The European Union’s defence strategy gets an overhaul

In the wake of Trump’s election and Brexit, the EU launched a new global defence strategy to redefine its goals and strengthen regional unity. Here’s what experts are saying about the plan so far. 

By: /
February 15, 2018
NATO forces Latvia
Spanish soldiers participate in Silver Arrow 2017, the multinational military drills involving eleven NATO member countries in Adazi, Latvia, on October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Co-chair, G20 Research Group, Munk School of Global

For decades since the end of World War II, European nations have relied heavily on the American security umbrella for their protection when it comes to defence. But both the June 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump have made the European Union’s defence strategy ripe for revision.

On the campaign trail, Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and decried low levels of European defence spending. Following last year’s G7 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel starkly warned that faced with Trump and Brexit, “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands…we Europeans must fight for our own future and destiny.”

While the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU is an unprecedented setback to the European project, it also removes one of the obstacles to closer security and defence cooperation, which Britain had long blocked.

At a January event put on by EU consulates general in Toronto, experts from Europe discussed the EU’s role and ambitions when it comes to the future of global security. (The event was part of a series — the next one will be held around Europe Day in May.)

Trump’s attitude towards the EU has served as a “constructive impetus for European integration,” said Annegret Bendiek, a senior associate with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in an interview ahead of the panel, as Europeans can no longer hide behind the security umbrella of the US.

Marton Ugrósdy, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest, Hungary, agreed, and said the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO has provided an excuse for long-overdue military modernization, particularly in former Soviet states that are still relying on Soviet technology.

In June 2016, faced with a changing geopolitical landscape caused by Brexit, ongoing refugee and migration flows, a resurgent Russia and heightened terrorist threats from ISIS, the EU adopted the “EU Global Strategy” in order to “contextualize its geopolitical environment, identify its strategic interests and challenges, and define its strategic posture,” explained European Union Ambassador to Canada Peteris Ustubs in an interview.

The new strategy is based on four main pillars: unity among EU member states, engagement in the interconnected world, responsibility to address root causes of conflict and poverty, and partnerships with states, regional and global organizations.

The EU Global Strategy provides the overarching direction of the EU’s foreign and security policy but also gives the flexibility to respond to changes in the global context, which is crucial, said Ustubs, as the “world is facing multiple challenges and it is changing fast. Old paradigms have disappeared, [a] new order [has] yet to be established; [the] world is in flux.” 

Challenges from all sides

At the moment, the EU faces both internal and external threats. When asked about the biggest risks to EU security in 2018, speakers at last month’s event pointed to complex security issues such as illegal migration and failing states in the near neighbourhood. Additionally, questions around how to best respond to Russia after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea remain unresolved. While the EU has implemented the Minsk II Agreement and sanctions against Russia, this is not good enough, said Reinhard Krumm, head of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Regional Office for Cooperation and Peace in Europe, in an interview.

Krumm believes that there is an important gap between the EU’s strategy towards Russia and the Eastern European countries. While the recent partnerships with Eastern Europe are a way to increase the engagement of the region with the EU, Russia sees these partnerships as encroaching into its sphere of influence, he said.

Bendiek also identified a more insidious and dangerous threat coming out of the EU itself: citizens and politicians in different countries of the EU from Poland to Italy questioning the process of European integration as a whole. For Bendiek, this is worrisome, because the EU cannot perform effectively as an international actor when inside member states start to question the validity of the union itself.

Ugrósdy linked the internal challenges facing the EU to a lack of common understanding of the future among EU members. Some members envision a completely federalist union, with not only a common economic zone but a joint finance minister, as recently proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. 

According to Usgrósdy, the Visegrád Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) look at the EU as mainly an economic project, while others see it as a political project that goes beyond the single market to include common political values and beliefs. Fundamental questions — such as the ‘widening versus deepening’ dilemma — around the future of the EU, largely resulting from past, rapid rounds of European enlargement, remain unresolved and threaten the EU’s internal stability.

"We are so interconnected... this ‘virtual domain’ can become our soft underbelly, easily targetable by foreign powers."

The panelists worried that the EU’s internal divisions provide easy targets for adversaries like Russia, ISIS and euroskeptics seeking to undermine the EU. The EU faced serious cyber threats during recent elections in France and Hungary, and against the NATO mission in Latvia, in which Canada is deeply involved.

“Possibly, hybrid and cyber warfare is currently the thorniest threat to our societies,” Ustubs said. “We are so interconnected, so relying on electronic media and social media — while the costs of attacks in this realm are a fraction of those in ‘traditional military theatres' — that this ‘virtual domain’ can become our soft underbelly, easily targetable by foreign powers.”

According to Ustubs, the EU is taking these threats seriously. It has allocated significant resources to counter false propaganda, which Ustubs says is “mostly Russian.” The EU is also supporting a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, established within the NATO framework in October 2017, to counter multi-faceted challenges posed by adversaries with the ability to deploy conventional and non-conventional means of attack.

And, in response to the perfect storm of Brexit, Trump and increasingly complex challenges, in December 2017, the EU realized a 70-year-old ambition, which had long been blocked by Britain, by launching a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together, called the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence (PESCO).

The pact aims to harmonize European defence capabilities and lower Europe’s reliance on the United States, and is meant to show unity and collective efforts towards EU integration, particularly after Britain’s decision to leave.

European Council President Donald Tusk described PESCO as “dream” that became reality and as “bad news for our enemies.”

The further integration does not aim to replace NATO structures, but rather to focus on missions in the EU’s interests, such as the “externalization of migration” or upholding “the resilience of Europe,” which may not necessarily align with all NATO members’ military priorities, Krumm said.  

Engagement with Canada

The EU’s new focus on developing its own defence and security capabilities also offers opportunities for greater collaboration with Canada. Ustubs noted that the EU and Canada have worked together in the realm of global security on a number of different fronts, noting that Canada has participated in “several [EU-led] civilian or military operations, from Ukraine to Kosovo, from Bosnia to Congo.”

The Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Canada-EU Strategic Partnership Agreement (which launched in parallel with CETA in 2016), “provide the backbone, legal and political, to expand our cooperation well beyond our past experience…to areas that matter in the new paradigm we are living: climate change, progressive and fair trade, migration, security and defence,” Ustubs said.

When asked about possible further Canada-EU cooperation in the realm of global security, Ustubs pointed to specific Canadian assets such as its French-speaking gender advisors that Canada could contribute to help root out terrorism and stabilize the Sahel region, one of the key security concerns of the EU, as “women are key partners to make peace long-lasting.”

Another area of collaboration suggested by Ustubs is Canadian membership in the EU-supported NATO Centre of Excellence, to work together in countering hybrid threats and protecting democratic processes from technological disruption by unfriendly actors.  

Looking towards the future

While PESCO is an important step towards harmonized EU security capabilities, defence integration inevitably requires EU members to cede some of their defence sovereignty to Brussels, which may be difficult in the current political climate. “The mere fact that PESCO exists as a potential instrument within the Lisbon Treaty, on its own, is not enough to make it materialize into something more concrete,” Yale professor Jolyon Howorth said in an interview with the Harvard Political Review

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the EU’s global security agenda. Krumm said that while some countries like China and Russia say that the EU is bound to eventually unravel because of its internal divisions, he disagrees. For him, the internal disagreements in the EU reflect the normal process of democracy. Trump and Brexit have provided the EU with the momentum to establish a common EU defence strategy. It is now up to Brussels and EU members to harness this opportunity and follow through by moving ahead with closer defence and security cooperation.