EU defence: from global actor to global leader?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

Picture of Konstantinos Grammis
Konstantinos Grammis

Security and defence professional

In recent weeks, many senior officials, including European Union HR/VP Josep Borrell, stated that the EU was not consulted about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. We’ve heard the same complaints about the new AUKUS pact. These two separate but successive incidents bring about many questions on the EU’s ability to play the global role it assigns to itself, especially when it comes to security and defence. The EU currently has 18 civilian and military missions and operations active worldwide, but the EU still lacks the ability to project hard power. We’re also hearing a lot more discussion about EU strategic autonomy, a concept the Union has yet to achieve unity on. Meanwhile, France continues to lead on the issue as French President Macron and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis just signed a bilateral defence and security strategic partnership, characterising it as a first step towards European strategic autonomy.

The EU has declared itself a global player but its continued inability to shape events stands out even more during what Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised would be a “geopolitical” European Commission. Meanwhile in volatile environments, such as in Libya, Ukraine and Syria, and during the short-term 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan, the EU has demonstrated its limitations through a lack of political unity, will and key military capabilities.

The case of Afghanistan was illustrative. If not for non-EU forces, namely those of the United States and United Kingdom, securing the military airport at Kabul, the evacuation would have been nearly impossible. Smaller EU countries struggled to evacuate a handful of people and were based mostly on bigger countries’ airlift capabilities; yet their governments even tried to acquire internal political gains from those evacuations. At the same time, the Dutch Foreign and Defence Ministers followed a different approach and resigned over the Afghanistan evacuation fiasco. Once again, the EU was late and almost unable to react to fast-changing developments. But this should be no surprise to even the casual observer; the history of EU missions and operations shows they are not proactive, lack the means for rapid action, and lack an effective decision-making mechanism to shape outcomes in such crises.

It seems there has been a lack of will from member states for the EU to transition from global actor to a global leader

Under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU undertakes more civilian missions than military operations, primarily focusing on capacity building and mandates aimed at soft security issues such as illegal trafficking, border management and application of the rule of law, rather than hard defence issues. While addressing these issues remains vital to building resilience in democratic governance abroad within the framework of an EU comprehensive approach, the Union is still not ready to take on peacemaking or post-conflict stabilisation operations. For hard security tasks, EU member states most often choose to engage either as a coalition of the willing or under the auspices of NATO or the UN.

The EU mission in the Sahel region is a good example, where France leads an EU mission aimed at capacity building while Paris also conducts hard security tasks outside of the EU decision-making process with an ad hoc coalition. This of course may be as a result of lessons learned from the 2006 EU RD Congo mission in which some member state force contributions had so many caveats that the French force commander had to bring in even more French forces than planned in order to fulfil the mission.

Nevertheless, the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) called for an ambition to engage in conflict resolution, but for various political reasons, EU members still prefer to contribute to NATO or UN-mandated missions and operations of this level of risk and intensity. It seems there has been a lack of will from member states for the EU to transition from global actor to a global leader.

While the EUGS set worthy aspirations which remain unrealised, there is much anticipation as to whether member states will allow the forthcoming EU Strategic Compass to give them a real choice between relying on NATO’s military structure or achieving strategic autonomy and being able to manage a crisis with EU capabilities, command facilities and other politico-military tools of the CSDP.

The EU’s strongest defence capabilities are within the maritime domain

While it is expected the EU will continue to take on long-term projects abroad to develop partners and provide for greater stability, choosing to develop the means and capabilities to handle the full spectrum of crisis will require much greater investment, political will and levels of integration.

Currently, the EU’s strongest defence capabilities are within the maritime domain, as proven by the successful maritime operations against arms and human smuggling and trafficking in the Mediterranean, namely Operations IRINI, POSEIDON, SOPHIA, THEMIS and INDALO, while individual EU member states such as France and Germany are conducting maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific region. What remains to be done is to build the capabilities to deploy sizeable land and air units at a distance and support them with intelligence, logistics, cyber and space capabilities.

One important new proposal which could drive this change is a concept by five member states to form a rapid reaction force of about 5,000 troops supported by air transport, space, air and cyber capabilities.

Building on the existing EU battle group concept, this more ambitious approach has been proposed under Article 44 of the EU Treaty which allows groups of member states to conduct military activities with the permission of other member states which choose not to participate.

Putting together such a multinational force and making it useful to EU decision-makers will require new investments in interoperability, deployability, logistics and force modernisation, in addition to the political will to deploy and sustain such a force in operations outside of the Union. To be successful, the first few years of this rapid response force would require a lead framework nation with the political will and broad experience in expeditionary operations: France.

This ability to shape outcomes would enable the EU to move from being a global actor to being a true global leader

Given strong statements by EU and member state leaders in the wake of the Afghanistan evacuation and AUKUS announcement, the proverb of “striking while the iron is hot” describes the unique opportunity which currently exists to take such a step forward.

After years of talk in Brussels that the EU needs to boost its security and defence capabilities in order to be a credible global actor, an EU rapid reaction force and enhanced decision-making mechanisms could serve as tangible proof that the Union is committed to this goal. The upcoming French Presidency of the EU in 2022 could be a good occasion to establish these features as part of the Strategic Compass that is expected to be announced in March 2022.

Of course none of this means the EU would not continue to use its political and diplomatic expertise to prevent crises and address root causes of conflicts before they escalate, but these new capabilities and mandate would enable the EU to shape outcomes even when crises boil over into conflict.

This ability to shape outcomes would enable the EU to move from being a global actor to being a true global leader that is able to take decisive action on its own or in concert with other allies and partners.

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