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  • Writer's picturePauline Zaragoza

European Union Defense and Security Policy: The Fall of the Rose-colored Glasses

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the forced departure of the EUCAP forces in Mali, Iran nuclear talks, Belarus’ threat at the Polish borders (EEAS, 2022a)…Within the last few months, the European Union is facing an accumulation of foreign threats near its borders. However, facing the latter, the regional organization is shining by its struggles to respond efficiently. In the midst of the ongoing Russian crisis, one of the most important security conferences was occurring in Munich from the 18th to the 20th of February, without Russia.

In his opening speech, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, underlined how the current times represent a decisive turning point. Either it will show the strength of the multilateral and ideological efforts made since WW2 to overcome difficult times; or it will signify the return of the “might is right” attitude to the international scene (Ibid). The report of the same conference acknowledges those times of growing insecurities, especially at the doors of Europe (Executive summary, 2022). More concerning, this document relates to the emergence of a “collective helplessness”, marking the rise of pessimism in Europe and the fall of its rose-colored glasses. In other words, Europe took peace for granted and thought its values were a sufficient shield allowing it to neglect its security and defense aspects. The West thought to be ahead thinking that the Clausewitzian practice of war was belonging to history books. However, traditional security concerns are back in Europe.

This situation has led to question the current strategic position of European countries (Ibid). Europe is known for its economic power but when it comes to managing global security threats, it loses its ability to take the initiative, which undermines its political and military power (Munich Security Report, 2022). This context brings back to the front a question: Should the EU get its own army? In a recent speech (December 2021) to present the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, Emmanuel Macron addressed the need to become “a powerful Europe in the world, fully sovereign, free to make its choices and master of its destiny” (Munich Security Report, 2022). In that sense, the EU common security and defense policy was created in the nineties to reach the goal of European autonomy under scrutiny (Howorth, 2018). Thirty years later, has this goal been reached?

The Failure of a European Army’s dream

Our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army”, those words of Jean Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, emphasize the inherent dilemma of the European Union. The question of a European army has been part of the agenda of the regional institution since its creation after WW2. This project is rooted in controversy as it involves the idea of political integration for the Union (Winn, 2003). Inherently, an army assesses the relationship between a state, its citizens, and its civic identity (Weinzierl, 2021).

The idea of the EU is deeply bonded to security purposes as it aimed to preserve peace in Europe (Weinzierl, 2021). By doing so, at its creation, it adopted what was called “the step by step policy” which aimed to implement at first an economic integration to allow later on a political one. In 1950, the “Coal and Steel European Community” was founded and succeeded to unite through the communitarization of the coal and steel industries. With this economic cooperation, they succeeded to avoid internal conflicts by growing ties and dependence among European Nations (Weinzierl, 2021). Even though the idea of a common defense policy emerged in 1948 with the Treaty of Brussels (involving the UK, France, and the Benelux countries) which included a mutual defense clause, the proposal of a European Defense Community with a single army first appeared in 1952. Paradoxically, even though this project was pushed by the French government, this ambition was stopped by its parliament in 1954 (Lippert et al., 2019). This failure conduced EU countries to “outsource their security and defense to NATO” (Ibid) leading it to immobility in this matter as the EU never reached the step of becoming a military power, but rather became an economic one. Nonetheless, in the late 80s, European integration reawakened.

The slow development of a reactive European Common Security and Defense Policy

The way to build security and defense cooperation between the EU countries hasn’t been a long calm river. European defense started to take shape in December 1991 with the Treaty of Maastricht which introduced the foundations of a political union with the creation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The latter framed the political and military structures of the EU (Manolea, 2019). Even though the EU holds a preference for coercive diplomacy when it comes to managing a conflict, it has developed throughout the past thirty years its security policy (Sauer, 2007). Notably, a shift occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After this event, the US started to express its expectations toward EU countries to contribute to global peacekeeping and crisis management (Winn, 2003). In the aftermath, the following policies were adopted:

  • In 2002: Berlin Agreement allowed the use of NATO structures, mechanisms, and assets to carry out ESDP (European Security and Defense Policy) missions (European Council, 2022)

  • In 2003: EU country’s common threats were established (European Council, 2022)

  • In 2004: a European Defense Agency was created (European Council, 2022)

Another key moment in the development of the European Security and Defense policy was the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. The latter permitted the introduction of the notion of a “common security and defense policy” (CSDP), the creation of a mutual defense clause (Art 42.7), deeper integration with the PESCO framework, the creation of a European External Action Service, and the introduction of The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Lisbon Treaty, 2007). In 2016, the European CSDP went further owing to the occurrence of three marking events: the Russian Annexation of Crimea which marked the comeback of conventional conflicts in Europe; the Brexit vote which announced the departure of an EU defense power; and the political rise of Donald Trump in the US (Fischer, 2017). Already in 2015, a new EU Global Strategy (2015-2020) was adopted, however, those events forced the EU to reinforce its strategic autonomy, especially through the structure of PESCO which was initiated by Germany, France, Spain, and Italy (Fischer, 2017). In 2017, the European Council reaffirmed the need to fight online radicalization, prevent and counter violent extremism, tackle terrorism financing, organized crime, cybercrime, improve information sharing, and the interoperability of databases (European Council, 2017). Those priorities have been launched following numerous terrorist attacks in Europe through the last decade (Fischer, 2017). However, this definition of threats does not take into account all landscapes of risk and demonstrates the naivety of the EU about the realities of its security threats. Moreover, the development of the EU CSDP priorities reactive policies rather than proactive ones which underline the difficulty of the EU to be a powerful actor in this field.

Under this CSDP, the EU carried out civilian and military missions but mostly only in terms of peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks. Among others, those missions aimed to promote European values such as respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and freedoms (EEAS, 2022b).


“Since 2003 and the first interventions in the Western Balkans, the EU has launched and run 36 operations and missions on three continents. As of May 2021, there are 17 ongoing CSDP missions and operations, 11 of which are civilians and 6 militaries, involving around 5 000 EU military and civilian staff deployed abroad” (EU MISSIONS AND OPERATIONS, 2021)

Usually, the deployment of those missions results from a demand of a partner country (Ibid). However, the EU refuses to address those military interventions as composing the roots of a European Army. This point sounds even more questionable knowing that a project of a joint military force of 5000 soldiers by 2025 is ongoing (Reuters, 2022).

One of the weaknesses of the European defense and security policies is its will to adopt a peaceful image and to restrict itself to be a civilian power. Nonetheless, the EU cannot be a knight defending noble values to protect citizens and be against war. Times have changed. For decades, some politicians and intellectuals address a rivalry between education and EU defense, arguing that investments in education are more useful than in the military. However, this new time of crisis has proved that in the European context this dichotomy is wrong (Aghion et al., 2019).

A tangled road to reach an efficient and autonomous European Defense

Even though Europe is proud to be a soft power of global importance, it should not ‘be naïve’, as ‘soft power is not enough in our increasingly dangerous neighborhood” - Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2016 State of the Union speech (Hoijtink and Muehlenhoff, 2020)

As seen previously, even though the EU improved its CSDP within the past thirty years, the efforts made are still not enough, especially to face the current threat. The EU as a sui generis institution is facing many challenges: a crisis of legitimacy, a rise of the terrorist threat and populism, the Brexit… (KNEZOVIĆ AND ESTEVES LOPES, 2020).

The EU claims to be a global security provider abroad with almost “Almost 5,000 women and men help to promote peace and security where needed, providing stability and building resilience in fragile environments” (EEAS, 2022b)… But is the EU able to provide its own security? What are the challenges currently posed to the EU defense and security?

An ambivalent relationship with NATO

One first challenge to European CDSP is its relationship with NATO and indirectly with the US which is the primary actor in this institution. Indeed, would a European Army represent a threat to NATO? Does the EU have the interest to create a separate entity to improve its strategic autonomy or should the EU build its security and defense within NATO?

As an obstacle, the EU is facing issues in terms of capabilities and resources (KNEZOVIĆ AND ESTEVES LOPES, 2020). NATO 2018’s figures underline the imbalance of military expenditure between the EU countries and the US. Indeed, only a minority of EU countries reached the goal of 2% of GDP in defense spending (Greece, Estonia, and Latvia) whereas the US is spending 3,5% of their GPD (Ibid). Moreover, even though Europeans increased their defense spending, the US still provides 50% of the NATO budget (Billon-Galland and Thomson, 2018). Therefore, this lack of military capability and the long-term dependence of the EU on the US constitute obstacles to the conduct of independent European military operations (Billon-Galland, A., & Thomson, A. (2018). Therefore, according to those arguments, the dream of a strong and autonomous European military power is not realistic.

However, the Russian invasion of Crimea and the presidency of Donald Trump challenged the conception of European Security and pushed them to reconsider the strategic position of European countries. Yet, those events are symptomatic of an “epochal shift” with a new political age for Europeans. The incoming of Donald Trump demonstrated the unreliability of the US with back and forth from being an international gendarme to withdrawal, questioning the stability of their implication within NATO (Manolea, 2019). Moreover, there is a rise in controversies within NATO countries especially when it comes to the arms trade (Ibid). Recently, French Defence Minister Florence Parley criticized the practice of imposing U.S. arms acquisition to NATO Partners (Ibid). In this sense, France wants to push the creation of a European Army and intensify its exports in defense products to EU members. As a matter of fact, Emmanuel Macron advocated “that Europe needs a unified army that could protect the EU from China, Russia, and even the US and stop relying our entire defense on the US” (Ibid). Unexpectedly, at first, as opposed to the idea alike his predecessors under the claim that it would lead to “under the guise of preventing wasteful duplication with NATO”, the Biden administration has started to be in favor of the European project to become a military power (Politico, 2021). Among others, the former French president Francois Hollande addressed the European dilemma’s context:

“France has a defense [policy], the European Union does not because it did not want to. The EU jeopardizes its defense by giving it to the US but the incoming Trump rose the question: ‘will the US always be there to protect us?’. Now we feel safe since a moderate president like Biden is back but what if a populist president comes back at the head of the US, what’s next for us” (Quotidien, 2022).

But for now, from the recent declaration of the EU, the EU security and defense is developed in a complementary way as a strong European defense would strengthen NATO (European Council, 2022).

Internal Disputes

A second challenge to a European army is the internal disputes among European countries. Historically, France pushes for the creation of a European Army to increase EU autonomy. This project was first put at the front of the European debate with Charles De Gaulle in 1952, followed by the French Prime Minister Alain Juppé in 1996, and nowadays with Emmanuel Maron (KNEZOVIĆ AND ESTEVES LOPES, 2020). This project is the fruit of French insistence. However, they are not alone anymore as Germany, usually, an Atlanticist country decided through the leadership of Merkel to advocate for this European project (KNEZOVIĆ AND ESTEVES LOPES, 2020; Bennhold and Erlanger, 2018).

The deep ties of some European countries with the US make the debate even more complex. For example, Denmark refused to be part of the PESCO and to participate in the European defense fund (Liboreiro, 2022). Moreover, it has to be noted that the differences between the North (the Four Frugals) and the South of Europe, divided on this question considering the patchwork nature of their defense, their different strategic interests and priorities (Manolea, 2019).

In addition, Brexit affected the European Defense. The departure of the UK meant the loss of a UNSC member and a nuclear power. The UK also used to contribute significantly to the EU’s security policy with 25% of defense spending and up to 20% of deployable forces coming from the UK (Ibid). Another negative aspect of those internal disputes is the efficiency of the EU battle groups. Created in 2005, this tool encompasses military forces that can be rapidly deployed on the ground. However, due to political, technical, and financial reasons they have never been deployed. An accumulation of crises (e.g. Russia, Brexit) as well as the uncertainty of the American leadership as a global policeman underlines the necessity for the EU to improve its strategic autonomy through its security and defense policy. In that sense, the creation of a European army would help to improve EU strategic autonomy and not be any more subject to other powers’ decisions (Lippert et al., 2019).

An inefficient decision-making process

The third challenge to EU CSDP is the decision-making process structuring the Union. Currently, most of the CSDP is under unanimity rules and therefore under veto power underlined in art. 42(4) TEU (Weinzierl, 2021). This means that if one of the 27 members disagrees, the decision cannot be carried out. Considering the high number of members and their heterogeneity, there is little chance that a common position is reached on those tricky subjects. This mechanism partly explains the lack of military power of the EU since the decision-making process gripped European initiatives. It has also to be noted that oversea in the Indo-Pacific, the ASEAN suffers from the same limits as it witnesses low compliance and decisions making combined with weak intuitions (Ong Keng Yong, 2009). Hence, this highlight similar limits within regional organizations when it comes to defense and security matters.

Moreover, the current internal tensions with Hungary and Poland and the lack of political will to build a strong union (e.g. Euroscepticism) block the decision-making process. Another obstacle is the provision of military capabilities for the Union which relies on voluntary national contributions for any mission under art. 42(1) and (3) TEU) (Weinzierl, 2021). This inefficient decision-making process leads to a slow and indecisive process of strategic automatization (Lippert et al., 2019). Therefore, the creation of a European army encompasses a decision-making dilemma: would it be subject to majority voting or qualified majority?


On the 24th of February 2022, a global earthquake happened. Not geographical but geopolitical: the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The latter shocked Europe and tore it out of its naivety regarding its current security and defense positions. European countries realized they cannot only be protected by their morals. War happens everywhere and probably Europeans thought they were immune from it. The strategic autonomy of the EU in terms of its CSDP constitutes its Achille’s heel (Lippert et al., 2019). The geostrategic environment of Europe has changed as underlined by the evolution of the first lines of the EU Security Strategy reports (KNEZOVIĆ AND ESTEVES LOPES, 2020):

  • 2003: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free” (European Commission, 2003)

  • 2016: “The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned.” (European Commission, 2016)

In the shadow of the invasion in January 2022, the EU focused its help on Ukraine with a small fund of 25 million euros to improve its digital transformation (e.g. e-governance) as well as a hashtag “Stronger together” (EU and Ukraine, 2022). However, a sharp shift occurred a month later with the invasion. The EU decided to provide a package of €500 million to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including for the first time in EU history, lethal equipment (Liboreiro, 2022). In addition, this crisis brought the introduction of a new EU Strategic Compass which includes (Council of the European Union, 2022):

  • A concrete plan for an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity to allow us to quickly deploy up to 5.000 troops for different types of crises, based on different scenarios

  • Introduction of regular live exercises

  • Promotion of faster and more flexible decision-making

  • Deepen investment into the necessary strategic enablers and next-generation capabilities

However, this supposed “revolutionary” new strategic compass can be criticized for its lack of ambition. Alongside, the same critics can be addressed to the ongoing four packages of EU sanctions towards Russia only aim to weaken Russia’s economic base by “depriving it of critical technologies and markets” or targeting Russian personalities (Consilium Europa, 2022). Nonetheless, this crisis still signifies a watershed moment for EU defense and security as it has forced some countries to revisit their stance and to make the EU more united. Firstly, Germany agreed to reverse its policy by agreeing to send lethal weapons to a conflict area (e.g. 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles (Liboreiro, 2022). Secondly, Sweden and Finland, traditionally nonaligned, also decided to deliver lethal weapons and are now seriously considering EU and NATO membership (Ibid). But the most impressive reversal is for Denmark which was the only country outside of the European CSDP. Rethinking their defense strategy, on the 1st of June, they are going to hold a referendum to repeal the Danish opt-out clause and integrate it into the EU CSDP as well as to increase their defense spending to 2% of GPD (currently 1,44%) (Ibid).

As seen previously, the EU CSDP evolved only owing to the occurrence of crisis. Therefore, the ongoing situation represents an opportunity to change from a military-industrial and research cooperation to more concrete actions. However, this reversal can only occur in the context of a restart of the Union integration, currently stopped. If the realization of a European army project is unlikely to happen now, perhaps those little steps open the door for its concretization in the next decades. Nowadays, a European defense policy cannot bethink without NATO because as stated by the Executive summary of the last Munich Security Conference: “only a collective resistance will save liberal values” (Executive Summary, 2022).

With this crisis, the European pink-colored glasses fell and broke. Now collectively, EU countries need to find a solution together as they know that an answer at the national level is not enough. The prospect of a European army, if not a strong defense and security policy, is increasingly more likely. But how many crises are left before it can happen?



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