Visit of Federica Mogherini to Gaza

Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free’. These words may sound grotesque today, but they were used in good faith as an opening line of the first European Security Strategy only thirteen years ago. Its successor, published in June by the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, begins with a starkly different assessment of the world: ‘We live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union’. This point of departure in the new strategy may indicate the EU is finally ready to take off its rose-coloured glasses of the early post-Cold War era.

The European neighbourhood, both to the east and south, is plagued with democratic backsliding, fragility and war. Even more disturbingly, the European project is facing unprecedented internal challenges to its unity and stability. To cope with this rapidly-deteriorating environment, the EU Global Strategy has pushed several new ideas, such as strategic autonomy, principled pragmatism and resilience. While in principle these ideas might refresh a stale strategic discourse in the EU, the new strategy has articulated them in a rather ambivalent fashion.

Let’s begin with so-called “strategic autonomy”. Instead of taking this idea to its logical conclusion, the strategists hastened to water it down to pre-emptively appease Atlanticists. The Strategy has thus pledged to ‘keep deepening the transatlantic bond and our partnership with NATO’. Building the autonomy of the EU within NATO is inevitably a step to full autonomy from NATO. More integrated defence in Europe doesn’t automatically mean the end of NATO, but it does mean a decreased political need for having both. An organised denial of this simple geopolitical reality may massage the concerns of certain capitals, but it’s also a recipe for inaction.

Second, the Global Strategy has endorsed “principled pragmatism”, which combines ‘realistic assessment of the strategic environment’ with ‘idealistic aspiration to advance a better world’. While striking a better balance between realism and idealism is a welcome move, old habits die hard. The Global Strategy has declared the EU’s intention to ‘invest in win-win solutions, and move beyond the illusion that international politics can be a zero-sum game’. As a result, the “realistic assessment” that the strategy allegedly endorses relapses into a worldview according to which power politics is nothing but an illusion. This is too sloppy for a global power wannabe.

Third, the strategy has strongly endorsed the concept of “resilience”, or the ability to reform in the face of internal and external crises. Moreover, the EU aspires not only to enhance the resilience of its own democracies but to promote resilience throughout its neighbourhood. A cynic would suggest that resilience is just another smoke-screen buzzword adding little substance to the debate. While there may be a grain of truth in this, the use of the term is also a symptom of increased anxiety over the EU’s own fragility, as well as its inability to Europeanise its neighbourhood. If the EU is serious about promoting resilience abroad, it has to first demonstrate that it is itself resilient.

“The most resilient thing the EU could do in the face of Brexit would be to push forward defence integration”

Brexit is a big blow for the EU’s security and defence policy, as one of the most powerful military, diplomatic and economic states is due to leave the bloc. Brexit, though, has also created a unique window of opportunity for the EU to bounce back. The first step is for the Union to be honest about its own weaknesses. The EU cannot be both a normative power and a strategic player; a civilian power and a military powerhouse; autonomous from NATO and dependent on it; democratically deficient and a champion of democracy. The EU cannot have its cake and eat it. It’s about time the EU made some bold choices.

Some easy wins may arise from the fact that the UK has, for decades, slowed down Europe’s defence integration. London has blocked many initiatives that could have increased the EU’s strategic autonomy and weakened the role of NATO, from CSDP Operational Headquarters to the use of Battle Groups. If resilience is the ability to withstand crises and emerge from them stronger, the most resilient thing the EU could do in the face of Brexit would be to push forward defence integration, which is long overdue and  widely supported by a majority of Europeans. This will signal that the EU means business in world politics and that ever-closer union is a vision to be reckoned with.

Finally, if the EU seriously seeks to be a credible promoter of resilience in its neighbourhood, it will need to step back from its liberal tunnel vision that has characterised so much of its external action. Instead of trying to copy-and-paste European institutions into Africa or the Middle East, where they often produce façade democracies, the EU should start fostering organic solutions to security problems. These will often diverge from European practices, but allowing them to flourish is the only path to a neighbourhood that can take care of itself.

It is a moment of truth for the European project – a time to see whether the EU’s leaders can seize the opportunity and turn ambivalent rhetoric into a new strategic paradigm that will make the EU stronger, safer and better off.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – European External Action Service