal document dated 20 April, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has identified a “trilateral convergence of disinformation narratives” being promoted in a coordinated manner by China, Iran, and Russia regarding COVID-19. But without having a fully-fledged intelligence-sharing center or a permanent EU army, the strategic dependence on NATO and the US increases exponentially. 

With that being said, if the future of the European security and defense ultimately relies on having a common and efficient strategic autonomy, which opportunities could arise for the EU as a global actor from the coronavirus pandemic? 

The latest European Commission White Paper on the ‘Future of Europe’ stresses that, regardless of the consolidation of EU-NATO relations and defense cooperation, the need for the EU to be able to defend and protect itself in an increasingly uncertain world is vital.  

Furthermore, it is impossible to talk about strategic autonomy without addressing economic and industrial independence. One the one hand, the European economy must adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other enduring and future security threats. On the other hand, the issue of an independent European defense industry brings a clear chance for EU industries to strive.

Another venue that the EU should pursue is more political and defense integration. This requires the creation of an EU army, facilitating cooperation among military personnel under the umbrella of a ‘European Defense Union’.

In this challenging strategic environment, the EU faces both a challenge and an opportunity for a closer political, security and defense cooperation. This should happen preferably in full agreement with NATO. The EU-US relationship should be one of strict cooperation and not of competition. 

As Jean Monnet, once argued[4], the defense of Europe can only be ensured in the framework of an “equal partnership between united Europe and the United States should include a European organization in close association with that of the United States, and to this end, those European countries that set up the necessary joint institutions should be able to decide to transform their national participation into joint participation”. 

Today, the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, is determined to expand the EU’s international role. Let us hope for the future of the European integration that Brussels envisages a security and defense policy characterized by the consecration of its strategic autonomy and interests. 

Adérito R. Vicente is a Ph.D. researcher in the Department of Political and Social Sciences (SPS) at the European University Institute. He held professional and research positions at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European External Action Service, European Parliament, NATO, Portuguese Presidency of Council of Ministers and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is currently teaching topics in European Union foreign policy and internal security at James Madison University in Florence, Italy.

[1] Hyde-Price, A. (2018). The common security and defence policy. In H. Meijer & M. Wyss (Eds.), The Handbook of European Defence Policies and Armed Forces. London: Oxford University Press, p. 392.

[2] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/22460/eugs-implementation-plan-st14392en16.pdf

[3] https://www.politico.eu/article/netherlands-try-to-calm-storm-over-repugnant-finance-ministers-comments/

[4] Action Committee for the United States of Europe. 1964. Joint Declaration adopted by the Committee at eleventh session in Bonn, 1 June. [Declaration] Historical Archives of the European Union, JMAS-53. Florence.

Back to Top

Published: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, January 13, 2022

Related Articles