Of Angels and Warriors: why it is time to reconsider the EU’s military power ambitions


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Marijn Hoijtink
Marijn Hoijtink

Assistant Professor in International Relations and International Security at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Picture of Hanna L. Muehlenhoff
Hanna L. Muehlenhoff

Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam (UvA)

On his visit to Addis Ababa in February this year, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission (HRVP) Josep Borrell said that the EU must be ‘less angelical’ and supply weapons to African allies to achieve peace: “We are facing a war. And when you face a war, you need to do war.”

The EU’s ability to arm non-EU actors is part of the proposal for a European Peace Facility (EPF), which – while still being negotiated – would foresee an off-budget fund of several billion euros to finance EU military operations and arms provisions. Although the EPF would be a global instrument, it has already been linked to the EU’s new Strategy with Africa and is expected to be mainly targeting African partners and regions such as the Sahel. As Borrell put it, “we need a strong Africa, and Africa needs a strong Europe”.

The EU’s new Strategy for Africa is linked to a broader ambition to move away from the EU’s (perceived) soft approach to foreign policy and to adopt a more muscular and militarised stance. This is not a new development. Borrell’s predecessor, Federica Mogherini, promoted similar ideas and made significant efforts to relaunch EU security and defence, initiating the process of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), introducing a new European Defence Fund (EDF), and reconfirming the EU’s commitment to the Battlegroups. There is a case to be made that these developments normalise militarismdefined as “the preparation for war, its normalisation and legitimation” – within EU foreign and security policy, and we must reflect critically on its implications.

The war-like discourse of the EU’s response to COVID-19 further legitimises militarism

Firstly, militarism legitimises the transfer of military capacity beyond the military domain and progressively blurs boundaries between the military and civil sphere. Currently, this is most visible within migration and development where military operations are launched to deter migrants (such as in the case of former EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia), or arms supply is linked to development goals (such as in the case of the EPF). Secondly, militarism reduces public resources for other investments, such as in healthcare. Put simply, militarism protects the privileges of some but produces insecurities for most others, exacerbating those of already marginalised people.

More than anything, the current COVID-19 crisis highlights what is at stake. While crises are potential moments of transformative change, the EU’s immediate response merely reconfirms the need for a strongly militarised approach. Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe, the HRVP characterised the crisis as ‘war-like’ and called upon European armed forces to play a key role in containing the spread of the virus. According to Borrell, the EU should be prepared to ‘fight’ the virus ‘on all fronts’, which includes engaging in an ongoing ‘global battle of narratives’ to counter disinformation by China and Russia.

It also means linking health and supply chains to the Commission’s long-term goal of acquiring ‘strategic autonomy’ in security and defence. “We need more emphasis on security – and health included in that category – meaning building reserves of strategic materials and creating shorter and more diversified supply chains. All this is a new impetus to get serious about Europe’s strategic autonomy,” Borrell has stated.

The war-like discourse of the EU’s response to COVID-19 further legitimises militarism by suggesting, as feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe puts it, that “militaries are our best defence against infection and that soldiers are our finest protectors”, while masking a general lack of solidarity from EU member states and a more unified European approach to the pandemic. And yet, the current crisis also offers an opportunity for Europe to reconsider its priorities and strategies for making people more secure.

Feminist and critical scholarship on security has long argued for a more comprehensive and human-centred understanding of security

Above all, what COVID-19 has made painfully visible is the fact that health is also a security issue. Feminist and critical scholarship on security has long argued for a more comprehensive and human-centred understanding of security, including social and economic security. Needless to say, it is not militaries that provide such forms of security, but public investment. The EU has recognised that “health is a real security issue”, but has not yet translated those insights into a more inclusive EU security and defence policy. Nonetheless, there are signs that the EU is taking some steps in that direction.

One promising development is that, under Borrell and the von der Leyen Commission, the EU’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) appears to be increasing. In short, the agenda focuses on women’s inclusion and the consideration of gender across four pillars of conflict and peace processes, namely participation, protection, prevention and relief & recovery. It centres the security of women and marginalised people as a human right and goal of security policy, achieved through the protection from violence, access to health care, economic security and participation in political decision-making.

Taken seriously, the WPS agenda calls on the EU to change course. Its commitment to the WPS agenda should translate into a security policy that produces security for people by demilitarising itself and others, creating safe migration routes, and redirecting resources to social services and public health care. In the case of Africa, it should also involve promoting debt relief and providing food security. The current crisis requires the EU to rethink its role in the world. The EU needs to reconsider the importance of public funding in providing comprehensive security and safety and take its own role in producing insecurities more seriously.

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