Environmental security and the EU Strategic Compass: realizing Solana's vision


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dimitrios Kantemnidis
Dimitrios Kantemnidis

Managing Director of Lesvos Migration Reception Center and Environmental Security Researcher at the Aegean University and the European Security and Defense College

The events of recent years make it increasingly apparent that security and the environment go hand in hand. But what exactly is environmental security?

The ‘environmental security’ concept combines the two powerful and frequently ambiguous notions of environment and security. Commonly, environmental security scholars examine how contemporary and future environmental issues correlate with security theories and discourses of modern politics.

Two subfields of environmental security have emerged in the last decade – environmental peacebuilding and climate security. The first examines the role of environmental cooperation in peacemaking and conflict prevention, while the second assesses the security implications of climate change. The latter is well known because the media frequently cover climate change, and several leaders’ security discourse also includes climate change.

Although the European Union has long been the global leader in environmental politics, it was only in 2008 that it included climate change on a strategic security level. Javier Solana became the first EU foreign policy chief who raised political awareness of climate change’s security consequences.

The legacy of Solana could enlighten contemporary policymakers in three ways through his holistic strategic thinking, environmental diplomacy and early-warning approach

The so-called Solana paper asserted climate change as a threat to the EU. To fully grasp Solana’s vision, two key points should be noted. First, Solana’s environmental concerns were not coincidental; he had previous experience integrating environmental issues into an institution’s security strategy. As NATO’s former secretary-general, he enriched his diplomatic tools with an environmental agenda. The 1997-NATO Russia Founding Act reflects his approach, introducing cooperation on defence-related environmental issues between NATO member countries and Russia.

Second, Solana collaborated closely with the Clinton administration, which was the first to implement several environmental security policies. After authorizing a group of academics to research the environmental dimensions of the security affairs, former US president Clinton released federal funding for environmental security issues and established the post of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security. Solana and Clinton worked closely for five years and launched the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). It brought together 16 NATO nations and 28 partner countries to cooperate on various environmental security-related issues. In general, we should consider that Solana’s actions expanded beyond climate change to a wide range of environmental topics.

The legacy of Solana could enlighten contemporary policymakers in three ways through his holistic strategic thinking, environmental diplomacy and early-warning approach.

Today the EU is developing a new tool for its security and defence––the Strategic Compass. Designed to refine the 2016 EU Global Strategy the main objective is to provide political direction and enhance the Union’s operational effectiveness, resilience, capabilities and cooperation. For that reason, in November 2020, the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre prepared a threat analysis, and in February 2021, the European External Action Service (EEAS) a Scoping Paper. These two documents will contribute to the strategic dialogue between EU member states.

EU agencies and member states should develop an environmental security culture

According to the EU Institute for Security Studies, climate change is the most likely trend to shape the future evolution of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations in the coming decade. However, studies show that only a relatively small group of diplomats and officials share a common understanding of the climate security challenges – the so-called epistemic community on climate security. Also, while many EU leaders rationalize that climate change occurs and, if overlooked, will directly affect European security, they do not guide their day-to-day decision-making according to this claim.

So, how should the EU move forward?

Compared to other international organisations, the EU’s toolbox places it in an advantageous position. However, to operationalize the EU’s defence concerning environmental security issues, EU agencies and member states should develop an environmental security culture. In other words, the threat perception of agencies and member states should include the environment-security perspective through three key components.

Firstly, a shared strategic vision between member states regarding the EU’s environmental security threats will result in precise politico-strategic guidance that could be translated into operations and capabilities. Several existing strategies describe the EU’s security framework about maritime, cyber, space and terrorism. In the same vein, an environmental security strategy will promote a common understanding of environmental threats at the national, European and international levels.

What Europe needs today is this kind of green realism

Secondly, a standalone Environmental Security Agency composed of environmental analysts and security scholars could focus on the environmental dimensions of the EU’s security interests. It could centralize Copernicus’ environmental security-related data and develop best practices for the EU’s military and civilian missions and operations. It could take full advantage of the 141 EU delegations worldwide to foresee potential hot spots or risks of instability that could threaten the EU. The planning of new missions in environmentally sensitive regions like the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa or the Arctic could benefit most from an independent agency with a clear mandate.

Lastly, the Council of the EU’s decision 10048/19 in June 2019 underlined the importance that environmental issues and climate change have for security and defence and invited member states, the European Commission, the EEAS, and the European Defence Agency (EDA) to develop concrete defence solutions in the context of climate change. Such a high expectation in a young field demands advancing the research agenda by several bodies and scholars to extend and enrich our understanding of how and why the EU should address environmental security challenges. Therefore, the EU should fund environmental security research programmes across research hubs to inform the institutions mentioned above.

In October 2020, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, stated that the EU needs to “learn the language of power”. That is, to turn from utopian liberalism to pragmatic realism. In this endeavour, the EU must remember Solana’s actions, and that is because Solana was a realist, but he was also green.

What Europe needs today is this kind of green realism.

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