Can Europeans share a common security culture?

Can Europeans share a common security culture?

Clara Marina O'Donnell
27 July 2009

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

European countries have long declared their ambition to turn the EU into a global player in security – in order to tackle common threats and strengthen their voice on the global stage. But they still cannot agree on the main threats to their security or the best way to tackle them. Their views are so diverse that it is a wonder EU countries have managed to agree on any common action at all. But member-states need to strengthen their efforts to develop a common approach to security if the EU is to become a serious player.

For the past two decades, the EU has been developing a profile in foreign and security policy. It has agreed common security strategies, deployed over 20 peacekeeping and crisis management missions, led negotiations with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme and negotiated a ceasefire to the Russia-Georgia war. However, as was brought into focus at a recent EUISS seminar, EU countries do not always share the same threat perceptions, or agree how these should be tackled.

Some European countries, such as Ireland and Austria, do not believe they face any serious ‘hard’ threats. Others fear for their territorial integrity, including the Baltics, Poland and the Czech Republic. Greeks and Cypriots worry mainly about the prospect of renewed military conflict with Turkey. So while Cyprus is still partly militarily occupied and Greek and Turkish military aircraft tail each other on a daily basis, the Viennese worry mainly about the level of burglaries in their city.

While the UK considers the threat of transnational terrorism as the most pressing threat to Europe as a whole, and a key priority to be tackled at home and abroad, most other countries feel largely unaffected. Russia is seen as a close partner to some countries, including Italy and Germany, while the Baltic states see it as an existential threat. Some member-states believe it is important to have a global outlook on security, in particular France and the UK, while others, such as Malta, believe their main security challenge is managing migration flows.

Different views also exist on how to tackle security threats. For many member-states a UN mandate is essential in order to participate in a military mission abroad, while for others, like the UK, it is only desirable. Some believe the US and NATO are cornerstones of their security (in particular the UK and the eastern countries), while others view NATO with suspicion – and resent the UK for having sided with the US during the war in Iraq. Some EU member-states have long traditions of intervention in conflicts across the world and accept the possibility of casualties within their armed forces, in particular France and the UK. Others are averse to the use of military force, most notably Germany.

Various member-states (Sweden, Austria, Finland and Ireland) have a long history of neutrality and are grappling to make their stance compatible with growing EU co-operation in security and defence (Ireland is finding it the hardest to accept EU defence co-operation. Due to public concern, it will have its military neutrality enshrined in an EU treaty for the first time if the Lisbon treaty comes into force). For their part, the UK and France are insistent on the need to develop expeditionary capabilities to allow the EU to fulfil its ambitions abroad. Some member-states, such as Sweden, have transformed their military forces, but many others have so far resisted.

In light of their very different histories, traditions and cultures, it is no mean achievement that EU countries have agreed to work together to provide peacekeeping and crisis management to conflicts zones in need, and to cooperate on wider security issues such as Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, with time the EU is likely to become further involved in security, by tackling ‘soft’ threats (such as protective measures against cyber attacks), or certain aspects of ‘hard’ threats (such as monitoring the cross-border transfer of dangerous products which could be used in chemical or biological attacks).

But member-states’ different interests and approaches limit the EU’s effectiveness as an external actor, as demonstrated by the difficulties in finding helicopters for the EU’s peacekeeping mission to Chad, the UK’s refusal to send a battlegroup to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, or the difficulties the EU has in agreeing a common position on Russia or energy security.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the EU is the division between its western and eastern members. While many member-states feel they cannot trust their partners to guarantee their security (within the EU or NATO), it is difficult to talk of a common security culture. If threat perceptions within eastern European countries worsened, their anxieties could define their foreign policies, hampering the EU’s work at home and abroad (and NATO). For the EU and NATO to remain credible security providers to their members, and for the EU to become a serious player in global security, European countries must overcome the current mistrust and strengthen their efforts to develop a stronger common strategic culture.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform