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The Elusive European Union Defence Policy

The Elusive European Union Defence Policy

Strategic autonomy, a European army, a Europe without NATO, President Macron's ideas, Central and Eastern European concerns, and dozens of articles trying to answer the question of whether the EU should become independent of NATO and the US. These buzzwords, enigmatic slogans, and deep, unanswered questions seem to be inherent in the EU's defence policy. Much is written about it, but at the same time, we know little about it. What is it, what does it involve, and, consequently, what future does it have?

To answer these questions, we need to know the genesis of that idea, the formal framework that shapes it, and the instruments available to it. Explaining what the European defence policy is is a difficult task. However, it is now also a necessity, because as members of both the EU and NATO, we have a duty and a vested interest not only to know what is going on but also to look for opportunities to defend our interests in a changing reality. The following text aims to guide us through the meanders of the EU defence policy and indicate what it is and what it is not and what - from the Polish perspective - it should not be.

Wind of change

If one's interests focus on transatlantic relations, then undoubtedly one of the most prominent bones of contention between the U.S. and the EU is the EU defence policy. The latter is developing dynamically, and recent months have brought a rash of information and announcements. First, we saw a change in the narrative of the White House, whose previous confrontational rhetoric had led many Euro-enthusiasts to think about building a European defence system independently of the US. It was then that threats were made that some countries were not worth defending against aggression or that NATO was undergoing "brain death" and needed to be replaced with something else. A calming of mood came with Joe Biden's assumption of power but once aroused, ideas and doubts did not go away. One could follow them all in the speeches of Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, or Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference of February 19 this year.

After a wave of words and comments, the time for the details has come. For example, the final shape of the European Defence Fund (EDF) for 2021-2027 was adopted, the first (for the time being secret) versions of the EU Strategic Compass were presented, and it was announced that the United States would participate in one of the PESCO projects (Permanent Structured Cooperation, about which more later). All this is happening at a time when experts are talking about changes in the global balance of power, anticipating the development of tensions between Washington and Beijing, or counting the days until the announcement of a new NATO strategy.

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All these events and processes point to an obvious conclusion - the contemporary international situation forces the European Union to build its own security. The Community tries to respond to it. What is less apparent is how this is done. Therefore, without further ado, it is time for us to get to know it better. Let us start with history to understand better the context of what exists today.

The roots of EU defence policy

The first attempt by European states to form a military alliance took place a year before NATO came into being, in 1948, when France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg formed the Western Union under the Treaty of Brussels. Its origins were straightforward and classic: these countries feared the remilitarisation of Germany and another war that would follow the same course as the two previous ones. To protect themselves against this, they wanted to create an alliance and commit themselves to stopping the rearmament of Germany. There was no question of building a separate army, joint structures, or European integration, instead of forging an alliance like so many other alliances in history, without a European army or autonomy.

In the early 1950s, however, it seemed that some qualitative change was coming. It was then that the Korean War broke out, and for Western countries, the sense of threat from the Communist world became more accurate than ever before. Such atmosphere quickly influenced the emergence of an idea in Washington and among its European allies about the need to remilitarize West Germany to increase NATO's defence capabilities in Europe. Under such conditions, the Western Union, which was a traditional alliance focused on defence against Germany, was quickly losing its raison d'etre. Therefore, between 1950 and 1952, a new entity was to be created - the European Defence Community (EDC).

In its conception, the EDC was to bring together the Benelux countries, France, Italy, and West Germany, and concentrate its efforts not only on an alliance but also, and more importantly, on the creation of a standard military. The creation of such an army, independent of any single state, was intended, on the one hand, to respond to the growing threat of war in Europe and, on the other, to reassure the French that the accompanying military buildup in Germany would be under the control of a separate organisation, the EWO.

What is noteworthy from today's perspective, the United States "signed on" to this idea. The Americans felt that increasing Europe's independent military capabilities would relieve Washington's burden and allow it to focus on the global fight against communism. The plans of the founders of the EDC were ambitious - they wanted to create 40 divisions, each with 13,000 soldiers, under its own command, which would be dependent on the authorities of the EDC and in cooperation with the North Atlantic Council. This new organisation, creating a de facto separate European army, gained rapid momentum from 1950, and just two years later, in 1952, the treaty was signed by all the countries mentioned above.

The map for the EDC creation. TIME/J.Jonovan

The organisation itself and the army, however, never came into being. This was because the international situation was changing faster than work on the treaty and its ratification. The fastest to ratify the treaty was Belgium and Germany, but it all came down to a veto by... France. Even though it was French politicians themselves who invented the concept of the EDC, it was Paris itself that rejected the ratification of the Treaty constituting it. Among the reasons for this refusal and the general loss of interest in the whole initiative on the part of Western European states is the lowering of the threat of a global conflict.

The relaxation came after Joseph Stalin died in March 1953 (in the month of the first ratifications of the EDC Treaty), and the Korean War was just coming to its end (which came after three years of conflict in July 1953). Therefore, in 1954, when it came to voting in the French Parliament, the Treaty was rejected, and thus the short history of the EWO ended. Nevertheless, it teaches us the first fundamental truth about the role of European defence policy today: it is more dependent on the international situation than on the will of European politicians.

The gap created by the failure of the EDC had been filled since 1954 by the concept of a Western European Union. This organisation was a continuation of the Western European Union, which above all, was to lose its explicitly anti-German character. Despite the defeat of the EDC, the fact remained that, above all, the USA and the United Kingdom were keen to win over a militarized Germany in their military rivalry with the USSR. In addition to this process, which was inevitable at the time, the Western European Union was to guarantee mutual military assistance in case of attack and cooperation in peacetime. It cannot be ignored that this Union did not bring about any revolution in the independent defence of Europe, and its main effect was to facilitate Germany's entry into NATO as early as 1955. The organisation itself, undisturbed, drifted into lethargy until 2011, when it was dissolved as no one saw any point in its continued existence.

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The last chord of this historical outline was the European Corps (Eurocorps), established in 1993. It is not, however, subordinate to the EU, NATO, nor any other international organisation. Today, the Eurocorps numbers around 1000 soldiers and, according to statements (which cannot be confirmed), could command a force of up to 60 000 soldiers. Since its inception, Eurocorps forces have taken part in missions, e.g., in Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan. This involvement consisted of fielding symbolic forces (sometimes no more than 100 soldiers) to support more extensive NATO or EU operations.

These were historical, unsuccessful attempts by Western European countries to create a common defence. They give some idea of nature, but also of the difficulty and complexity of the subject and highlight features that also accompany the European Union today. It is time to look at how it looks today.

Modern times - CSDP

The first, perhaps enigmatic acronym we necessarily learn in this text is CSDP - Common Security and Defense Policy. It is under this policy that the European Union currently wants to pursue its military and defence ambitions. The CSDP itself has undergone its evolutions and changes since the landmark Maastricht Treaty of 1991/1992. What also distinguishes it from the historical organisations mentioned earlier is that it is not a separate creation. The EU institutions are responsible for it and - together with the member states - shape it. As we read in Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) - The common security and defence policy is an integral part of the standard foreign and security policy. Consequently, when looking for an answer to the question of what the EU defence policy is, we are asking what the CSDP is. On a formal basis, analysing what the TEU tells us about it, we can establish its several characteristics:

1. it is based on both civilian and military means to be used outside the EU for peace-keeping, conflict prevention purposes in the framework of military, humanitarian, rescue missions - Article 42(1) and Article 43(1).

2. CSDP must be consistent with EU Member States' commitments to NATO.                                                   

The EU must respect those potential divergences in the objectives of the two organisations that will be resolved in favour of NATO by the member states. The commitments to NATO de facto take precedence over the CSDP - Article 42(2) and (7).

3. The CSDP will have only such civilian and military capabilities as are made available to it by the Member States - Article 42(1) and (3).

4. In addition to the missions themselves, the CSDP is supported by special agencies and instruments. They appear in the TEU: European Defence Agency (EDA - the agency's acronym) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (since 2018 known as PESCO) - Article 42(3) and Article 45 refer to EDA, while Article 42(6) and Article 46 refer to Permanent Structured Cooperation.

To these four frameworks shaping the CSDP, one can add a fifth, which becomes apparent after reading this part of the treaty. This policy is by definition dynamic and focused on constant development rather than on achieving a specific final shape. This is because military issues are always so crucial for states that they are very reluctant to share competencies in this sphere with other actors. Therefore, setting too ambitious goals risks the failure of any international military alliance or further military cooperation. The European Communities have learned this lesson in the course of the 20th century, and now the EU itself is cautious and sensitive not to provoke too much tension or resistance among the member states. One could say that the CSDP would like to take as its motto the principle of "go slowly but never retreat". On the one hand, such an approach allows for stable development. Still, it also exposes the sometimes-justified accusation that the policy is aimless, obscure, and baroque in the sense that it multiplies institutions, declarations, and documents and offers little in return.

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That is precisely what it is. Documents, institutions and declarations. Let's start by listing what instruments the CSDP has. An inevitable renaissance, a flourishing of these came after the EU slowly but inevitably learned lessons from the migration crisis and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Before these events, defence policy constantly had to give way to almost all other Community policies. In the second half of 2016, the then EU High Representative - Federica Mogherini, announced the so-called EU Global Strategy (EUGS). It was this that, even if not always in an exhaustive way, made it possible to define what goals CSDP should achieve in the first place. Since then, by 2020, it can be said that the EU has achieved three types of defence policy instruments: military, industrial, civil. To each of them, we can qualify the following tools of different nature (from missions to planning and evaluation):

Military dimension: Military Planning and Conduct Capability Cell (MPCC, operates within the EU Military Staff EUMS), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), Coordinated Annual Defense Review (CARD), Capability Development Plan (CDP)

Industrial dimension: Preparatory action in the field of defence research (only until 2021), European Defense Industrial Development Programme (only until 2021), European Defense Fund (EDF)

● Civilian dimension: Civilian Crisis Response Concept (CCC), Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability (CPCC)

Among them, one can point to instruments of a programmatic or strategic nature such as the Capability Development Plan (CDP), the Coordinated Annual Defense Review (CARD), and the Civilian Crisis Response Concept (CCC). The CARD is worth special attention. It is supposed to play a vital role - to assess to what extent the Member States' actions in the field of CSDP are implemented and to what time they translate into the increase of the EU defence potential. The first edition of the CARD report, prepared by the European Defence Agency, took place in 2020 and, unfortunately, did not provide positive conclusions. Similarly, it is worth paying attention to what is written in the CDP because it is on the basis that priorities are to be set within PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and EDF (European Defence Fund).

Of the above instruments, the EU-led civilian and military missions should undoubtedly be the ones that fire the imagination the most. Currently, there are 11 civilian missions in total - three in Europe (Kosovo, Ukraine, Georgia), four in the Middle East (two missions in Palestine, Iraq, Libya) and four in Africa (Niger, Central African Republic, Somalia, Mali). During these missions, EU experts support local authorities and monitor the situation in those countries. There are almost half as many military missions (six), and five of them take place in Africa - in Mali, Niger and Somalia. The effectiveness and evaluation of these missions are difficult to judge, but it can indeed be said of them that they are not stunning in scale. All of the 17 civilian and military missions involve about 5 000 people who constantly point to the fact that the level of funding for these undertakings is too low.

Estonian Army general Riho Terras and European Council President Donald Tusk address a speech on the launch of the PESCO during the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, December 14, 2017. Yves Herman/Reuters

The last of the instruments that are particularly worth mentioning in this text is the European Defence Fund (EDF) and PESCO. The first of them, the EDF, existed in a caducratic form in 2018-2020, and since this year is already in its complete form spread over the years 2021-2027. Initially, it was to amount to 13 billion euros, which considering that it was supposed to finance innovations in military technology, was relatively low. Unfortunately, the pandemic only worsened the situation, and the final amount is less than 8 billion euros.

The situation in PESCO seems to be slightly better. Under this instrument, member states jointly submit the projects they want to implement to provide the EU with its resources to conduct missions and crisis response. In the beginning, in 2018, there were 17, now - 46. Among them are projects to build equipment for the navy, air force and many others. It is worth mentioning that non-EU countries can join PESCO, which in 2021 will benefit the US, Canada and Norway, who will join the project to build military mobility in the EU.

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At the end of this part of the text, relatively dry and undoubtedly full of data, it is worth explaining another truth about the current shape of CSDP. If anyone fears that it is moving in a direction independent of NATO, then at least by the time I am writing these words - they are wrong. This CDP, by the EU's Global Strategy, must be compatible with the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP). Moreover, as I also pointed out earlier, the TEU itself indicates the need to subordinate CSDP ambitions to NATO's obligations on most of its member states.

A European army far over the horizon

Having gone through the last parts of the text, it is only now that we are ready to get serious about discussing whether the European Union is capable of being an independent player in the field of defence. Undoubtedly, every Euro-enthusiast at least once in his life would like the answer to this dilemma to be yes. French President Emmanuel Macron also strikes these tones. However, even a cursory analysis of the tools available to the EU in the defence sphere shows that its ambitions in the military sphere are focused on the industrial globe rather than on the creation of an army.

The most developed instruments are, after all, the above-described PESCO and EDF, i.e., formats that actively support the development of EU armaments industries, which in the first initiative can co-create new solutions and in the second obtain funds for innovative research and development of new technologies. Although not all member states are yet convinced of the effectiveness of cooperation within the framework of PESCO, its development is certainly much less controversial than creating EU troops and starting an aggressive policy towards NATO and the US. Indeed, this focus on industry can bring very tangible benefits instead of vague visions of a European Army that is unclear as to where it would operate, and which conflicts it would resolve and which it would not.

For example, in the European Commission's 2016 Communication. (European Defense Action Plan) emphasised that armaments are an essential branch of the economy that everyone would benefit from developing. The announcement noted that every euro invested in defence could return up to 1.6 euros of profit. The market itself is vast - it includes about 1.4 million employees and generated 100 billion euros in 2016, so stimulating it can only increase these numbers. The same statement points out that the EU can be more active in supporting smaller and medium-sized producers. Under normal circumstances, they have significant difficulties in competing with large arms companies, including those from the United States.

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Creating a more competitive common arms market can stimulate innovation and growth of the arms industry in Europe. Such priorities are not inconsistent with the interests of NATO and the U.S., which supports all European countries' attempts to build a solid industrial, logistical, and technological base for their armies without trying to stand in opposition to Washington. It remains, indeed, a key ally for many European countries (not only those on the Eastern Flank), and it is crucial for them that the EU does not do anything that could undermine American guarantees.

This apparent twist towards developing the arms industry and military capabilities (logistical and technological), rather than towards missions, interventions and army building, certainly disappointed Paris, at least initially, in 2017. France has traditionally sought independence from the U.S. in the defence sphere and to convince Europe to intervene where its interests lie, namely in the Sahel, but also in North Africa and, in part, in the Levant. In part, Paris has succeeded because these are the regions with the most CSDP missions.                                                                             

The good spirits are only spoiled by the low interest of Member States in missions in countries and the negligible number of personnel deployed. As a unique analysis of the European Parliament points out, the discrepancy in the perception of the objectives of these missions is so significant among the EU countries that they are unable to clearly define mission priorities allocate sufficient funds for the implementation of the current tasks. Their proper evaluation is consequently complicated. The aforementioned document states explicitly that France, for example, through the objectives of EU military missions, wants to implement its historical colonisation ambitions. This is not only morally reprehensible (although valid), but above all, for natural reasons, unacceptable to other Community countries.

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Moreover, it is pointed out that in the case of military missions, no state wants to take responsibility for them. Arms made available as part of such missions, which should be delivered to unstable regions in Africa and the Middle East, could quickly end up in the hands of local warlords. Moreover, it is difficult to say what would happen if the forces of an EU military mission were to commit, even accidentally, attacks on civilian targets. Who would take responsibility for that? The Commission, the EDA, the EU Military Staff? Even if, how would they be punished? Imposing financial penalties would not make sense since their budgets are de facto contributions and money coming from the Member States. These dilemmas are precisely why the development of the EU's intervention capacity is growing pains, and it is hard to expect anything to change soon.

Some attempt for change was made in 2018 by Paris, creating the European Intervention Initiative (EII) already outside the EU framework. The proposal addressed to the countries of Europe was initially accepted by nine countries, and now the circle has expanded by another four members. Nevertheless, it can hardly be said to be a dynamic environment and one that changes the strategic realities on the continent. Only one non-NATO country (Finland) has been admitted to the initiative. Its attention is focused on monitoring the situation primarily in the Sahel, which is difficult to interest, for example, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Even worse for the assessment of the EII is the fact that it is difficult to say how its ambitions and methods differ from those of NATO and the CSDP. Also, so far, no significant mission has taken place within its framework. Taking all this into account, it should not surprise us that all the announcements of a European army, which we hear time and again in the media, are received by decision-makers with great scepticism and do not inspire either hope or enthusiasm.


The EU's defence policy is an area that has been experiencing intense change over the past few years and whose stature is increasing. It is a response to an increasingly unstable international situation, which is making European countries think about whether they are ready for numerous crises in their neighbourhood and wars. Nevertheless, it is still a policy that raises many objections and emotions. The interests of nation-states, especially the largest ones, prevent the development of some branches of this policy, such as military missions. Despite that, we can count on the development of the EU armaments industry in the coming years if it increases its profits thanks to the Community policy.

NATO is currently preparing to develop a new strategy, which may appear as early as the beginning of 2022. Similarly, the EU, under the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, will issue the successor to the EU Global Strategy, the Strategic Compass. Its content will tell us what ambitions the Community has for the coming years in the sphere of defence and external policy. Only a comparison of its content, the reaction of the member states to the new NATO strategy, will give us an idea of whether Europe is staying on the old, known paths or whether it will try for something more. So far, the facts indicate that there will be no revolution, and the development of CSDP will remain complementary primarily to NATO's ambitions.

Written by Maciej Sobieraj, the project Youth About Politics, University of Warsaw (Poland)

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