Tuesday 21. September 2021
#204 - May 2017

Which defence strategy for Europe?

Following the publication of the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy (“EUGS”) in June 2016, and the subsequent adoption on 17 October 2016 of the European Council's Conclusions for implementing the EUGS in relation to security and defence, the question now arises: Are we any wiser with regard to the EU's defence strategy for Europe?

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A foreword by Brig. Gen Heinz Krieb, Director Concepts and Capabilities, EU Military Staff

The most significant of the three priorities identified in the framework of the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy is "to protect the Union and its citizens" without referencing the specific types of threats and risks that the Union and its citizens may be confronted with.


This opens the door for discussions as to what the EU's civil and military instruments could contribute to in order to protect the 'values and interests' that the Union is founded upon. In this context, and facing the situation in our direct and wider neighbourhood, it becomes clear that Europe must counter evolving threats at the point of inception and not wait for threats to manifest themselves inside our borders.


The article below aims to clear the fog a little bit and to provide some considerations as to how this problem might be solved and thus serves as an additional contribution to the ongoing debate on who should do what to secure the European(s) way of life?


Reading between the lines - the level of political ambition

There is no simple mission-style statement in the EUGS setting out the political “level of ambition” for security and defence.  Rather, it is encapsulated throughout the document and is subject to interpretation across individual foreign policy areas.  Relevant to the security and defence dimension is the statement that there needs to be an "appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy”  [if Europe is] “to promote peace and security beyond its borders".


Other recurring themes in EUGS in relation to security and defence include: preventing the root causes of violent conflict; responding decisively to escalating security crises; investing in capacity building to support security and development; countering terrorism and hybrid threats; cyber and energy security; and managing external borders while defeating transnational threats. 


The emphasis is clearly on countering internal security threats and using external action instruments to tackle the drivers of conflicts at source.  There is no specific section focusing exclusively on defence matters and the reality is that the EU political establishments' attention is more firmly on security than defence issues.  Under this framework the military role is to support and enable the employment of civilian-led instruments.


What is the role of the military instrument?

In EU policy, the term “instrument” is commonly used to refer to four “instruments of power”, namely, diplomatic, informational, economic and military. 


The role envisaged for the EU military instrument is considered only as part of the overall Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework.  The recent Commission White Paper on the Future of Europe accepts this premise and acknowledges that NATO will provide “hard” security for most EU countries, while at the same time cautions against an EU dependence on “soft” power measures to address its security and defence needs.  So where does this leave the employment of the military instrument and the defence of the Union?


Article 42 of the European Union Treaty restricts the use of military assets under the CSDP to missions outside the Union.  The territorial defence of Europe therefore relies on the individual and collective military defence capabilities of Member States, including common defence obligations under NATO. Acknowledging this reality, it can be surmised that the aim of the EU's defence strategy is to improve military capability and defence cooperation between Member States. At the same time, it seeks to develop a strong and integrated defence industry in order to enhance strategic autonomy.


On-going discussions between the European institutions and Member States regarding proposed measures for a more integrated approach to defence, namely proposals for a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and a Coordinated Annual Review for Defence (CARD), will be critical for gauging true levels of political will for the security and defence agenda.  There can be little doubt that concerns over the ongoing security threat (including an unpredictable Russia, the activities of ISIS, and unpredictable migration flows), allied to the uncertainty of a post-Brexit Europe, growing anti-EU political sentiment in some Member States and the possibility of a new US foreign policy focus, will all contribute to the evolving and growing discourse on European defence measures.


The defence of Europe

The defence conundrum, therefore, is to attempt to meet the EU's political level of ambition (to protect Europe and its' citizens), while respecting the European Union Treaty’s operational limitations and Member States’ obligations under NATO.


The EU Member States have only one set of military forces. Once committed elsewhere, they are no longer available for EU operational deployments. The 2016 Joint EU-NATO Declaration confirms the need for greater cooperation between these key strategic partners if Europe is to successfully counter growing security and defence threats.


Project areas are advanced for joint cooperation; however the Declaration stops short of identifying clear lines of responsibility. What may be construed as duplication of effort by one side is invariably interpreted as a complementarity effort by the other.


What must now be accepted is that countering external physical threats to Europe is the primary preserve of NATO, while the EU focuses on the diplomatic, informational and economic instruments of power with the military instrument utilised in support of CSDP capacity building in support of security and development.  The defence of Europe commences with security beyond our borders.

Caimin Keogh

EU Military Staff


Lt Col Caimin Keogh is currently employed as an Irish seconded national expert with the EU Military Staff in Brussels developing strategic concepts and policy.


The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Irish Defence Organisation or the views of the EU Military Staff.


EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.