Bratislava summit: Security as the lowest common denominator for the EU?

It seems that security is one of the topics which may somehow bring EU members states together and will be prominently discussed also on upcoming informal EU summit in Bratislava. We even hear statements about European Army (but of course we have also NATO). But it also seems that EU states are pretty divided on many issues and security is something like the lowest common denominator. What is your opinion on this, can the EU in such atmosphere move the discussion about security into something concrete? Read few comments.

Bratislava Castle will be the main venue for negotiations between 27 leaders of the European Union's Member States. Credit:

Bratislava Castle will be the main venue for negotiations between 27 leaders of the European Union’s Member States. Credit:

Andrea Frontini, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC)

Security and defence cooperation in Europe: overcoming existing hurdles?

Security – along with defence – arguably remains a contentious issue in Europe, due to the traditional role of national sovereignty by EU Member States in this sensitive policy domain. From threat perceptions – notably between Southern and Eastern Member States – all the way to the very military, and wider security, capacities of single countries – with few ‘heavyweights’ such as France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Poland, concentrating the bulk of Europe’s ‘hard power’ – divergences in sensibilities, perceptions, doctrines and actual policies still remain a rather inescapable reality across the EU.

However, a combination of external pressures – from the crisis in Ukraine to instability in the Southern Mediterranean, up to the rise of terrorism within several Member States – and domestic and EU institutional developments, from the ‘Brexit’ and the expected ‘benefits’ of London’s mid-term leave for the institutional and operational empowerment of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), to the manifold and valuable references made to CSDP and security at large by the recent ‘EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy’ – might change this (rather static) picture to some considerable degree.

The Franco-German plan for European defence cooperation: a pragmatic way forward?

In this context, the recent Franco-German plan to enhance CSDP, and European defence and security cooperation at large, might play a very important role. The purpose of this initiative is somehow two-fold. On the one hand, the need for a cohesive and collaborative political response to the above-mentioned mix of challenges and threats affecting Europe clearly requires a new impetus to defence and security cooperation – and possibly, even fully-fledged integration – via the European Union. On the other hand, greater trans-European collaboration through the EU also represents a somehow pragmatic response to the implicit challenge of keeping in place a functioning defence and security system across Europe in times of enduring and widespread economic slowdown, and in the light of continuing (but slowly rosier) struggle among military establishments to reverse a decade-long trend of decreasing defence budgets.

More generally, in times of deep uncertainties not only for Europe’s security, but more broadly for the very future of European integration, investing in collective European defence and security cooperation could represent a responsible and far-sighted policy choice. Clearly, the very implementation of such plan will require a mix of short-term practical steps and overarching political commitment by the EU and its Member States, notably the bigger ones. Nonetheless, the Franco-German plan presents two potential advantages: it comes from two of the bigger European capitals, particularly Berlin (not least given the ascending foreign policy and security ambitions expressed by the current German leadership), and it appears as largely compatible with – and, in fact, quite supportive of – existing EU processes and mechanisms.

Looking at the very content of the proposal, the Franco-German plan does certainly include several references to de facto and EU-led integration of defence structures and assets, including by calling for the establishment of permanent EU Headquarters for CSDP, commanding structures for sharing military assets, the revitalisation of EU Battlegroups, the overdue activation of some ‘dormant clauses’ of the Lisbon Treaty such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the use of EU funds to finance military research. There are, of course, some concrete limits to what exact degree of integration can and should be achieved – in Paris and Berlin’s views – in the short-term, and the plan is clearly not aiming to create any EU supranational entity – not to mention a fully-fledged ‘European Army’ – in charge of planning and implementing defence and security policies across Europe. Rather, it seems to opt for more progressive and pragmatic harmonisation, and longer-term convergence, of EU Member State actions in this sensitive domain. This seems, overall, as a sensible way to go about it.

What future relations with NATO and US strategic posture?

Whatever exact form this enhanced defence cooperation in Europe might take in the near future, also in light of the Franco-German plan, it is very unlikely that it will, in any way, be incompatible with NATO. Quite the opposite. Stronger EU-led cooperation in defence and security should be coupled with a renewed and mutually beneficial division of labour between the EU and NATO, including – but not only – when it comes to the relationship between collective security and ‘out of area’ missions and operations, which will both contribute to European security in the foreseeable future.

By the same token, it seems quite plausible that the US will welcome this initiative as it meets Washington’s long-term call for a stronger and more pro-active security engagement by the Europeans, both in and around Europe.

Waiting for Bratislava

The forthcoming, informal EU summit in Bratislava is expected to tackle these and other security-related matters, building on the Franco-German initiative and the various EU institutional initiatives and developments already in place – most of which represent the ‘legacy’ of the 2013 European Council Conclusions on CSDP, and its political and institutional follow-up.

While inter-governmental consultations in Bratislava are likely to somehow ‘dilute’ the moderate ‘integrationist’ push of the Franco-German initiative, the flexible and open features of such proposal have the potential to provide a useful ‘play script’ for future defence and wider security cooperation across Europe, in full synergy with EU actors such as the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission and the European Defence Agency (EDA).

Only time will tell whether this going to truly succeed.

Simon Smith, Lecturer in International Relations, Staffordshire University

An EU army is a long way off, if ever likely. Brexit could/will give some impetus to further declarations and proposals, but actually agreeing anything concrete is a different matter entirely. It is quite a stretch to think that the EU states could resolve an issue of which they have never come to an agreement for over fifty years and for which no real alternative to NATO exists. Some even make the case for a CSDP/NATO merger. Of course, this fall there will be moves with the Europeans for closer EU defence but I doubt they will overcome the deep-seated barriers, and will certainly not produce an EU army.

Artur Gruszczak, National Security Department, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

The Franco-German proposal seems to be one of Brexit’s aftermaths. This refers not only to the expected disengagement of the UK from CSDP (although not from the whole EU security policy – see the candidature of Julian King for a would-be post of Commissioner for Security Union), but rather to the need for an active response to the deepening crisis of the Union in itself. So, it can be interpreted as a quantum leap, although departing from good old proposals and solutions. In practical terms, it could mean the launching of permanent structured cooperation by those member states which possess needed resources and capabilities in the area of surveillance, geospatial reconnaissance, airlift, supply chain, command and control etc. Institutional bases are more problematic, given that the exisiting bodies, agencies and units (such as for instance EU Military Staff, EU Satellite Centre or European Defence Agency) have all-Union composition and it would be difficult to establish parallel inner circles. More puzzling are the objectives: strategic goals and tactical tasks. Supposedly, they will correspond to extended Petersberg tasks, but it does not make it evident what exactly could be done in the framework of a ‘defence union’. Would they fully complement NATO (it seems to be so), or rather try to find a ‘niche’ in Euro-Atlantic security area without causing US annoyance? And another questionable issue: who will pay for the ‘defence union’ and what mechanisms could be provided for that purpose? So many question marks surrounding this proposal suggest that the Franco-German initiative should be unveiled to let us know whether it is a fully fledged novel approach to EU security, actually reversing upside down the hitherto passive CSDP, or it is another European empty shell, doomed to failure.

Sven Biscop, Director of the Europe in the World Programme, Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels

I don’t think that in security and defence EU member states will limit themselves to the lowest common denominator: everybody is facing the same security challenges and everybody is short of means – and uncertain of the US’ future involvement. Hence the push for deeper European cooperation, if not at 27, than at least in a core group. With France and Germany launching a new proposal, the evidence is there that action will be undertaken – after the Brexit referendum, we need a Franco-German axis in foreign policy, security and defence.

Kacper Rękawek, Head of Defence and Security Programme, GLOBSEC Policy Institute

This is now a very interesting time as the EU is planning to move forward on security with the biggest European player in this market not present at the discussion, and evidently leaving the set up. For this reason, I’d be sceptical about the actual results or the short term results. However, security is one of the EU “new” buzzwords, there MUST be some movement on this front and rather soon. This will be tricky as more integration in defence/security contradicts the mantra of better not more Europe. Thus do not expect big security pacts but expect something. What exactly? Hard to tell and here we come back to the original point – UK was a firm driver of this, at least in counterterrorism – they really led it at EU level through working groups and such, and now they are gone. I am not sure what capacity is there to go big on the announcements and then follow them up with practicalities. better to focus on keeping UK on board.

Michael Smith, Professor, Chair in International Relations, University of Aberdeen

The EU remains divided on the issue of territorial defence and on some security issues, such as migration. Although cooperation in security/defence is stronger than it was in the 1990s, the EU is also much larger compared to then and facing more difficult problems in the east and south. So France & Germany in particular will have to exert more leadership, which is happening to some extent, but this does not mean a true ‘EU army’ or mutual defence guarantee in the manner of NATO’s Article V.



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