Challenges Ahead for the EU's Security and Defense Policy



by Christopher S. Chivvis

January 16, 2009

On its 10th anniversary, the European Union can look back on its Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) with some sense of accomplishment. But the next 10 years may prove more difficult.

The EU has made real contributions to global efforts to stabilize and rebuild war-torn countries. It has been able to contribute in large part because it offers high quality troops and staff. While EU missions are relatively small in numbers and limited in duration, the EU's operational tempo is nearing record pace, with a military mission in Chad, its first naval mission around the Horn of Africa, and its largest civilian mission soon to reach full operational capability in Kosovo. Still, nearly all the EU's missions realize their value by supporting larger efforts -- bolstering the capabilities of the United Nations or NATO, for example, in Africa, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

This is exactly why the recent decision not to intervene to help the UN stabilize the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo bodes badly for the future. Indeed, although the EU's contribution to global security deserves recognition, there are real challenges ahead.

The reluctance to intervene in the Congo raises four issues.

First, it suggests the EU may not be capable of maintaining long-term, strategic commitments necessary for success in today's security environment - at least when those commitments are outside Europe.

Second, it gives credence to critics who claimed that the EU was more interested in using the Congo as a proving ground for ESDP than in helping the Congo itself.

Third, it is evidence of just how heavily current European deployments in UN, EU, and NATO operations are weighing on militaries of EU member states.

Finally, perhaps most significantly, the decision may reflect waning enthusiasm for EU missions that involve significant risks. Enthusiasm for such missions was never particularly high outside of Paris, but now appears to be falling to new lows. This is a problem, given that future progress on ESDP will require taking risks, both political and military.

The Congo aside, numerous other challenges loom. To begin with, there is the need to fix the broken EU-NATO working relationship. Everyone knows there's a problem, but no one appears to have much idea what to do, other than continue to muddle through.

The root of the problem is arguably Turkey's troubled relationship with the EU, which has indefinitely postponed Turkey's bid for membership. This leaves U.S. and EU leaders with limited options. They can encourage Turkey to change its position, but real change is only likely when Turkey decides that its prospects of membership in the EU are better achieved through deeper involvement in ESDP. In the meantime, EU-NATO cooperation will remain difficult, and the EU will have a hard time realizing its potential as a partner in broader allied operations - be it in Kosovo, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.

More broadly, there is still work to be done to ensure that the EU and NATO remain complementary and not competitive. This should remain a prerequisite for continued U.S. support, whether for the establishment of independent EU operational headquarters or for EU requests regarding U.S. military assistance in ESDP operations. It will require, above all, maintaining the practice of openly discussing security at NATO first.

A recent EU-NATO spat over which organization should tackle the piracy problem around the Horn of Africa suggests that the "NATO first" policy is still not accepted. If left unresolved, this problem could intensify as the United States extends its reach into Africa through its new Combatant Command, AFRICOM, reducing U.S. support for ESDP, and potentially dividing Europe itself over the purpose and future of the project.

Finally, confusion over the relationship between European defense integration and defense budgets remains. The fact is that the EU relies entirely on the military (and civilian) capabilities of European states. It thus relies on maintaining efficient and sufficient levels of European defense spending. Defense integration may create savings by allowing European states to pool resources, but the horizons for such savings are not limitless. Moreover, any savings that are garnered through more efficient spending will have to be reinvested in defense if ESDP is to grow stronger. European publics must accordingly not be led to believe that ESDP will permit reductions in defense budgets.

Ten years after its inauguration, the EU's accomplishments - in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere - deserve modest recognition. There is still a ways to go, and accomplishment in the next decade is likely to prove more difficult than in the last.

Christopher S. Chivvis, co-author of "Europe's Role in Nation Building," is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This commentary originally appeared on on January 16, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.