Is There a Place for the EU in International Security?


It’s a crowded field out there. During the last few decades, international institutions dealing with security and defence in one way or another have mushroomed all over the world. This ranges from highly technical associations of states known only to a small group of experts such as the Australia Group to very prominent institutions such as the UN Security Council. One of the newcomers in more recent times is the European Union, which has tried to build up its credentials in international security by implementing what it calls the Common Foreign and Security Policy. This is quite a remarkable development for two reasons: First, the EU wasn’t designed to be a security actor in the first place. Although its purpose has always been to cement peace in Europe after the devastating Second World War, it has been – and is still today – an organization based to a large degree on trade and other economic issues. Second, it could be argued that there’s no real need for an additional international security organization at the regional level. With the UN, NATO or the OSCE – just to name a few prominent examples – European states already have more than enough institutions at their disposal to address with their partner countries whatever security problem they face. On top of that, EU security and defence policies have often been criticised for their persistent lack of impact. So, do we really need the EU in international security?

Contrary to the ever popular EU-bashing, I actually argue in an article on the tenth anniversary of the EU’s Strategy against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction that there is a place for the EU in international security. To begin with, it’s necessary to get rid of some common misperceptions that distort our view of the EU. First, the EU is not a state. Although it has state-like (i.e. ‘supranational’) competencies in the economic realm, in defence and security it remains largely an intergovernmental organization guided by the principle of consensus among member states. That is, EU policies are only as good as EU member state cooperation. Consequently, its performance should not be judged by the standards of a state or even a major power. Second, the EU has only few independent power resources. It does have large and relevant institutional structures with their own budget, in particular the European External Action Service, but many key features of a fully-fledged security actor remain with member states, including the ability to implement economic sanctions in practice or the use of armed forces. In other words, EU resources and capabilities are only as good as the resources and capabilities that member states provide. Taking these caveats into consideration, the performance of EU security and defence policies may appear in a better light than the failure to meet unrealistic expectations suggests. In the field of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction the performance has been certainly better than what most experts believed when the policy was kick-started with the EU Non-Proliferation Strategy in 2003.

The most illustrative example in this regard is the case of Iran. In the aftermath of the deep divisions over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British, French and German foreign ministers (the ‘E3’) decided to address a high-profile proliferation concern next door and travelled to Tehran in late 2003. This was the starting point for an over ten year long negotiation marathon between Iran and what came to be known as the EU/E3 and a couple of years later the EU/E3+3 (also known as the P5+1). Although the process has had its ups and downs and has been far from smooth, the Europeans have been the lead negotiators in one of the most prominent security issues of the past decade and have been able to maintain both intra-European and international unity. Interestingly, they have been able to find an innovative institutional arrangement within the EU that installed the EU’s foreign policy chief, first Javier Solana and then Lady Ashton, as the lead negotiator and allowed the E3 to play key roles without ignoring the other member states. Moreover, the EU has been able to take unprecedented measures in the field of security, most notably an oil embargo in 2012. Has all this led to a successful conclusion of the negotiations? Obviously, not yet. But at the same time, it would be foolish to attribute this lack of progress to the EU’s weakness. After all, the Americans and Chinese haven’t solved the North Korea nuclear problem either! And they are arguably more powerful actors than the EU.

Iran and the broader field of non-proliferation are rather good indicators of when the EU is – and should be! – a leading security organization. First, the EU is a useful – and well established – framework to bring to bear the combined power of European states on the international stage, in particular if the United States refuses to get involved, as initially in the case of Iran, or if it deals with big powers such as China or Brazil, where individual member states’ clout is not sufficient. Second, flexible institutional arrangements for specific cases (read: EU/E3) and political pragmatism focused on problem-solving can be more helpful than formal institutions and rigid policy approaches. Third, the EU’s strength lies in non-military security fields, where the EU’s undeniable weakness in military terms can be easily compensated with its enormous combined economic and soft power capabilities. In fact, many of today’s security problems, from Ebola to global warming, are not classical military problems. For those, we’ll always have NATO! Ultimately, the key question is if an international organization can make a difference in security terms for its member states and their people. And within limits, the EU can certainly make such a contribution in a way other organizations can’t.

Image: Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the EC with Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the round of the E3/EU+3 nuclear talks in Vienna in July 2014

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