This past week, several events organized in Brussels offered a picture of the European Union’s direction for the year 2016. New threats, new challenges, and a new presidency of the Council could indeed foretell a new direction for the European Union (EU). The Institute for Peace in Partnership investigated on this possibility; here are its conclusions on foreign and security policy.
The Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union, in charge since 1 January 2016, disclosed an agenda that clearly lacks ambition. Indeed, it strongly resembles that of the European Commission and limits the role of the Netherlands to that of a mediator/facilitator between EU Member States, rather than taking charge of its leadership position. During the conference “Creating a Union that Connects” organized by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, this “low profile” was criticized and depicted as a missed opportunity for the country to impact European politics. In particular, the lack of Dutch involvement regarding the referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine was disapproved. In fact, building on experience from the EU Constitution referendum led experts to advocate campaigning for this referendum, which was said to be “more about Europe than about Ukraine”. Furthermore, the referendum was depicted as a test for Dutch moral leadership: if the result is negative, this could adversely affect the Netherlands’ credibility and influence in its capacity of Presidency of the Council.
In the agenda of the Council, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte prioritized migration, job growth, the Eurozone, climate, and energy. Only the “comprehensive approach to migration and international security” priority mentions the EU’s common foreign and security policy, focusing on internal issues (refugees, terrorism) and emphasizing border security. This angle was criticized by experts, which stated that this approach was not the one to promote if Europe wants to address the current challenges to security at their roots. It was recommended that the Netherlands should push Europe to further focus on supranational issues. Nonetheless, Mr. Rutte’s ability to adopt a leading and impacting position in the Council and for Europe was strongly questioned.
“The Military Balance 2016” book launch organized by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, for its part, enhanced the erosion of Western military and technological superiority. It acknowledged the advancing technologies (especially in Russia) and more complex security environment to which Europe has not reacted as much as the United States, referring to the “transatlantic gap”. Europe is thus lagging behind in terms of military capabilities, but also in terms of budget, since EU Member States’ defense expenditures still reflect the damaging effect of the crisis. Indeed, while the stagnation that characterized European defense spending since 2000 has come to an end, it has not taken place evenly on the continent. For instance, in Eastern Europe, there seems to be an increase of spending both in real terms and in proportion of GDP (e.g. Poland, Romania) while in Northern Europe, it increased in real terms but not in nominal terms (e.g. the Netherlands).
To effectively adapt to the increasingly intricate security setting, experts emphasized the necessary adjustment to the expanding bridge between civilian and military activities. They recommended EU institutions to boost EU defense research budget in order to encourage and facilitate innovation in the field. The role of High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini will be determinant on this point. Nevertheless, the EU’s disadvantage of having to develop on the basis of the lowest common denominator in the field of foreign and security policy is likely to continue causing frustration and disillusion.
The year 2016 will be difficult for the EU, especially in terms of foreign and security policy. Many challenges have caused it to be lacking leadership and stagnating in an environment that keeps evolving. What is clear from this week’s conferences in Brussels is that the EU is in need of more unity, as much in foreign policy as in security matters. Enhanced coherence and coordination in these fields would empower the EU with more credibility and effectiveness when tackling current external crises, which have clearly been recognized to affect all EU Member States. With this aim, international cooperation and global-regional partnerships will be of crucial importance for the EU’s development in the coming year.
Sophie L. Vériter
Biscop, Sven. “The Military Balance 2016: Further Assessment”, European Union Institute for Security Studies, Book Launch. Brussels, February 26, 2016.
Linsenmeier, Klaus. “Creating a Union that Connects – But How? The Dutch EU Council Presidency and the Harsh Realities of a Crumbling Union”, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union, Conference. Brussels, February 25, 2016.