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The European Union’s foreign, security and defence policy – in a nutshell

08 avril, 2006
Analyse and essay
Hajnalka Vincze

According to a widely known phrase pronounced by then Luxemburg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos at the beginning of the 1990’s, the EU is “an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm”. Whereas far from being incorrect, this definition needs some updating and, most of all, serious clarification.

Basic features

Within the EU’s three-pillar structure, EFSDP constitutes the second, strictly intergovernmental pillar. As opposed to the first one (that of community method and policies, mainly in the economic field) foreign, security and defence policy has much more restrictive rules with regard to the role of supranational EU institutions. There is no exclusive right of initiative for the Commission, no co-decision for the Parliament, and Member States can not be held accountable before the Court for not abiding with decisions taken in the realm of EFSDP. Furthermore, within this second pillar, defence issues, obviously among the most sensitive ones, reflect what one might call hyper-intergovernmentalism: decisions “with military implications” are subject to even more constraining mechanisms. And rightly so.

As long as there is no political entity at a European level able and willing to express and defend European sovereignty, competence in these crucial areas must remain where sovereignty lies, namely with the Member States. Significantly, contrary to the “single” currency, we talk about “common” foreign, security and defence policy: in fact, this EU policy is restricted to the intersection field between Twenty-Five national foreign, security and defence policies. EFSDP has no mandate and no vocation to replace them, rather there is a sort of “cohabitation”, whereby common European policy only emerges in the overlapping areas.

According to the functional integration model, economic integration – through continuous spillover – would lead, in time, to the politicization of the European “construction”. As foreign, security and defence policy moves to the forefront of attention, it reveals that something else is needed in order to cross the Rubicon: the clarification of political endgoals or finalités. Over the past half decade, this all-important issue has been kept in a so-called “constructive ambiguity”. But as we approach the very heart of sovereignty, the fundamental question of – in the words of former Commission president Jacques Delors – “what do we want to do together?” can no longer be avoided.

With regard to this crucial choice, EU Member States find themselves on one or the other side of a three-level dividing line. Interestingly, on all of the three (distinct but interrelated) issues, they start from commonly shared convictions, only to arrive to two sets of conclusions diametrically opposed to each other. As far as relations with the United States are concerned, there is unanimity in Europe on the need for a strong transatlantic partnership. However, for Atlanticist countries (traditionally referred to as the “British camp”), European dependence and American leadership is a normal and acceptable form of this partnership, while Member States in favour of European autonomy, led by France, stress that an unbalanced relationship is both unhealthy and unsustainable: only a genuinely autonomous Europe, able and willing to pursue its own policies, would be in a position to engage in a real transatlantic partnership on the basis of reciprocity.

The second level of this intra-European dividing line relates to the very nature of the integration project. Whereas Member States are unquestionably all in support of the European Union, the first (majority) camp would prefer to allow common policies only when and how these are useful or at least indifferent for the United States, the second (minority) camp maintaining that the EU must evolve into a fully-fledged political player on the international scene. Finally, with respect to the desirable structure of the world order, although all European countries agree on the importance of multilateralism, the first camp is in favour of a unipolar order (with the unique transatlantic power center ensuring well-controlled, and necessarily selective, multilateralism), while the second camp argues that genuine multilateralism is not possible until global power relations become more balanced (multipolar concept, with the EU constituting a pole on its own).

At this point, two remarks seem inevitable. First, both France and Britain vigorously oppose any supranational move in the EU foreign, security and defence policy field, albeit for different reasons. For France, the abandon of strict unanimity on these issues would mean, at least in the current circumstances, that her concept of autonomous Europe-power (Europe-puissance) is put in minority. As for Britain, regardless of the present Atlanticist majority within the EU, she fears that any kind of expression of a collective European interest might, in some cases, lead to a common position divergent from that of the US. And it might, indeed. This is exactly the reason why London is in a particularly delicate situation, where a serious study of transatlantic political realities and a subsequent re-evaluation of the traditional British policy (i.e. long-term subservience dissimulated behind short-term pragmatism) can no longer be totally excluded.

Second, lack of clarification on strategic finalities, coupled with systematic fuite en avant (blind rush) in the integration project have led to an outstandingly dangerous situation, where European sovereignty finds itself in a sort of no man’s land. Negative integration (meaning the de-construction of internal barriers and transfers of considerable chunks of sovereignty from the Member States to the EU-level) has not been followed by its positive counterpart: the building of a political entity willing and able to assume and defend Europeans’ collective sovereignty. As General De Gaulle warned us: “Integrated Europe where there would be no policy, would depend on an outsider who, in contrast, would have one.” With our sovereignty left in this no man’s land, we expose ourselves to outside threats, pressures and blackmails – instead of assuming an autonomous political stance in world affairs in order to protect and promote our values and interests.

Sketchy historical overview

Without going into any detail, it seems worthwhile to outline the logic of the more than fifty-year evolution underpinning the current form of EFSDP. From 1949 (signature of the Washington Treaty) / 1950 (announcement of the Schuman Plan launching European integration) up to our days there are only two landmark dates. One is in 1989-1990 with the end of the bipolar era that triggered a radical change of the international context, and the other one occurred in 1998-1999 with the decision to develop European security and defence cooperation within the framework of the European Union (as opposed to a sub-division within the Atlantic Alliance). In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union created a radically new situation, insofar that the theme of the common massive external threat ceased to be the convenient pretext to ignore security and defence issues at a European level in the name of Atlantic solidarity. Even so, it is to be stressed that continuity is omnipresent in the transatlantic relationship over the past decades. First, the common transatlantic façade has never convincingly covered up the all too real differences and divergences between the respective values and objective interests on the two sides of the ocean. Second, on strategically decisive issues – i.e. with regard to European dependence or autonomy – ambiguity still continues to prevail.

In the bipolar era, NATO was the primary, if not exclusive, forum for Europeans’ defence cooperation, and this of course under obvious American leadership. In fact, asymmetry between the US and its allies generated constant – albeit denied, shelved or cosmetically attenuated – transatlantic “misunderstandings” throughout NATO’s existence. Also, however subordinated they were, in each decade Western Europeans made some kind of an attempt to shape a distinct security profile for our continent. With extremely limited success, however.

The European Defence Community (CED : Communauté européenne de défense) initiated in the Fifties was not only premature in the very logic of the then debuting integration process, but neither was it properly European: according to its non-ratified treaty, the European army thereby created would have been placed under NATO (US) command even in peacetime. In the Sixties it was the turn of the Fouchet plans, instigated by General De Gaulle, to propose an autonomous political union among the Six (founding members of the European Community or EC). After huge debates on the twin issues of intergovernmentalism vs. supranationalism, and autonomy vs. Atlantic subordination (and the underlying questions related to prospective British membership), the idea was buried under a series of plans and counter-plans.

At the beginning of the Seventies, the intergovernmental mechanism called European Political Cooperation (EPC) was created outside the EC framework to allow Member States to pursue discussions and coordinate when and where possible in the field of foreign policy. With the Single European Act of the mid-Eighties, EPC was drawn into the treaties’ legal framework, and the formerly taboo word “security” (an always convenient bridge between external policy and defence) made its official appearance in the EC texts. However, over its 20-year existence the nature of EPC remained basically unchanged, both its ambitions and its instruments being remarkably limited. Yet the experience generated a social learning process, and – to some extent – a sort of coordination reflex among Member States, through continuous meetings, exchanges of view and acquaintance with each others’ working habits and traditional approaches.

In fact, until 1990 structural constraints – such as Cold War “bloc discipline” outside, and unbalance between well-developed economic aspects and sacrilegious, thus almost non-existent, political-security dimension inside – strongly limited the possibility of any autonomous European initiative. The 1989/1990 radical overhaul in international and intra-European relations had an obvious impact on this situation. Yet the lessons were only very partially drawn by the EU’s Maastricht Treaty that launched CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) in a rather ambiguous way. The contradictions were embodied in the WEU’s new stance (the Western European Union was created in 1948, and then basically put to sleep for the whole duration of the bipolar era): it was left floating between EU and NATO, defined as both the “military arm of the European Union” and the “European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance”.

It was not before the Cologne European Council of June 1999 (following on the St Malo French-British agreement signed in December 1998) that the EU decided to take on specifically military responsibilities. At the same time, WEU’s “floating” fate has been clarified: its crisis management functions were to be incorporated into the European Union’s newly launched Common European Security and Defence Policy. Subsequent years have been characterized by a great amount of political tussle over hierarchy between NATO and EU, as well as a dynamic institutional and operational development of ESDP. The modifications proposed by the so-called constitutional treaty point essentially in three directions: improving coherence (embedding ESDP in the whole spectrum of the EU’s external actions), enhancing flexibility (offering the possibility for those who want to go further and faster in these areas to do so), and expressing solidarity (in the form of both an anti-terrorism solidarity clause and a mutual defence clause). It should be noted that regardless of ratification miseries, EFSDP continues to be driven or paralyzed essentially by Member States’ political will or unwillingness.

To conclude this brief overview, two final observations are in order here. First, although ESDP was launched allegedly to complement the previously initiated common foreign policy, more than obviously it is above all in the field of this latter (most notably with regard to relations with the US) that clarifications are to be made so as to make the EU’s external presence operational. Second, the nature and arrangements of ESDP reflect the current stalemate in transatlantic relations: the United States is no longer able to prevent Europeans to initiate their security and defence cooperation outside the NATO framework, whereas Europeans are not yet at a stage where they would fully assume their sovereignty.

From security concept to genuine strategy?

In order to apprehend the very substance (and the seemingly unexplainable contradictions) of current European foreign, security and defence policy, we have to make a very clear distinction between European approach to security in general on the one hand, and genuine strategic outlook on the other. Whereas in their overall attitude on security issues Member States hold largely converging views, as soon as it comes to sovereignty-based long-term considerations of geopolitical nature, they find themselves fundamentally divided.

Concerning security per se, the European approach is due to common geographical, historical and recent political experience. As for geography, a mere glance at the map is enough to realize that for our continent isolationism has never been an option. To promote crucial stability in our neighbourhood, we have to engage in cooperation and dialogue. This is all the more important because of today’s so-called transnational security challenges (migration, environment, illegal traffic, organized crime etc.) or the simple fact that 50% of Europe’s energy consumption is imported from the outside (thus transits inevitably through our neighbourhood) a figure that is expected to grow to 70% by 2030.

As far as historical experience is concerned, our collective past is rich in fratricide wars and changing alliances, and the morality is not always very clear. We have learnt to become outright skeptical towards simplifying explanations that want to divide the world into “good” and “evil”. This kind of approach sits uncomfortable with us not only because of its excessive naivety but even more because of the high probability of hidden agendas. Add to this the most recent horrors of World War II, where we brought European civilization close to extinction and had a very close encounter with the denial of humanity. This was but the (hopefully) last manifestation of a “negative dialectic” present throughout European history. As one wise men’s report to then Commission President Prodi put it: “Europe has been the stage on which western values have been elaborated and defended, then broken down into pieces”. This centuries-long dialectic has made us highly sensitive about the fragility of all that seems more or less acquis.

Finally, European integration in the last half-decade has been all about establishing a radically new kind of relationship between nations, qualified by Jacques Delors “the laboratory of the management of interdependences”. The lessons learnt would be in fact highly relevant in a world that tries to cope with the process of globalization and increasing complexity. On top of these lessons, we find our firm belief in the virtue of multilateralism. As Javier Solana put it: “European attachment to a multilateral approach is a matter of conviction, not of malign strategy. To misquote Sir Winston Churchill, multilateralism is the worst of international government except all the others have been tried.”

Building on this collective experience, European approach to security has its distinctive features. The EU’s so-called structural foreign policy tries to take into account the “big picture” instead of pointing at some obvious warning signs, concentrates on the roots instead of the symptoms, stress the need for legitimate solutions as the only ones that can ensure long-term stability instead of striking back like a boomerang. The above-mentioned attachment to multilateralism is a natural part of this comprehensive approach: the law of the jungle (which, while in the short term favouring the – currently – strongest, also entitles the weak to use every mean – be it asymmetric – at their disposal and sets an inherently violent pattern for power relations on the international scene) is strongly rejected in Europe.

All this is very good, and may even be right and farsighted, but has absolutely no use as long as Europeans do not assume a strategic stance to defend and promote their ideas. In order to maintain our model and be able to make a difference in external events, what we need is much more than an otherwise intelligent approach to security. What we need is genuine strategy. The catch is that strategy is intimately linked to the concept of power and the concept of autonomy. Without these, Europe (dependent and at the mercy of outside pressures) cannot hope to become a credible international player. And there can be no real multilateralism either (which would only be possible if power relations were less distorted and more disciplined by a sort of “checks and balances”).

Yet the idea of an autonomous Europe-power (Europe-puissance) is extremely controversial among European Member States (let alone on the other side of the Atlantic). Internal opposition comes both from naive pacifism and from servile Atlanticism. These two are equally irresponsible and ultimately fatal attitudes. Refusal of power leads to powerlessness and refusal of independence leads to dependence. Powerlessness and dependence means no credibility, therefore no negotiating position whatsoever on any issue of significance, be it the course of world events, the shaping of the international order or the preservation of our own European model.

Presentation at the Central European Conference organized by the Rajk László College for Advanced Studies, Hungary, 8 April 2006


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