‘We have spent many years and decades with big ideological debate about the European defence - we have been discussing about the European Defence community for the past 60 years and this is the time now to get things done and moving, and today finally, I believe we are succeeding where all previous generations
have failed.’ (Mogherini 2017: 27)
The European Union is the institutionalized result of an ongoing process of cooperation between European nation states that started as consequence of the Second World War. It is a unique kind of supranational cooperation, a ‘sui generis’ in international politics, and evolved in incremental steps, which are unforeseeable and therefore hard to theorise (cf. Bieling & Lerch 2006: p. 21).
This essay aims to answer the question if the EU will become a military power. In order to forecast a possible future scenario, we must take into account historical events and decisions that shaped the current structure of the EU, especially in regards to security and defence. We must also consider wider developments and trends, and identify what has prevented the EU evolving into a military power so far. Afterwards, the essay will outline recent events and decisions in security and defence field. Based on these facts, the assessment about the EU as military power can be made.
In the aftermath of WWII, Western European leaders decided that the only way to prevent another destructive military confrontation was the creation of supranational organisations, and several plans and initiatives were developed. In 1950, French prime minister Rene Pleven proposed in his ‘Pleven plan’: a close cooperation in the defence sector and the foundation of a European Defense Community (EDC) (cf. Litsas 2017: p. 56). As military aggression and an arms race were main reasons for both World Wars, a common army would rule out military confrontation from the beginning. The plan suggested a single European military authority, a common budget, common procurement mechanisms and the complete integration of national military forces (ibid.). In 1954, however, the French National Assembly vetoed the project because Gaullists feared that French sovereignty would be undermined (cf. Dover & Kristensen 2013: p. 242).
This defeat resulted from the traditional idea of Westphalian sovereignty, in which nation states are independent actors in international relations, and foreign, security and defence policies are core parts of a state’s sovereign power (cf. Delmartino & Dobre 2008: p. 9f.). The proposed EDC had too far-reaching ambitions and implications in post-war Europe and countries feared that supranational cooperation could undermine national interests. Despite this setback, cooperation evolved in other areas and, in 1952, six countries founded the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), centralising the planning of coal and steel production. Its founders hoped that, after time, the cooperation would expand into other fields and ensure peace due to growing cross-linkages between the states and their peoples.
Since then, economic cooperation has evolved and become the main driver of European Integration resulting in the modern European Union (cf. Delmartino & Dobre 2008: p. 1f.). A European Single Market was created and the Economic and Monetary Union aimed to converge the European economies. However, cooperation in security and defence has remained limited, primarily as a consequence of the failed EDC creation. Furthermore, security and defence in Europe developed as an almost exclusive field of activity for NATO, which was mainly dominated by the United States of America and its security interests (cf. Howorth 2017: p. 18).
External events and influences like the end of the Cold War and military conflicts in the Balkan Wars created a new geopolitical situation and shifted the discussion on foreign policy in Europe in the 1990s. During the civil war in Yugoslavia, European countries hesitated to create a common response to the conflict and were unable to conceptualise an approach to pacify the region without the leadership of the USA (cf. Litsas 2017: p. 58). European states failed to put aside their conflicting national interests and different strategic approaches. It became clear there was a need for a more unified approach to actively and powerfully promote a European position in international politics (cf. Bendiek 2017A: p. 7). In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty of the European Union established as a second pillar the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
In 1998, the UK and France agreed to push for more capable and powerful EU defence capabilities at the St. Malo summit (cf. Whitman 2016: p. 45). This joint effort resulted in the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), outlined in the European Council meeting in Cologne in June and Helsinki in December 1999. EU members unanimously declared that the EU and its member states should be able to autonomously undertake actions and deploy their own military forces in response to international crises without relying on NATO capacities (cf. Litsas 2017: p. 60). In 2003, the EU launched its first civilian and military ESDP missions in Bosnia- Herzegovina and FYR Macedonia. Nevertheless, the structures within the CFSP were often characterised as dysfunctional and too complex to react to global security challenges (cf. Bendiek 2017A: p. 7). The Lisbon Treaty in 2009 updated the whole framework of the EU, transformed the ESDP into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and strengthened the position of its chief coordinator, the High Representative (cf. Dover & Kristensen 2013: p. 244). In 2011, the European External Action Service was created to provide a common institution to coordinate and harmonise the crisis management policies of EU member states. Since 2003 the EU has executed more than 30 ESDP/CSDP military and civilian missions, and has proven its ability to successfully undertake crisis reaction and peace stabilisation (cf. Tardy 2018A: p. 1).
Despite several attempts at closer cooperation, the EU remains a limited player in the area of security and defence. There are several reasons for this:
Firstly, member states continued protect their national interests and power positions, and ruled out interference in the domain of foreign policy, security and defence (cf. Howorth 2014: p. 4). Despite the unique supranational character of the European Union, its nation states remain the only legitimate source of sovereignty. Every transfer of power from national governments to the EU requires an amendment of the Treaties of the European Union and, hence, the political support and will of those member states (cf. Richter 2017: 104).
Secondly, due to the lack of support for structural changes by the member states, all EU foreign policy arrangements within the CFSP are based on intergovernmental mechanisms. The unanimous consensus of member states, required for every reform, has resulted in prolonged decision-making processes and means the speed of further defence cooperation and integration is ‘determined by the slowest wagon in the train’ (Blockmans 2017: 2). In contrast to other areas of EU politics, member states retain the ability to veto foreign policy, security and defence decisions and advance their own national interests.
The cautious and defensive behaviour of member states is not wholly the result of their desire to preserve their own power. EU member states also strongly diverge on questions like strategic cultures, conceptions of military force and on the appropriateness of military action (cf. Tardy 2018A: p. 15). In case of the military interventions in Iraq in 2003, member states like the UK, Spain and Portugal, as well as the EU, joined counties in the Baltic region and Central East Europe to support the US military intervention. In contrast France, Germany and Belgium opposed the war and refused to join the coalition. Also, in questions of nuclear strategy and disarmament, member states have contrary and incompatible positions that prevent a clear EU positioning (cf. Richter 2017: p. 105). Therefore, thirdly, to establish a successful common policy, the EU finds it difficult to agree on a common strategic culture and define the aims of a CSDP in action.
Fourthly, these diverse strategic positions in defence reflect not only national politics, but deep socio-political and statutory divergences among member states’ societies, which developed and consolidated historically (cf. Litsas 2017: p. 61). For example, experiences in the Second World War led to constitutional restrictions allowing the German parliament to commit troops overseas only in certain defined circumstances like UN missions.
Fifthly, the dominance and veto power of member states limits the role of the European Commission in the CFSP and, consequently, it rarely starts policy initiatives regarding security and defence (cf. Whitman 2016: 45). In many policy areas, especially economic questions related to the Single Market, the Commission is the main driver and is supported by a well-resourced bureaucratic apparatus to conduct investigations and develop proposals. However, decision-making authority for the CFSP is not delegated to a supranational EU institution and is exclusively in the hands of the Council, which decides on a case-by-case basis about every operation or resolution (cf. Major & von Voss 2017: p. 1).
Sixthly, the existence of NATO has raised questions over the need for separate EU military structures, doubling-up and unnecessary costs. The Baltic states, fearing a new Russian invasion, have strongly expressed their concerns that EU involvement would complicate NATO’s role in European security (cf. Besch 2018: p. 3). In addition, there is a split between a group of member states that enthusiastically support the ties to the USA within NATO, and those that recognize the need for transatlantic co-operation but have reservations and suspicions. Most prominently, the UK advocated for pro Atlantic-NATO countries, counterweighting the ambition of France, which always advanced an autonomous European security and defence policy and the strategic need to be less dependent on US military capabilities (cf. Wiersma 2016: p. 89).
Javier Solana, EU High Representative for CFSP from 1999 until 2009, delivered a clear judgement: ‘Lack of political will and mutual trust among EU member states has long been an obstacle to achieving the treaty objectives and has blocked the framing of a policy that could lead to a common defence’ (Solana & Blockmans 2016: p. 1).
In the face of these numerous demonstrated obstacles, which had prevented the development of a successful Common Security and Defence Policy, one could question why a new attempt should have higher chances of success now.
As with the first major shift in EU foreign, security and defence policy at the beginning of the 1990s, which resulted in the creation of the CFSP in 1993, external events and influences are responsible for a reorientation of the EU’s position. Nearby conflicts highlight that the EU’s 70 years of peace is an exceptional case in a world of conflicts.
The civil war in Syria, which started in 2011, has developed into an ongoing, destabilizing conflict that affects neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq and is additionally fuelled by the intervention of outside powers like the USA, Russia, France, UK, Iran and Saudi Arabia (cf. Biscop 2016: p. 120). Refugees fleeing Syria for safe European countries resulted in the so-called European Migrant Crisis in 2015. Several countries in East and Central Europe were unable to cope with hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking shelter and the EU migrant policy defining the responsibilities of member states for asylum seekers, the Dublin Regulation, collapsed under the uncoordinated, mass migration flows. The EU became directly affected by the conflict in its neighbourhood and couldn’t avoid a more active role (Gilli & Gilli 2017: p. 2).
Furthermore, the occupation of the Crimea and other regions in Ukraine by Russia in February and March 2014 provoked a rethinking of EU’s security and defence policy. After the Cold War the EU experienced an incredible transformation and traditional tensions towards Russia, which had been seen as threat to Europe’s stability and peace, eased and were replaced by cautious cooperation (cf. Sloan 2016: p. 4). The Russian military intervention in Ukraine, which increasingly had distanced from Russia and orientated towards the EU, was a wake-up call for many EU strategists. As a direct reaction the EU member states unanimously condemned the Russian occupation and voted for sanctions against Russia. This was exceptional because ‘[a]fter years of being divided over whether Russia should be treated as a threat or a strategic partner, the crisis enabled the EU to mount a concerted response to Russian aggression’ (Orenstein & Kelemen 2016: p. 87).