Can the European Union Come Up with a Real Security Strategy?

It has been five years since the European Union last debated its security strategy. Twelve years have passed since the adoption of the so-called 2003 Solana Strategy “A Secure Europe in a Better World”. The document started with these fateful words: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free”. When EU High Representative Federica Mogherini announced the Strategy Review Paper in 2015, to be followed up by a new EU Global Strategy, the situation could not have been more different.

The security environment in the EU’s neighbourhood – both the immediate one in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the wider one in the form of Sahel – has deteriorated rapidly. The return of interstate aggression in Europe and the disintegration of state structures in large swaths of Northern Africa and the Levant have affected the security of the Europeans themselves. It has also underscored the internal divisions within the EU, stemming from diverging security perspectives. The Eastern members fear a newly aggressive Russia, while the South struggles with uncontrolled migration flows.

It is against this background that Mogherini’s team has to come up with a document that is both relevant to the present challenges, yet offers enough strategic depth not to expire after just a couple of years. The final version will be presented next June. And the mood is radically different from the optimism of 2003. From the outset, Mogherini’s team has been guided by a vision of a world that is more connected, contested and complex. The lines between regional and global issues have blurred, they say. New narratives the form of revanchist Russia or doomsday jihadi cults are challenging the liberal order. And the complexity is here to stay, with a multitude of new actors, emerging economies, and the general diffusion and erosion of power (Naím 2013).

Yet it is not only the outside world that has changed. In the last decade we have seen a fundamental shift within the EU as well. The Union’s material capabilities have substantially eroded, making the usual go-to political tools –the “chequebook” and the “stick”–relatively more expensive to use. This has hindered the EU from fully engaging in the transition within the Arab world, paving the way to the current conundrum. It also meant that Brussels was not only unable to prevent Russian aggression against Ukraine, but also limited the extent of reforms and aid. The result is that Ukraine is far from being neighbourhood policy success story some were hoping it would be.

More fundamentally though, the twin nature of the current crises unveiled deep divisions within  the  EU.  Is  the  priority  in  the  East  or  in  the South?  One  would  get  a  radically  different answer depending on whether this question was posed in Warsaw or in Rome. Should the EU concentrate on the region engulfed in flames or is the smart move to go global, in search of new markets and partnerships? Again, the divisions are as profound as ever, aggravated not only by the difficulty of  achieving consensus between 28  members, but  also by  the  following paradox: while  the  EU’s  resources  and  legitimacy  have  dwindled,  the  expectations  for  Brussels “to  do something” actually  increased.  Not  only  from  its  own  citizens  but also  crucial  allies  like  the United States.

One solution to this conundrum is to concentrate on the potential added value of the EU. This would require a fundamental rethink in Brussels and in national capitals. Expecting the EU to be able to act  in a unified manner while its members dispose of real material capabilities  is self-defeating and instead a new division of labour is called for. Brussels would no longer be the default go-to guy, rather it would apply the subsidiarity principle to foreign relations: to act where a single  member  state’s  effort  would  simply  not  be  enough.  This  includes  regional  challenges such as common border and asylum policies, reinforcement of the mutual defence (Art. 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union) and solidarity (Art. 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European  Union)  clauses  in  the  treaties  as  well  as  global  policies  such  as  development  and climate  change  where  economies  of  scale are  key  to  solving  challenges.

In  the  meantime,  a reasonable minimum  for  the 28 members would  be to agree  to coordinate  and not undermine the generally agreed principles, for instance in the sanctions policy. However,  to  this  date  there  is  very  little  cohesion  in  the  EU  on  the  aforementioned issues.  To  believe that  an  agreement  could  be  achieved  through  new  or  newly  strengthened institutions is gullible. With finite resources and international relations remaining a largely zero-sum game, foreign policy remains at the core of a state’s sovereignty. Any convergence would require a long-term socialisation and Europeanisation of capacities and policies –a solution that could  only  be  achieved  through  a  painfully  slow  deliberative  process.  A  relatively  open discussion about the EU’s new security strategy is a good start and offers some limited avenues for coordination. It would be wise not to expect too much, though.



Aleksander Siemaszko is an accredited Parliamentary Advisor at the European Parliament. He is an Alumnus of the University of Warsaw and the College of Europe, Bruges and a current PhD student at the Warsaw School of Economics. In 2014, he was the new    Security Leader at the Warsaw Security Forum and in 2015, he was the Ulrich Weisser Junior Ambassador at the Munich Security Conference. All views are his own and do not represent the positions of the European institutions.

References upon request.