‘A Stronger Europe?’: more a yearning than a strategy
11 Oct 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mark Skipper.

The authors of the European Union’s (EU) ambitious Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – Global Strategy for European Foreign and Security Policy (GSEFSP) must have been aware it was unrealisable. They can’t have been ignorant of the almost insurmountable obstacles it faces. In the current economic and fiscal climate, it’s improbable that EU countries will make the required investment in defence capability. The EU project is under enormous strain, so the document’s best read as a contribution to the debate over the EU’s future.

The only explanation for this seemingly naively optimistic document is that it’s primarily intended for internal European consumption. It’s an attempt to rejuvenate and galvanise waning support for the founding vision of the EU. The GSEFSP opens with the recognition that, ’Our Union is under threat. Our European project, which has brought unprecedented peace, prosperity and democracy, is being questioned’. It repeatedly pleads for European unity: the strategy is introduced by declaring ‘The people of Europe need unity of purpose among our Member States, and unity in action across our policies’.

But the assertion that, ‘There is no clash between national and European interests’ can only be seen as dissembling. More pessimistic observers believe ‘some aspects of EU integration could be stopped or reversed’ as a result of growing Euroscepticism. Presently ‘Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK are among those EU countries with increasingly successful populist, and to at least some extent, Eurosceptic parties’.

Basing a policy on increased unity is odd at a time when disenchantment with the EU drive for ever greater enlargement is increasing and the political and cultural diversity of the Union is engendering policy conflicts; when immigration and refugee flows are feeding xenophobic populism, nationalism and anti-EU sentiments; and when Brussels’ support for projects like the TTIP is perceived by many as further evidence that it’s distant and uncomprehending of the problems confronting many Europeans. The call for European unity comes as analysts assert that ‘narrow national agendas are increasingly taking priority over European-wide solutions’. The commitment of some ‘European leaders and publics to the EU project in light of demographic and generational changes’ is being seriously questioned.

For the GSEFSP’s strategic objectives to be achievable, ‘investment in security and defence is a matter of urgency’. But between 2008 and 2014, national European defence policies collectively resulted in military capability being degraded by over 20%. In the Atlantic Council’s view, Europeans have ‘allowed their military capacity to atrophy’. In 2006 ‘NATO members agreed, on a voluntary basis, to spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence yet few Europeans are genuinely attempting to meet this target. While Europe’s economy remains flat and unemployment is in double digits, fiscal austerity measures will ensure investment in defence continues to decline. ESPAS believes that, at best, defence budgets in Europe are likely to stagnate.

Extracting optimal benefit from current defence spending is hampered by the lack of coordination among EU members. This has left Europe with an urgent need for better defence cooperation—especially in planning cycles, capability development, procurement and interoperability. The GSEFSP identifies greater coordination as essential for achieving ’strategic autonomy’ and for providing Europe with the ability to meet its objectives and build the hard power to underpin its soft power ambitions. But the systemic challenges will remain substantial.

Perhaps the strongest indication that the GSEFSP is a contribution to the internal debate over the future of the EU from the perspective of Brussels is that the liberal internationalist values it advocates mirror the liberal manifesto originally at the heart of the EU. A recent Chatham House paper argued that the challenges to the rules based international order ‘are coming from rising or revanchist states; from unhappy and distrustful electorates; from rapid and widespread technological change; and indeed from the economic and fiscal turmoil generated by the liberal international economic order itself’. All these apply to the EU. Ironically, as the EU is in essence a collection of sovereign nations held together by a ‘rules based international order’, the recent Brexit can be understood as a rejection of the EU rules. The rules that hold the remaining EU members together are now still under threat from multiple sources.

While few are predicting the unravelling of the EU, and though the common market and freedom of movement still provide great benefits, many are predicting that the current pressures for greater policy autonomy for the member states and a greater capacity to exercise sovereignty will result in some significant reforms. A looser political union among EU members would result in even greater difficulty in coordinating foreign, security and immigration policies. The EU is headed for a prolonged period of introspection and reform, and the GSEFSP is designed to engender political support for a tighter, more centralised Union. The EU faces serious security threats on its periphery, but the security of Europe will continue to rely on NATO and not the EU—that is, on the US.