A common policy without capabilities and will to implement it: a fair a characterization of ESDP?

This article argues that the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) fails to provide the EU necessary capabilities that would allow it to stand up to the challenges of the 21st century. In doing so, it suggests that this failure can be explained when considered on a two-level scale. First, the EU member states lack the will to build a truly common security and defence policy, which translates into their inability to create a coherent institutional structure with a (qualified) majority vote as the decision-making principle. Second, it is primarily this ‘first level failure’ that leads to a series of second level failures: the lack of necessary military capabilities, which are here especially conceptualised as a limited amount of rationalisation of the EU military forces with the accompanying factor of high, but ultimately duplicate military spending.

Challenges for the EU in the 21st Century

In order to evaluate the ESDP, however, we first have to provide a brief assess of the expected challenges and threats, which the EU and its member states will have to face in the 21st century. On this basis, we argue that tackling these challenges requires the EU to adopt specific institutional arrangements and have military capabilities appropriate to this new global environment. From our part, this is not an attempt to ‘forecast the future’, but as the European Union’s European Defence Agency (2009a, p. 19) acknowledges, we try to ‘reasonably aim to identify some of the most relevant and robust trends’.

Most analysts agree that the main coming event on the international field in the next 15 to 20 years will be the shift from the unipolar world order to multipolarity (NIC 2008; EDA 2009a, pp. 20-30p; Grant and Valasek 2007). As will the power of the United States gradually decline, new power poles concentrating military, economic, political and technological power will emerge. Besides the USA, the most important of these poles will be China, but India, Russia, and even Brazil might closely follow (Rogers 2009). The EU will have to accommodate to these new conditions and will have to take into account its own geopolitical position in the world: especially its lack of natural resources coupled with the increasing demand for both gas and oil (it is projected that by 2025, Europe will be externally dependent for 90% oil and 80% gas: EDA 2009a, p. 20) (Willenborg et al. 2004). Similarly, European societies will face increasing demographic problems with the connected issue of immigration and prospects of multicultural society with large diasporas of people of non-European origin (European Commission 2006). Due to effects of globalisation, demography and general political instability, European borders will be also flanked with a number of less stable and less predictable countries (notably in the North Caucasus, the Near East and Africa) (EDA 2009a, p. 8). A world where new power centres would only follow the anarchic logic of neorealism not a world where the EU would have a much lasting future, especially due to its reliance on the import of gas and oil (Howorth 2007, p. 244). The EU should therefore draw strength from its established identity of a ‘multilateral power’ and promote a kind of the multipolar world consistent with the principles collective security.

Such task, however, will require such mobilisation of resources that no EU member state can achieve alone. Although the EU in 2008 collectively spent €200 billion, the second highest sum on defence in the world after the US’s €466 billion (EDA 2009b, p. 2), the spending remains largely undirected by the EU and produces duplicitous forces, with each member state carefully maintaining its own army, increasing the overall EU budget without a similar rise in efficiency. Of the two million soldiers in the EU-27, only a 10 to 15 per cent are estimated to be deployable due to these duplications, ineffective conscripts, capability gaps and slow transform to expeditionary warfare (Biscop 2008, p. 431). The EU recognises military reform as an absolute precondition for meeting its security aims, but it constantly encounters problems with capabilities, such as the unavailability of transport helicopters on the 2008 mission to Chad (Keohane and Valasek 2008, pp. 27-28).

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, peacemaking and war-fighting capabilities on the scale of the 1999 crisis in Kosovo would require a large and fully integrated conventional military force on the scale that currently cannot be provided by the battle group concept of the Helsinki Headline Goal 2010. Such military force should be in quantitative terms closer to the Helsinki Headline Goal 2003, which has aimed at operations up to army corps level, that is, at a 60 000 military force (180,000 troops including reserves) (Council 2008, pp. 1-2). The 2009 report of the EDA (2009a: 22) argues that most of the future military engagements will be expeditionary and with multi-purpose small forces equipped with high-tech weapons. Nevertheless, the outbreak of the crisis in Kosovo clearly showed that the use of conventional military forces cannot be neglected and the EU must make them one of the pillar stones of its security and defence capabilities (EDA 2009a: 51, 57-61). The necessity of having a conventional force of this scale is in the present time clearly realised by the EU. In this way the Council (2008, p. 1) proclaims in its December 2008 declaration that ‘in order to rise to current security challenges and respond to new threats, in the years ahead Europe should actually be capable … of deploying 60 000 troops within 60 days for a major operation’. Tommi Koivula (2009) in this regard recognises that the EU military ethos that would have focused primarily on ‘crisis management’, as formulated in the Helsinki Headline Goal 2010, amounts to the rejection of the aspiration to military self-sufficiency of the Helsinki Headline Goal 2003.

The necessary creation of an integrated military force with high technology equipment, however, cannot be left to a Union that makes decisions on foreign and defence policy by the vote of unanimity. Unanimous decision-making amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that there is no proper interest of Europe as a continent and that any political decision is but the result of the lowest common denominator between actors regarding solely for their own national interests. Similarly, its direct result will be the abandonment of European sovereignty and dependency on American goodwill. Especially the diversification of strategic tasks between the member states, specialisation of each country only in training of particular military forces, military research and procurement of weapons and armament requires the giving up of national armies and defence markets and reliance on other member states to secure, for instance, air defence for a country that provides the Union with tanks and armed transports (Howorth 2007, p. 253). Such rationalisation of European armed forces can never be made if the Union’s management of defence remains on the intergovernmental level. It is therefore not enough, as Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac argued at the joint summit at Saint Malo in 1998, that ‘the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so’ (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, p. 175). The institutional structure for making ‘common’ decisions on the ESDP is not sufficient, if we stop short of making a (qualified) majority vote the means of truly collective decisions.

The Institutional Framework and Capabilities of the ESDP

Nevertheless, we will show that this ‘first-level’ necessity, as we called it in the introduction, is currently unavailable to the EU, which, directly, also leads it to fail to secure necessary defence capabilities for the European continent. The ESDP as such is an outcome of a longer effort to build a common European military force (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, Ch. 7). Nevertheless, the real breakthrough came only with the Saint Malo Declaration of December 1998, which stated that the EU will develop military capabilities where ‘the [North Atlantic] Alliance as a whole is not engaged’. Thus, it prompted the establishment of a series of new institutions that have now formed what is the ESDP.

To unravel the complex institutional framework that guides the Union’s CFSP and ESDP is a challenging task. The founding treaties define the ESDP (renamed by the Lisbon Treaty to the Common Security and Defence Policy, and we will henceforth refer to it as such) as ‘an integral part of the common foreign and security policy’ (Art. 42.1 of the consolidated Treaty on European Union [TEU]) and as such, it shares its main decision-making institutions with the CFSP. The CFSP/CSDP is subsumed under the EU’s second, intergovernmental pillar and thus formally separated the strongest external powers of the EU under the first pillar. The term ‘common’ in the CFSP/CSDP is therefore rather misleading. In a report for Chatham House, Brian Crowe (2008, p. 13) summarises this fact by noting that ‘where the member states fail to agree (by consensus), there is by definition no common policy and member states are free to pursue their own individual policies’.

Considered institutionally, the main decision-making body on the CSDP is the European Council (EC). According to Article 26.1 of TEU, it is supposed to ‘identify the Union’s strategic interests, [and] determine the objectives of and define general guidelines for the common foreign and security policy, including for matters with defence implications’. The European Council’s role to identify the ‘Union’s strategic interests’ is a rephrasing of the Treaty of Amsterdam’s instrument of ‘common strategies’, which failed on nearly all points (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, p. 154-56). The Council of the EU was supposed to be allowed to use QMW to implement these strategies, but due to the opposition from member states and lack of substantive strategies, it was in practice never used. The provision for this use of QMV is retained in the Lisbon Treaty, but only practice will determine to what extent the Council will actually use it (Whitman 2008, pp. 4-5). it remains The European Council itself decides by unanimity, except for solely procedural provisions defined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) in Art. 236. The effort of some member states to subject the CFSP to (qualified) majority decision-making along the lines of the first pillar of the EU failed, notably due to the staunch refusal of large member countries such as the UK and France (Howorth 2007, p. 63). As Wolfgang Wessels (2001) argues, the whole process of the institutionalisation of the ESDP/CSDP can be consequently described as a gradual tightening of the grip of the member states over this policy area.

The second highest institution is, since the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty, the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC); its task is to ‘elaborate the Union’s external action on the basis of strategic guidelines laid down by the European Council and ensure that the Union’s action is consistent’ (Art. 16 of TEU). It thus further develops implements the policy of the European Council. The FAC is the only configuration of the Council that is not presided by the rotating presidency but by the newly established figure of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Art. 18.3 of TEU). Although the Council, according to Article 16 of TEU ‘shall act by a qualified majority except where the Treaties provide otherwise’ (certain transitional provisions apply until 31 October 2014), decisions relating to the CSDP ‘shall be adopted by the Council acting unanimously’ (Art. 42.4 of TEU). In practice, it is the FAC and not the EC that is the main decision-making body for the CFSP and CSDP (Howorth 2007, p. 64). Due to its institutional overload, however, it is assisted by a range of other institutions such as COREPER, Political Committee, COPS, EUMC, or EUMS (Howorth 2007, pp. 63-89, Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, Ch. 6 & 7). These have very distinctive roles in the EU institutional framework, but for our argument, their importance lies in the fact that they are ultimately subjected to the authority of the FAC.

Unifying Elements of the CSDP

The Lisbon Treaty also introduces a number of institutional elements that provide the CFSP/CSDP with a potentially unifying force. The first of these is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy. Under the previous treaties, the High Representative for the CFSP (HR/CFSP) had no formal institutional authority as the Treaty of Amsterdam gave him only the function of assisting the Presidency and the Council in the preparation of foreign policy. With the advent of the new HR, however, the decision-making on CFSP/CSDP has the potential to become more coherent. The HR, whose relations with the FAC are regulated by Art. 27 of TEU, combines the functions of the President of the FAC, the former HR/CFSP, and the Commissioner for External Relations (Crowe 2008, p. 13). The HR is designated as the sole chair of the FAC, thus making him fully responsible for directing and developing the CFSP/CSDP. The potential for the HR to develop and implement cohesive and decisive policies on the CSDP are further supported by giving her his own supporting staff, the European External Action Service. All this makes the HR the most hopeful institutional element that approaches the tackling of challenges we have defined above. Although the HR is ultimately subjected to the unanimous decisions of the Council, she has at her disposal potentially powerful intelligence network with her own staff, which can allow the development of coherent defence policies. It remains to be seen to what extent Catherine Ashton, as the first elected High Representative, uses this potential in practice. We should note that in the short time in her office, she was already criticised by the European Parliament for what is seen as her underwhelming performance in communicating her vision for the EU’s external relations (Vogel 2010).

We can find the second unifying element in the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation. It allows those member states that want to take part in a closer cooperation on the CSDP with the support and oversight of the EDA to agree on more demanding capability objectives to be achieved by national and multi-national units (Biscop 2008). In case that member states will feel stimulated enough to adopt more demanding criteria, this will lead to better equipped military force in the long term, nevertheless it will not contribute to the rationalisation of armed forces (as military units will be still compartmentalised between member states) and will not solve the issue of unanimous decision making on the foreign and defence policy, including its overarching principles and strategies. Unless there is a unified political vision how should a European military force develop, as Sven Biscop (2008, p. 446) argues, even the Permanent Structured Cooperation ‘is to some extent taking place in a void’.

The CSDP Capabilities

The CSDP has as its primary task an extended range of the Petersberg Tasks, which Art. 43.1 of TEU defines as including ‘joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks, military advice and assistance tasks, conflict prevention and peace-keeping tasks, tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation’. These tasks might encompass the range that extends between explicitly civil assignments, to military operations that would have to separate belligerents (peacemaking). Although Art. 42.2 includes the clause that the CSDP ‘will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, so decides’, the CSDP as it currently stands focuses only on the above mentioned smaller-scale operations. To this end, as it was mentioned above, the shift was made from the 2003 Helsinki Headline Goal to the concept of battle groups of the Headline Goal 2010. The battle groups are at full operational capacity since January 2007 (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, p. 178). And as Keukeleire and MacNaughtan (2008, pp. 178-79) remark, this amounted to the assumption that ‘European military capabilities are not achieved by creating permanent European forces, even less by establishing a permanent European army, but are based on the voluntary and temporary contribution of member states to Battlegroups’.

In this regard, it is important to add that the new consolidated treaties explicitly mention that the foundation for collective defence remains NATO (Art. 42 of TEU and Protocol No. 10). This signifies reluctance to built a truly post-American Europe (Shapiro and Witney 2009), with the United States as an equal partner, not as Europe’s only guarantor of its defence. The reliance on NATO is further highlighted when we consider a range of other factors that the EU does not have an autonomous headquarters for military oriented missions. Since January 2007, the EU has at its disposal a Civilian-Military Cell within the EUMS with a capacity to set up a civil-military Operations Centre for a specific operation (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, pp. 179-81). This centre, however, has the capacity to accommodate only small ‘civil-military’ missions. For full-fledged military operations, the EU has to rely on headquarters of its member states or use NATO’s Operational Headquarters near Brussels. Then it has to rely on NATO’s Deputy SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) as the Operation Commander of its missions (Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, p. 180).


As we argued, the main weakness of the ESDP/CSDP ultimately remains the fragmentation of the member states on the issue of common defence policy, which leads to their inability to conclude on such institutional arrangements that would facilitate conditions for strong decision-making. We argued that if Europe wants to remain one of the power centres in the world of the 21st century and thus have the capability to secure for its citizens their way of life, it will have to provide the EU institutions with the capacity to make (qualified) majority decisions on defence and security. This is particularly so because majority decision-making would be required for rationalisation of the Union’s armed forces and division of tasks on military training, procurement, and research and technology between member-states. We have also argued that this lack of will is also palpable in the Union’s lack of more traditional military capabilities, such as conventional unified military force or shared and autonomous military headquarters. Although the Lisbon Treaty provides the EU with two key institutional frameworks, that of the High Representative with her staff and the potential for the Permanent Structured Cooperation, these ultimately have to rely on some form of the unanimous decision-making in the Foreign Affairs Council, thus not solving our main problem with the CSDP. Without shared will to move the CSDP into the framework of the first pillar, it is therefore reasonable to expect that the EU will be unable to become a global military actor that could offer balance and partnership to the future power centres in the world.

– Stanislav Maselnik, written as a part of the MA European Studies course at King’s College London


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