The EU’s new mission: Get serious about security

Threats to our security and defence are challenges which must be tackled across borders and underline the need for EU cooperation. Although ideas on common security were broadly welcomed as part of the White Paper on the Future of Europe, Europe needs to do more. As part of our series of articles by Burson-Marsteller’s senior advisors on the future of Europe, Peter Hudson urges the EU to take bold steps to beef up its security and defence cooperation.

 Over the past decade, the European Union has appeared to be in semi-permanent crisis mode, dealing with a gruelling economic recession, wobbles in the euro, a wave of refugees and now, Britain’s impending departure from the bloc. While the EU is slowly getting on top of all these issues, there are challenges beyond the external borders that may take longer to resolve. They range from the persistent instability in the Middle East with associated radical Islamic terrorism and a refugee crisis, to a revanchist Russia and people smuggling across the Mediterranean. And they have one factor in common: they demand a security response.

Defence and security are the last bastions of European cooperation. Although the first serious effort to create a European army was the 1950 Pleven Plan, some seven years before the Treaty of Rome was signed, it was never ratified; after that setback, defence issues were left to NATO. Most EU member states are also in NATO, an institution described as the most successful defence alliance the world has ever known. For a long time, these responsibilities seemed to be conveniently divided.

However, the continual evolution of the security threats has rightly prompted the EU to examine an enhanced role, alongside that of NATO, and to set up its own security apparatus.

This idea has gained more and more traction over the past year, mainly due to two events. The UK’s decision to leave the EU last year has removed one of the most trenchant opponents to further European defence cooperation: successive British governments blocked integration, claiming it would undermine NATO. And the election of Donald Trump as US President last November has raised anxieties about Washington’s security commitment to Europe. Mr Trump recently reaffirmed his nation’s commitment to collective defence during his visit to Poland in July yet there are lingering doubts.

The time is right

So when the European Commission published its reflection paper on defence in June as part of its Future of Europe project, its ideas on common security were broadly welcomed.

The document, signed by two Commission Vice-Presidents, Federica Mogherini and Jyrki Katainen, says the onus of improving European security lies firstly in European hands, a statement that echoes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comments about the need for Europeans to look more closely at their own defence.

The paper lays out three possible scenarios for the future of European defence:

  • Security and Defence Cooperation, in which EU countries still decide on cooperation on a voluntary and case-by-case basis, while the EU would continue to complement national efforts.
  • Shared Security and Defence, a more ambitious scenario where EU countries pool certain financial and operational assets.
  • Common Defence and Security, the most ambitious scenario, leading to common defence based on Article 42 of the EU Treaty, making Europe’s protection a shared responsibility of the EU and NATO.

The paper seems to advocate the third option: the deepest military integration, with the capacity to conduct complex EU-led military operations independent of NATO, and establish EU-level cybersecurity, border and coast guards. There is some way to go before any of this becomes a reality; the political hurdles to cross will still be high.

Nevertheless, common to each option is a requirement for better coordination of defence spending. The Commission earlier this year outlined plans for a single market for the military industry to foster collaboration and eventually lead a more efficient defence sector (EU armies currently use 178 weapon systems compared with 30 in the US).

Europe needs to do more

This would also go some way to addressing the criticisms by President Trump – and several US presidents before him – that NATO’s European members are not pulling their weight in defence by failing to meet a defence spending target of 2% of GDP. He has a point: Europe needs to do more.

These proposals chart a course towards a more integrated security framework that strengthens the EU’s ability to respond. And it’s not just initiatives by EU officials in Brussels: Germany, France and Italy are looking at ways of building a trilateral defence policy that is more independent of the US.

The EU will naturally need to define its ambition. There are clearly areas where the EU should play a more prominent security role with greater engagement: North and Central Africa and elements of the Middle East are good examples. The current complex threats – social as well as security – will serve as a catalyst for EU reform.

Pleasingly there are increasingly positive indicators to address one potentially tricky area: coordination with NATO. There is now strong strategic cooperation between the two institutions who now speak regularly and ensure no unnecessary overlap.

Both the EU and NATO have been clear about respecting each other’s roles, about working together to face those joint security threats that threaten to undermine national sovereignty. There is a concern with Turkey which, following the failed coup last year, has been noticeably resistant towards greater co-operation between the EU and NATO. In other respects, however, the intent in both NATO and the EU is very unambiguous.

The EU will need to establish a sensible response mechanism, and one that does not undermine or in any way diminish the collective security guarantee of NATO as expressed in Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter. Article 5 has only been invoked once and that was following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The threats have grown rapidly since that time, so the EU mechanisms should complement the NATO structure to ensure these non-existential threats are countered and ensure a level of support to those EU members who are not in NATO.

Making Europe’s resources more efficient

A desired benefit will be to improve responsiveness. Europe has extensive military forces but many are under-prepared and poorly resourced: the renewed EU focus on security ought to address these inefficiencies which would benefit both entities.

These questions will be resolved. One thing military commanders always seek are clear lines of responsibility: who does what, where, when and why? If the EU’s ambition is to deliver complex partnership building or stabilisation operations in the future, it can only do so if it co-ordinates very carefully with NATO to avoid duplication or dilution of deterrent forces. We need to be explicit in which areas the EU and NATO can comfortably operate and where there is potential conflict. We need to counter a tendency for nuanced, ambiguous language that has multiple meanings for multiple stakeholders. Most of the challenges are inevitably going to be political.

I am confident Brexit will not destabilise European security. Firstly, the UK is a tireless advocate of NATO, supports it completely and is one of the few nations to meet NATO defence spending targets. It will, if anything, in the years ahead deepen its contribution. Secondly, security threats don’t stop at the English Channel, they are transnational, global in nature. The UK’s exit from the EU does not mean it exits Europe; it will continue to play a full role in addressing security challenges that threaten Europe. It will clearly not be part of any future EU security institution but will be a solid security partner for its European allies.

The EU has been involved in 30 overseas crisis response operations since 2002. Many have had a purely civilian focus, many of the military tasks have had a narrow mandate yet these will change in the years ahead. If they are to be conducted efficiently there will need to be proper synchronisation with NATO. My own experience leading Operation Atalanta, the EU’s anti-piracy operation off Somalia, shows how necessary this is. Getting that kernel of the right competences, the right capacities, the right authorities is essential

I would like to think that over the next few years, the EU will be able to use its hugely impressive machinery to deliver a more authoritative role in security matters. The EU has the institutions and political credibility to deliver comprehensive engagement, across all areas: economic, military, legal and social. It now needs to decide how to deploy them effectively.

As the Commission’s defence paper makes clear, there is such a huge overlap with NATO. Both the EU and NATO will tread warily so they can support and complement each other. But it is also reassuring that both the EU and NATO now recognise that they must work together, as we can never take European security for granted.


Vice Admiral Peter Hudson has been an Executive Royal Navy Board Member, Head of NATO’s Single Maritime HQ as well as the Senior UK Officer in NATO operational command. He was also Head of EU Forces in the Indian Ocean. He is Burson-Marsteller’s Senior Advisor on defence and security.


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