European security and defence cooperation: still strategically challenged?

The years since 2016 have seen a slow but significant increase in EU defence and security cooperation. The EU’s Global Strategy published in July of that year talked of ‘nurtur[ing] the ambition of strategic autonomy’ for the EU and was accompanied by practical initiatives including PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defence) and the European Defence Fund. These indicated that member states were at last matching their rhetoric with action and investment.

However, the economic consequences of Covid-19 have thrown this into doubt. The pandemic has made the already-difficult negotiations over the EU’s 7-year budget settlement even more challenging. Proposed increases in defence and security spending have been significantly scaled back, calling into question ambitious plans for ‘a genuine European Defence Union’.

All this is happening at a time when the EU faces an increasingly unstable international environment: the Russian threat is undiminished, China is increasingly assertive and the United States’ commitment to European security is no longer certain. The incentive for effective EU security and defence cooperation is clear. The challenges, though, are significant and can be broadly summarised as follows:

#1 – EU strategic priorities:

What kind of international actor does the EU wish to be, how should it pursue its objectives and where should its priorities lie? These questions go to the heart of discussions around why EU states cooperate in foreign, defence and security policy. 

Extensive cooperation and engagement cannot automatically be equated to a shared set of strategic priorities or a single strategic culture, especially given the major differences that exist between members. For example, while France is often willing to employ military means to pursue its objectives, neutral states like Austria and Ireland are far more reticent about the role of force in the international sphere. While the Baltic states prioritise relations with Russia, Italy and Greece view north Africa with far more concern. In short, there is always the potential for disagreement and tension not only around the importance assigned to particulars issue but also on the means and willingness to address them. The risk is that the compromises required to bring together a disparate range of viewpoints produce weak and ineffectual policy.

At the same time, there is a broader expectation both internally and externally that the EU will act internationally, particularly (but not only) to address crises. Its high-profile failure to do so in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia led Christopher Hill to conceptualise a ‘capabilities-expectations gap’ when considering the stark difference between the role EU members with all their resources and capabilities should be playing versus their frequently weak and inadequate responses in practice. PESCO, the EDF and the Global Strategy are just the latest attempts to close this gap. Federica Mogherini, the previous EU High Representative, described a strong EU as being ‘one that thinks strategically, shares a vision and acts together’. However, significant differences remain between member states over how to achieve this and about the kind of power the EU should seek to be internationally. 

#2 – Effective and efficient decision-making:

How policy is decided is also complex. Reforms introduced in the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon fundamentally altered the institutional architecture of EU foreign and security policy-making. It significantly enhanced the power of the High Representative who is now also a Commission Vice-President, head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), effectively the EU’s foreign ministry, and permanent chair of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). Although member states retain formal decision-making authority, the HRVP therefore has a significant institutional and resource advantage over many of them and enjoys great sway over the direction of policy.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers sitting in the FAC have been increasingly sidelined as the European Council has become the key strategic decision-maker in EU foreign policy. To some extent this is inevitable: much of the last decade has been marked by international crises requiring decision and direction from heads of state and government. This has posed major institutional challenges, though, in terms of how and where policy is made, and the ability of member states and particularly foreign ministries to manage the process.

Decision-making is also increasingly affected by member state contestation. In a decision-making environment predicated on unanimity, this has significant implications. There have always been disagreements between states – for example, Italy has been highly critical of sanctions imposed on Russia in response over its actions in Ukraine. However, the rejection of common positions is happening more frequently with some states undermining long-standing EU positions. For example, in 2018 Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic together blocked a joint EU statement ‘condemning the relocation of the US Embassy [in Israel] to Jerusalem’. Ensuring the system can function efficiently and effectively is therefore an ongoing challenge and is likely to become more difficult as the US, Russia and China seek to divide EU member states on important issues.

#3 – Political will and leadership

The role of member states in leading and enacting the policies they agree is also critical. In the Commission and EEAS, the EU boasts sophisticated and well resourced institutions able to implement the member states’ decisions. However, these also depend on the political will and leadership provided by the states, particularly on the most challenging questions. For example, there is a considerable weight of expectation that PESCO will deliver meaningful improvements in states’ broader military capabilities and inter-operability. However, the willingness to deploy capabilities if and when necessary remains the key test and a refusal to do so in recent years has undermined the credibility of EU military power.

This relates directly to the willingness of member states to provide leadership, and here France and Germany are especially important. While Franco-German cooperation has always been central to integration, in foreign, security and defence policy their relationship has been less close. Germany is wary about supporting potentially costly French interventions while France remains frustrated at Germany’s reticence to play an active international role – especially militarily – commensurate with its power and position in Europe. Where they can cooperate, their leadership enhances the EU’s position as a foreign policy actor. When they cannot, an EU consensus becomes more problematic. France and Germany alone cannot dictate the direction of EU foreign, defence and security policy and nor should they. However, as its biggest powers, their leadership is essential if the EU is to be taken seriously on the international stage. 


The international environment facing the EU today is less stable and more uncertain than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The increased focus on and investment in defence and security capabilities indicates a desire by member states to equip the EU to play a more active and robust security role. Ultimately, though, progress depends on whether member states can address issues that in one form or another have hampered progress throughout the evolution of EU foreign policy cooperation: strategic priorities, decision-making, and the need for greater political will and leadership. Their ability to do so will determine whether the EU can exercise meaningful international influence in the decades to come.

[An edited version of this post appears on the UCL European Institute Blog.]

About Dr Nick Wright

I teach and research EU Politics at University College London. My main research interests are are foreign policy-making, the CFSP and the foreign policy impact of Brexit. The views expressed here are my own and do not represent those of UCL.
This entry was posted in Defence, EU, Foreign Policy, France, Germany, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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