The EU’s new Global Strategy – the EU’s next integration step forward?

Last week on 28 June, when Europe’s Heads of State and Government met in Brussels, they didn’t just deliberate on the UK’s historic decision to leave the EU. Far away from the limelight and press headlines was also the presentation of a new EU Global Strategy (EUGS) unveiled by the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini. Such a new foreign strategy was long overdue. The last one – the European Security Strategy (ESS) – dates back from 2003. Europe and the world have changed since then.

While the publication was supposedly purposefully held back in order to not give Brexiteers cannon fodder in the referendum given that the UK views efforts towards an EU foreign policy with great distrust, it’s arguable whether releasing it 4 days after the results of the referendum was any better. The combination of a Brexit-dominated European debate and the coming summer lull, could hinder a European public debate on this Global Strategy. This strategy, however, deserves reflection and discussion. It takes a reality check and provides thinking on the new strategic environment the EU finds itself in.

In my view, the document puts forth 4 particular strategic lines.

First, it tries to put European citizens at the centre and bridges internal and external dimensions. Doing a simple word frequency comparison the EUGS mentions “citizens” over 30 times while in the ESS the word only came up 3 times. The strategy endeavours to give European citizens confidence in the European project again. Mogherini notes in the very first sentence of her foreword that, especially after the UK vote to leave, the “purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned”. After the gruesome terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the exposure of terrorist networks in Europe, the violation of the European security order in Ukraine and the horrors of war in Syria and Iraq leading desperate families to seek shelter abroad, European citizens are anxious about their security. What good is this Union for if it cannot provide basic security and answers to citizens’ fears?

The Global Strategy addresses this directly by placing a strong emphasis on the link between internal and external security, noting that security at home depends on peace beyond our borders. This theme has hit a nerve in European political circles; it is being taken up by many different actors. The Foreign Ministers of Germany and France in a joint paper have called for a European Security Compact that ensures “the security of our citizens confronted with growing external and internal threats”, and the former EU High Representative, Javier Solana, has proposed that Europe create a Defence Union, pooling defence policy efforts.

Second, under the heading “principled pragmatism” it strikes a balance between realpolitik and ideals/principles in foreign policy. Such a nuanced approach is attractive but the strategy doesn’t define it more deeply, which – IMHO – leaves some underlying internal contradictions unanswered. Where, under this heading, would principles begin and end? When would pragmatism overshadow principles? Or in practical terms: could an anti-ISIS alliance with Assad fall under this category? The concept is a difficult balancing act. On one hand, it provides the necessary flexibility to arrive at a number of foreign policy stances and options. On the other, without defining some sort of limiting parameters to how far that flexibility can stretch, might the concept not risk becoming meaningless? Reading the paper “A strong Europe in a world of uncertainties” by the Foreign Ministers Ayrault and Steinmeier, one wonders whether they haven’t poured cold water over the concept already. In their chapter on a European Security Compact, principles, ideals, values aren’t given attention. While the EUGS talks of principled pragmatism and moving “beyond the illusion that international politics can be a zero-sum game”, the Foreign Ministers write that “power politics are back on the world stage” and that the EU is a key power in its neighbourhood that will support an international order underpinned by “strategic stability based on a peaceful balance of interests”.

Third, the EUGS places a strong emphasis on the concept of “strategic autonomy”. Again, the document doesn’t adequately define what it means under this heading. Strategic autonomy has been used by a variety of actors to distance Europe’s ties to the United States and NATO arguing that Europe should act autonomously in world affairs. This would be a mistake. At a time when the United States, after its pivot to Asia, is recommitting itself to Europe’s security order with its European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) which will hold a budget of $3.4 billion for 2017, we’re calling for “strategic autonomy”? The EU is strongest when it works together with its American partners and Jan Techau from Carnegie Europe has put it succinctly writing that “the US will remain key to the EU’s role in the world for many years to come, and the paper’s blind spot on this crucial and uncomfortable part of the transatlantic relationship is not healthy”.

Fourth, the EU Global Strategy places great emphasis on the concept of state and societal resilience. It wants to strengthen the capacity of the EU and its neighbours to weather internal and external crises. In this context, the strategy also focuses on a range of sectors from energy and cyber security to strategic communications. This is a novel and important approach and ties in with Mogherini’s internal-external security nexus. However, it too falls into a similar conundrum as principled pragmatism. The EUGS argues on one hand, that “a resilient state is a secure state and security is key for prosperity and democracy” while rightly noting that the reverse is also true and that a resilient society featuring democracy lies at the heart of a resilient state. But which resilience will the EU provide? Sven Biscop from the Egmont Institute has put it well in his security policy brief arguing that “increasing the resilience of a state against external threats can easily lead to increasing the resilience of a repressive regime”. I have also stumbled over the wording in the EUGS that the EU will invest in the resilience of states and societies “stretching into Central Asia”. Is this an indication that the EU wants to become a player in that great game alongside Russia and China? I would believe that our levers in this region are rather limited.

These main lines provide a lot of food for thought to Europe’s foreign policy circles and they will have to be filled with further ideas and particularly actions. Because this is an area that the strategy so far falls short; the words aren’t matched with deeds, yet.

Under the heading “From Vision to Action” the document tends to make very little new proposals. It emphasises the lack of spending and coordination on defence and calls for the implementation of legislation that is already underway (such as the firearms directive). IMHO there were more interesting proposals from the paper by Foreign Minister Ayrault and Steinmeier than in Mogherini’s. They, for instance, suggested a European Semester on defence capabilities, a European civil protection corps, a standing maritime force, a once a year European Security Council meeting to discuss defence and internal and external security, and so on.

I would also level some other criticisms towards the EUGS. Ranging from the hijacking of development and certain foreign policy funds for defence purposes – such as the new proposal adopted on 6 July to allow funds of the EU’s only civilian conflict prevention instrument to be used for training and equipment of third-country armies – to the, in my view, ambivalence towards the transatlantic partnership, where the US has for example not been mentioned in connection with counter-terrorism work even though intelligence cooperation is crucial in this regard.

All in all, however, the EU Global Strategy is a breath of fresh air. It sets out new ways of approaching Europe’s foreign policy environment and it will serve as a basis for a new integration push in the defence area. Many actors are already highlighting the need for a more integrated European security and defence line and using EU governance options, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation under Article 46 of the Treaty of the European Union, in that regard. The challenge now lies in identifying where further integration makes sense and how it can be taken forward. For this, more debate and consideration will be needed. Over the last year, Mogherini did a veritable road tour in the different Member States in preparation of the EU Global Strategy. Seems to me it’s time to hit the road again and now discuss her proposal and further integration steps in this field in the different capitals and foreign policy circles.