Europe: A Time for Strategy


The 2008 “review” of the European Security Strategy (ESS), as it was often called – although that was never the mandate given to Javier Solana by the December 2007 European Council – generated great expectations. That the European Council in December 2008, after a long debate decided to leave the ESS untouched should in itself not be a reason for disappointment. If the EU today is not the global power that it could have been, it is not because its strategy is not valid, but because it has been half-hearted about implementing it. All of the so-called new threats and challenges are already mentioned in the ESS. It could indeed say more about Russia, climate change or energy, but adding a few words here and there is not what matters most – implementation does. This is not a call for complacency though. It is not sufficient to have a strategy – one must then also apply it.

From Implementation Report to Grand Strategy  

Rather than amending the ESS, the European Council adopted a Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy – Providing Security in a Changing World . Judging by the EU’s performance, according to the Report, “despite all that has been achieved, implementation of the ESS remains work in progress. For our full potential to be realised we need to be still more capable, more coherent and more active”. The Report did not meet expectations for a true strategic review however. It provides a concise overview of implementation, confirms the holistic and multilateral approach, and ends with a firm call to action: “To build a secure Europe in a better world, we must do more to shape events. And we must do it now”. But it offers little in terms of concrete recommendations. Nor did the European Council provide a follow-up mechanism to ensure that implementation of the ESS would be stepped up and the linkages between the ESS and decision-making enhanced.

The problem is that one is now left with the impression of unfinished business. The Report can therefore only be the end of the beginning: once started, the exercise must be brought to a good end, regardless of one’s initial opinion about its opportunity. On the basis of the Report a true strategic review can yet take place. On the one hand, such a review will lead to a more complete ESS, notably in terms of objectives: today the ESS mostly tells us how to do things – it is much vaguer on what to do. The result will be a grand strategy, because that is the scope of the ESS already today, embracing all of the instruments and resources at the disposal of the EU and the Member States, and because that expresses the high level of ambition which the EU as a global power must have. On the other hand, this review will determine on which topics more detailed “sub-strategies”*1 to the ESS have yet to be adopted.

The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) undoubtedly is one the major areas in which more strategic thinking is required. Other areas of importance are conflict prevention and conditionality, the holistic approach, strategic partnerships, and the transatlantic relation.

Global Crisis Management

EU Member States are certainly not averse to deploying their forces, but the large majority is on the Balkans, where they logically assume responsibility, and in Afghanistan and (for a long time) Iraq, interventions – one rapidly becoming as controversial as the other – directly motivated by self-defence. The 7-8,000 European blue helmets in UNIFIL in Lebanon (since 2006) are a positive exception, but they contrast sharply with the 1,000 troops reluctantly deployed in the Congo in 2006 and the unwillingness to launch a new bridging operation in the east of the DRC in late 2008 (after Operation Artemis in 2003) in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Understandably perhaps – but not necessarily justifiably – there is no will for an intervention in Darfur; in January 2008, after a very long force generation the EU “only” launched a bridging operation to protect refugees in neighbouring Chad, until March 2009. Participation in UN operations other than UNIFIL (e.g. MONUC in the DRC) remains minimal: in late 2008 the EU27, Lebanon set aside, accounted for less than 2,700 out of nearly 90,000 “blue helmets” or just under 3%.

Most Member States do put their forces in harm’s way, for national, NATO or coalitions-of-the-willing operations. Yet although legally the EU’s Petersberg Tasks include operations at the high end of the spectrum of violence, politically the Member States are still extremely divided over the use of force under the EU flag. It is striking that in a Declaration on Strengthening Capabilities , also adopted by the December 2008 European Council, when setting out what the EU should actually be capable of in the short term – “in the years ahead” – alone of all “illustrative scenarios” elaborated by the EUMS, “separation of parties by force” is not mentioned – the only scenario for larger-scale operations of longer duration at the high end of the spectrum. Battlegroup-size rapid response operations of limited duration is the only high-intensity target listed. Even though the EU has proven that it can mount high-risk operations if the political will is present, most ESDP operations tend to be of lower intensity and smaller scale. The still young ESDP needs to legitimize itself, hence the tendency to select operations with a large chance of success. To some extent therefore the criticism is justified that the EU takes on important but mostly “less difficult” operations, in the post-conflict phase, in reaction to the settlement of a conflict – a criticism which can of course be applied to the international community as a whole. Nevertheless one must question whether Member States are willing to fully accept the implications of the strong EU diplomatic support for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P),*2 which if it comes to military intervention per definition implies high-intensity operations; not mentioned in the ESS, R2P is included in the Report though – a positive signal.

There are positive examples of EU engagement: UNIFIL, as already mentioned; the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, deployed at record speed on 1 October 2008 after President Sarkozy brokered the Six-Point Agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi; EULEX Kosovo, deployed in December 2008 in spite of Member States’ divisions about the recognition of Kosovo independence; and EU NAVFOR Somalia, deployed in the same month in order to safeguard trade routes against the threat of piracy off the Somali coast. But in spite of the global ambitions expressed in the ESS, Member States are reluctant to commit to long-term, large-scale operations outside their immediate periphery. There is more willingness to implement rapid reaction operations of smaller scale and limited duration, or lower-intensity operations, but for high-intensity operations Member States still habitually look to other frameworks than the EU, even though it is obvious that these other frameworks are not always willing or available to act.

Interestingly though, even when EU Member States deploy forces for non-EU operations, the EU increasingly sells this as an EU contribution. This was clearly the case for UNIFIL, which politically was decided upon in the Council, a fact which was acknowledged by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who explicitly welcomed the EU contribution. The Report also mentions Afghanistan, where “EU Member States make a major contribution to the NATO mission”. This reflects the trend that the political centre of gravity is shifting. It has notably shifted away from NATO, to what are in effect the Alliance’s two main pillars, the US and the EU: the “complete” foreign policy actors, covering everything from aid and trade to diplomacy and the military. The EU has increasingly become the political centre and the primary decision-making level for European States: if they want to concert, it is in the EU that they decide whether or not to act in a given situation. If their decision entails military action, the secondary step is to select the organization through which to act – NATO, ESDP, the UN, the OSCE, an ad hoc coalition – which will always be an ad hoc decision, if function of which partners want to go along and which organization is best suited for the case at hand. That in the resolution of the Georgian crisis NATO is all but a sideshow is further evidence of this trend.

The Elaboration of a Military Strategy?

If the EU’s engagement for global peace and security can be stepped up, there are, sadly, too many conflicts and crises for the EU to deal effectively with all of them, certainly in a leading role. Therefore, as the Report states, “We need to prioritise our commitments, in line with resources”. The ESS is not very clear on priorities for ESDP operations though, resulting in a missing link between the overall political objective in the ESS – “to share in the responsibility for global security” – and ESDP operations and capability development. Quantitatively, ESDP is based on the 1999 Helsinki Headline Goal, i.e. 60,000 troops. Not only has this objective been overshadowed by the much more limited battlegroup project – although renewed emphasis is put on it in the above-mentioned Declaration on Strengthening Capabilities – but the actual availability of the forces declared cannot be assessed, as they are not pre-identified and Member States have mostly declared similar numbers to NATO as well. If all ongoing ESDP, NATO, UN and national operations in which EU Member States participate are counted, Europe today deploys more than 80,000 troops, but EU Member States obviously cannot mobilize 60,000 additional troops. It is equally obvious however that even the combined ESDP and NATO level of ambition still falls far short of the total combined armed forces of the EU-27: 2 million troops, on which there is no grand vision, even if collective defence is taken into account.

What is required is a unified vision on the level of ambition, cutting across organizational divides – whether operations are conducted through ESDP, NATO, the UN or an ad hoc coalition, is secondary. The EU as the political expression of Europe must decide on a military or civil-military strategy for ESDP, a ‘white book’ that would function as a sub-strategy to the ESS: how many forces should the EU-27 be able to muster for crisis management and long-term peacekeeping, for which priorities, which reserves does that require, and which capacity must be maintained for territorial defence. In all probability the result will be that Europe does not need 2 million uniforms…

Elaborating such an ESDP strategy will require a thorough debate, but some outlines can already be discerned. Because of its proximity, the neighbourhood logically appears as a clear priority: in the ESS “Resolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict is a strategic priority” – although that clear statement does not necessarily translate into proactive engagement – and the Report adds that “We need a sustained effort to address conflicts in the Southern Caucasus, Republic of Moldova and between Israel and the Arab States”. But if the neighbourhood is a clear geographic priority, it is less clear in which types of contingencies the EU will undertake which type of action. Whether the “broader neighbourhood”, including Central Asia and the Gulf, is a priority as well should also be debated. Next to the neighbourhood, only Iran is singled out as a priority, and the EU has indeed been “at the forefront of international efforts to address Iran’s nuclear programme”, as the Report states. Other conflicts are mentioned in the ESS: “Problems such as those in Kashmir, the Great Lakes Region and the Korean Peninsula impact on European interests directly and indirectly, as do conflicts nearer to home, above all in the Middle East” – whether that implies the EU should actively contribute to their resolution is not clear at all. Sub-Saharan Africa has been an important area of focus for ESDP, though the strategy behind it is not always clear; e.g. if the EU twice intervened in the DRC at the request of the UN, why was the third request refused? This demonstrates that without strategy, it is impossible to define what success of an operation means. Other strategic players are becoming increasingly active, but are mostly unwilling to contribute to crisis-management on the African continent – what are the EU’s priorities? Securing Europe’s lines of communication with the world, of which the operation off Somalia is an example, is a more obvious priority.

Importantly, the collective security system of the UN, and therefore of the EU, as its main supporter and with two permanent members of the Security Council in its ranks, can only be legitimate if it addresses the threats to everyone’s security – too much selectivity undermines the system. Even though it cannot always play a leading role, the EU must therefore also shoulder its share of the responsibility for global peace and security by playing an active role in the Security Council and by contributing capabilities to UN(-mandated) crisis management and peacekeeping operations. Notably if anywhere in the world the threshold to activate the mechanism of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is reached, the EU, in view of its support for the principle, and in view of its vital interest in upholding international law, should contribute.

All of these commitments require deployable military capabilities that the EU is currently lacking. A substantial increase in deployments is only possible in the medium to long term, in function of the ongoing transformation of European armed forces. Member States should abandon the national focus: rather than at the level of each individual Member State, the EU27 together must be capable. A resolute choice for pooling, by reducing intra-European duplications, can produce much more deployable capabilities within the current combined defence budget, notably in the framework of “permanent structured cooperation” as provided for in the Lisbon Treaty.*3

Permanent Prevention and Conditionality

The EU is very active in prevention and stabilization, via “positive conditionality”, notably through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). By linking them to market access and economic and financial support, the EU aims to stimulate economic, political and social reforms as well as security cooperation, so as to address the root causes and durably change the environment that leads to extremism, crisis and conflict. Yet, if “positive conditionality” as a theory seems sounds enough, practice is often lagging behind, certainly in countries that do not – immediately – qualify for EU membership. The proverbial carrots that would potentially be most effective in stimulating reform, such as opening up the European agricultural market or setting up a system for legal economic migration, are those that the EU is not willing to consider – in spite of imperative arguments suggesting that Europe would actually benefit from such measures. At the same time, conditionality is seldom applied very strictly. The impression created is that the EU favours stability and economic – and energy – interests over reform, to the detriment of Europe’s soft or normative power. Surprisingly perhaps, in the Mediterranean e.g. public opinion mostly views the EU as a status quo actor, working with the current regimes rather than promoting fundamental change.

This lack of EU soft power should not be underestimated. Rather than as the benign actor which the EU considers itself, in many southern countries it is seen as an aggressive economic actor. For many countries, the negative economic consequences of dumping and protectionism – which often cancel out the positive effects of development aid – are far more threatening than the challenges of terrorism and proliferation that dominate the western agenda. In the current difficult international climate, the EU model is urgently in need of enhancing its legitimacy. The EU must therefore muster the courage to effectively apply conditionality. Admittedly, “positive conditionality” requires an extremely difficult balancing act, especially vis-a-vis countries with authoritarian regimes and vis-a-vis great powers like Russia and China: maintaining partnership and being sufficiently critical at the same time. But in that difficult context, the EU could notably show more resolve in reacting to human rights abuses, which should visibly impact on the relationship with any regime. A much enhanced image will follow, which is a prerequisite for the gradual pursuit of further-reaching political, economic and social reforms.

But has the EU really solved the dilemma of stability versus democracy? A debate seems in order on the desired end-state of especially the ENP. The Report mentions that the Mediterranean e.g. has still seen “insufficient political reform” and that instability is rampant, but does not indicate the way ahead. Is the aim incremental progress while maintaining the existing regimes, or full democratization – and if the latter, are EU instruments sufficient or is there an upper limit to what can be achieved via consensual tools such as the ENP? These are questions which the new Union for the Mediterranean, although the further institutionalization of the Barcelona Process which it entails is positive, does not provide an answer to, and which the projected Eastern Partnership will have to address as well.

Implementing the Holistic Approach

The ESS advocates a holistic approach, but have its objectives really been incorporated by all parts of the EU machinery? Is there sufficient coordination between the different strands of foreign policy, across and within pillars, or is “stove-piping” still the order of the day? The in fact very progressive agenda of the ESS risks losing credibility if the EU does not draw the full conclusions from it, notably for its external trade, agriculture and migration policies. If an exclusive focus on hard security undermines effectiveness and legitimacy, so does e.g. a one-dimensional focus on trade. The holistic approach cannot be efficiently implemented without changes in the EU machinery. The personal union of the High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations, and the European External Action Service provided in the Lisbon Treaty would allow for the integration of the security, political, social and economic dimensions in all foreign policies, from the creation to the implementation and evaluation of policy. A High Representative with a stronger mandate would also strengthen the EU’s capacity for preventive diplomacy and increase leadership in EU foreign policy.

Truly Strategic Partnerships

Implementing the holistic approach also requires the active cooperation of all global powers. The UN collective security system can only work if all permanent members actively subscribe to it and refrain from paralyzing or bypassing the Security Council. Conditionality can only work if it is not undermined by actors that disregard human rights and other considerations. Another debate therefore is how the EU can persuade strategic partners like Russia and China, but also India, Brazil, Mexico, and the US, that “effective multilateralism” is in their long-term interest. Specific but concrete joint interests can perhaps function as building-blocks to give real substance to the politico-military dimension of these strategic partnerships. E.g. in the negotiations with Iran, Russia and China have been difficult, but not impossible partners either, given that sanctions have been adopted by the Security Council. At the same time, growing importance of these bilateral strategic partnerships must be reconciled with the other EU objective of promoting regional integration in other parts of the world.

A United Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship

One thing is clear: the EU can only have an impact if it acts as one. The EU should abandon its usual stance of “divide and rule”, i.e. Europe divides itself, and Russia or China or others rule. Europe must resolutely choose to act as one united pole in a multi-polar world, including on matters of foreign policy, security and defence. Only such a Europe will be relevant to the US and the world. Such a united EU can build a direct, comprehensive, deepened, and equal partnership with the US, on all matters of foreign policy, of which NATO is the technical platform that Washington and Brussels use if they want to act together militarily. Such a Europe must be much more self-conscious. That means neither having a position in favour of something simply because e.g. Russia is against and vice versa, nor being afraid of Russia, but making policy in function of Europe’s own interests and priorities. That also means therefore not just reacting to US policy and either join Washington or watch it – the last couple of years have seen too many US strategies that have proved directly counter to EU interests, on Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle Eastern region, on missile defence, on the Eastern Neighbourhood. On all of these, the EU must continually define its own priorities and proactively engage US President Barack Obama.

As Paul-Henri Spaak once said, there are only two types of States in Europe: small States, and small States that have not yet realized that they are small – unfortunately the latter category are quite persistent.

Institutionalizing the Strategic Debate

The 2008 debate has been useful at least in the sense that it forced all actors involved to think once again about the strategic-level issues, for which the pressure of current events does not always allow. In 2003, the EU discovered how to make a strategy in the first place; in 2008, the EU started to discover how to wage a strategic debate and review. Perhaps the strategic debate and the evaluation of EU policy could be more institutionalized.

Because it encompasses the whole of foreign policy, the ESS could provide the framework for a regular comprehensive assessment, across the pillars, e.g. every 5 years. In every field of foreign policy, the policy documents could be listed as well as the actions undertaken to implement them, including an assessment of their effectiveness. Such a systematic review process would provide additional focus for the various EU entities that are involved in policy planning, while it could stimulate strategic debate in political bodies such as the Political and Security Committee. Prepared by the relevant actors in the Council and Commission administration, such a high-level political debate could take place under the aegis of the “High Representative-plus” and the External Action Service, which would ensure a focus on the interests of the EU as such and on the holistic approach. But the debate should also involve the European Parliament, and could include seminars engaging academia, think tanks and the media as well as national and EU policy-makers. This would constitute a true strategic review, i.e. a thorough assessment of the effectiveness of actual policies in all areas covered by the ESS, from aid and trade, democracy and human rights promotion, to diplomacy and the military. This would also allow the EU to identify in which areas the ESS has not yet been translated into “sub-strategies”, policies and actions, as well as in which cases its policies in one area are contradictory to those in another.


2009 is an important year for makers of strategy. President Obama will undoubtedly task the elaboration of a new National Security Strategy (NSS). At the NATO Summit in April, the drafting of a new Strategic Concept has been tasked. If it wants its interests and priorities to be taken into account, the EU must make sure to have its voice heard. Rather than every Member State participating individually, EU strategy should be the basis for the European input in the debate: only where the NSS and the ESS overlap, can a truly shared NATO strategic concept emerge, reflecting the growing importance of the EU as a global security actor. The Report on the implementation of the ESS is important in this regard – but it should be the start rather than the end of a process. On the basis of the work done, the next European Council should identify the priority areas in which action plans have to be drawn up to improve implementation, or “sub-strategies” elaborated to steer policy, with follow-up assured at the next meeting of the Heads of State and Government. A continually proactive stance must follow.

“Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free”, reads the opening sentence of the ESS. Viewed in the light of Europe’s history, that statement still holds true today. Five years on, the opening sentence of the Report states that “the European Union carries greater responsibilities than at any time in its history”. That statement too is true.

Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop is director of the Security & Global Governance Programme at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and a visiting professor for European security at the College of Europe in Bruges and at Ghent University. He is a member of the Executive Academic Board of the European Security and Defence College and co-director for Egmont of the Higher Studies in Security and Defence, co-organized with Belgium’s Royal High Institute for Defence.


*1 Sub-strategy does not refer to a specific or new category of documents, but to documents that elaborate on one aspect of the ESS and thus de facto function as sub-strategies to it, e.g. the ENP, the strategies on WMD, on terrorism, on Africa etc.

*2 Endorsed at the UN Millennium+5 Summit in September 2005, R2P implies that if a State is unable or unwilling to protect its own population, or is itself the perpetrator of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity, national sovereignty must give way to a responsibility to protect on the part of the international community. In such cases, the Security Council must mandate intervention, if necessary by military means.

*3 Sven Biscop, “Permanent Structured Cooperation and the Future of the ESDP: Transformation and Integration ”. In: European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol. 13, 2008, No.4, pp. 431-448.