After the EU global strategy - Consulting the experts

Opinion piece (EU Institute for Security Studies)
Sophia Besch
28 October 2016

This piece appears as the first chapter in 'After the EU global strategy - Consulting the experts', European Union Institute for Security Studies.

In addition to publishing a Security and Defence Implementation Plan (SDIP) in December, all EU member states should sign a pledge to protect the security of their citizens. In what could be called ‘The European Security Pledge (ESP)’, a spirit of solidarity should take root among states that belong to the same security community and help them move past institutional affiliations – both within the EU and within Europe more broadly.

The Pledge will be signed in a difficult political context: on the one hand, Europeans clearly expect their governments to collectively take more responsibility for their safety and security. There is undoubtedly momentum for more defence cooperation: with the European Security Pledge and the European Commission’s Defence Action Plan (EDAP), the multiple strands of EU institutions’ efforts are culminating and coinciding with a clear spike in political will in EU capitals to deliver on defence.

On the other hand, the recent EU membership referendum in the UK was in many ways a reflection of a broader, Europe-wide sense of disappointment with the technocratic and inward-looking nature of EU cooperation, not least of all on defence. The European Security Pledge should demonstrate awareness of this criticism, lest it open itself up to be denounced as merely the EU’s next integrationist project.


Two important themes should feature prominently in the ESP. Firstly, Europe cannot afford to renounce the capabilities of third states: an institutionalised network of reliable partnerships strengthens the EU’s reach and reputation as a truly global player. Secondly, Europe’s answer to security threats should not be to create more institutional structures, but rather to make better use of its combined strengths and capabilities. The EU should also follow up on statements of intent with investment in concrete deliverables.

What is more, as an overall caveat, the ESP must avoid giving the impression that the EU-27 do not grasp the reality of the UK leaving. The UK currently accounts for about a quarter of EU member states’ defence spending and almost a quarter of deployable European troops. In terms of military power and projection, the UK’s withdrawal will be to the EU’s detriment, with fewer personnel, assets and capabilities at its disposal. Once the dust of the Brexit referendum has settled, and British politicians are under less domestic pressure to publicly condemn EU defence projects, the UK will continue to be interested in contributing to European security. However, it is unlikely that the UK will be content with a subordinated ‘trading troops for influence’ role and the British case could spur other third states to seek a bigger role themselves. Thus, in designing mechanisms of cooperation today, the ESP must account for the future association of non-EU members.

The Pledge must map out a level of military ambition. The ESP should focus on a qualitative outline of the range of tasks the EU wants to conduct. However, it is clear that if the EU-27 wants to be credible in its ambition, it must allow for effective participation of third countries in EU military operations and civilian missions. Thus, the ESP should encourage the European External Action Service (EEAS) to prioritise revisiting its formats of engagement with non-EU partners, and design individualised arrangements. The objective should be to move from a technical approach to one that is much more political, with a view to replicating NATO’s relative success in institutionalising partnerships. Should EU member states decide to preserve the EU Battlegroups (EUBGs), allowing European partner countries to participate in early stages of planning and on an equal footing, the EUBGs’ operational value could be significantly enhanced.

In the current context of highly divergent national capability levels and different levels of appreciation for an EU defence role, differentiated, multi-speed European defence cooperation is a sensible approach. Closer cooperation between a group of like-minded countries committed to coordinating defence planning and defence procurement ensures interoperability and strategic coherence that goes beyond purely regional clusters of cooperation.


The ESP must galvanise the current political momentum that has formed among a group of national defence ‘pioneers’ to propel Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) forward. It will be crucial to maintain the interest of member states, while at the same time giving institutions enough time to work out the detailed capability implications of an increased level of ambition. With this in mind, reviving ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ (PESCO) would likely take too much time to agree on participation criteria, jeopardising the current political drive. What is more, the format excludes non-EU members and thus precludes access to their capabilities. Furthermore, on the communications level, most member states still closely associate PESCO with its toxic history as a stillborn instance of European defence cooperation. The European Security Pledge should therefore instead consider using and building on NATO’s ‘Framework Nations Concept’. Firmly anchored in the spirit of EU-NATO cooperation, this would open up access to the capabilities of all European countries that strive to take responsibility for their own security.

With regard to the crucial objective of reforming the EU’s chain of command and planning capabilities, the European Security Pledge must not miss out on the opportunity to set up inclusivestructures. Instead of creating new institutional layers that risk duplicating NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), an EU Operational Headquarters (EU OHQ) must bring together existing arrangements like the EU’s Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability and the EU Operations Centre. Furthermore, the consolidation of EU planning structures should again be guided by a spirit of European solidarity and leave open channels for third country participation. Thus, this initiative could also constitute an important element of enhanced EU-NATO cooperation, with both organisations able to plug in to planning arrangements and contribute according to their respective strengths.


The ESP should reinforce the EU’s previously stated ambitions on capability development and reiterate the need to invest in strategic enablers. The Security Pledge must also clarify the EU’s ambitions on strategic autonomy with regard to capability development. One crucial element for achieving credibility to act independently over the long term is the Commission’s security of supply agenda — designed with a view to retaining an independent European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB). The ESP and the EDAP should coordinate their ambition to this end. A strong commitment to the European single market for defence in the ESP could empower the Commission in the future to enforce existing defence directives more forcefully.

Moreover, the Pledge should commit member states to deliver on developing financial incentives for cooperation in capability development. By investing at an early stage, the EU could reduce some of the risks that defence companies take when they embark on long-term projects, for example in the fields of autonomous systems, cyber defence, satellite technology research and maritime surveillance. In coordination with the EDAP, the Security Pledge should focus on ensuring the appropriate involvement of member states and industry in the process.

Sophia Besch is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.