These days, the EU has a long ‘to do’ list as it faces challenges across the board: an increasingly desperate situation in Ukraine, the spread of ISIS terror in its neighbourhood, migrant deaths in the wintery Mediterranean, the tightrope walk that is Greece’s debt management after Syriza’s election victory, and the struggle to keep the European economic boat floating. Against this background, EU Defence Ministers who meet today and tomorrow in Riga have some soul searching to do: what next for European security and defence?
This meeting is important. In June, the EU heads of state will gather to give strategic direction for Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) for the coming years and to follow up the previous summit (held in December 2013). This time, however, the discussion will take place in a completely different context – the old European security architecture is crumbling, and the EU needs to find a response. The Defence Ministers in Riga are expected to start setting the stage for June.
It is not necessarily obvious how to revamp the EU’s role in security and defence. The CSDP is still tiny compared to NATO’s robust planning and military capabilities. However, what has not been talked about enough are the EU’s non-military tools, which easily surpass those of NATO, and could be summoned to help address the political, economic, and other ‘civilian’ aspects of what is now called hybrid warfare. A coherent response to hybrid warfare requires coordination between the CSDP and other policy areas which could include energy, cyber, justice and police, border security and customs cooperation, counter terrorism capabilities and so on.
We have already seen the EU’s potential might in its sanctions regime against Russia and the separatists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Europe has shown it has the will and the means to influence the course of crises in its neighbourhood. While it still feels like the EU is only just getting used to the power it can wield if member states unite behind a cause, this tangible result should inspire greater belief in Europe’s capabilities and translate into less hesitation about being an influential security actor. There is no doubt that the EU can do more, and do it better, not least in increasing its own and its member states preparedness and resilience against hybrid warfare. After all, the potential of Russian pressure on EU members remains a possibility. The Defence Ministers will take a first stab at this challenge, and hopefully there will be something concrete on the table by June.
Sorting out its anti-hybrid toolbox would be a big step forward. Nevertheless, Europe also needs to invest more, and invest better in defence. On the one hand, this means taking defence spending seriously again. On the other hand, it means developing the right capabilities in the most efficient way possible. The June Council would be an ideal time for EU members to reassert their commitment to defence, and the Defence Ministers must start to identify concrete actions to drive this agenda forward.
Additionally, a rewrite of the European security strategy would help the EU to rearticulate a fresh understanding of its security environment and its own ambition in the world. While this will not be a central discussion item for this ministerial session, it is an issue that will have to be addressed before June – the current strategy is out of date. Its opening paragraph states that “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free” and talks about “a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.” The EU should draft a new strategy to align member states’ perceptions of threats and opportunities, and to provide itself with a useful framework for security related European efforts, rethinking also how it views other actors. Europe cannot continue to expect all other countries to want to become like Europe, belong in Europe or be partners of Europe.
It’s time for the EU to take off the gloves and head to the ball. The Defence Ministers will hopefully kick off the opening notes this week.
The views expressed are her own.