The European Security Strategy: Towards a muscular foreign policy?

Posted in Europe | 13-Dec-03

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EU leaders will adopt a formal 'Security Strategy' at the Brussels European Council in December 2003. It will be based on a draft document – entitled A secure Europe in a better world – unveiled in June by Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The draft was widely welcomed, both in Europe and the United States, as heralding a new assertiveness, robustness and clarity in EU foreign policy. Indeed, the main significance of this document is the fact that it exists at all; never before has the EU tried to set out how it sees the international security environment, what it considers Europe's security objectives to be, and how it intends to achieve them.

The motivations for trying to work out a Security Strategy lay in a distinct sense of failure in EU foreign policy. Even those sympathetic to the EU have criticised its foreign policy stance for 'speaking softly while carrying a big carrot'. The depth of the divisions that opened up over Iraq – within the EU, and between Europe and America – heightened a sense of self-doubt among Europeans and led some commentators to conclude that framing a credible EU foreign policy was simply impossible. That conclusion was premature. But the Iraq crisis vividly demonstrated that as long as Europeans do not agree on the nature of threats and how to deal with them, an EU foreign policy will never make real progress. The Security Strategy is therefore a good example of the EU trying to learn from failure. Going forward, the key question is whether the Security Strategy will amount merely to fine words, or whether it will make the EU the more effective actor on global security issues that it aspires to be.

Why bother?

Advocates of an EU security strategy have long argued that Europeans must develop a common analysis of the nature of the EU's international environment, leading to a shared assessment of the threats and opportunities it poses and then to appropriate policy responses. The point of the exercise would be to do so collectively as Europeans, rather than from narrow national perspectives. For years, this proposal languished in what critics see as the never-never land of European debates on EU foreign policy: it was something people referred to at conferences, but was kept separate from the realm of practical politics. After the Iraq crisis, all sides rapidly acknowledged that the absence of a shared threat assessment was a key factor behind the sharp divisions in the EU. Each country had first formed its own national viewpoint, and only then engaged in half-hearted attempts to come to a common stance with its European neighbours. That is why EU leaders tasked Javier Solana with drawing up an EU security strategy.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell at a Press Conference after meeting with European foreign ministers at the European Council in Brussels
For some, the EU security strategy was mainly about how Europe should respond to a claimed strong tendency in US foreign policy towards unilateralism and the pre-emptive use of military force. For others, its purpose was to persuade some countries to treat the iconic threats of international terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) more seriously – and to convince them of the need, in some circumstances, to use force in meeting these threats. Still others stressed that the Europeans had to develop a more robust form of multilateralism. Throughout the drafting period, there were strong debates – with the British and the Germans on opposite ends of the spectrum – on what language, if any, to use on conditions for the use of force.

Strategic priorities

To the surprise of many, the document which Solana presented at the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 was not only eminently readable but also very forceful. It pointed to a desire for a more muscular EU foreign policy. One of the document's strong points is that it resists the EU's usual penchant for producing endless lists of 'key issues' that remove any sense of focus. It rightly mentions global warming, energy security and various regional crises, but there is a helpful emphasis on three main threats to European security: strategic terrorism, WMD proliferation and failed states/organised crime.

This agenda chimes with US strategic thinking. Indeed, part of the political inspiration behind the Security Strategy was precisely to overcome – or at least narrow – transatlantic divisions. Many US officials welcomed the 'new realism' of the document as a 'sign of the maturing of the [transatlantic] relationship' – in other words, as indicative of a gradual shift in the European position towards US attitudes. Such conclusions were understandable. But they were based on a failure to appreciate that while the Europeans may agree with the US on the nature of today's principal security threats, the policy conclusions highlighted in the Security Strategy are distinctly 'European'. Solana's draft stresses that 'today's threats are more dynamic and more complex […] none of the threats is purely military; each requires a mixture of instruments'. Moreover, the three core aims, described after the identification of the threats, differ to some degree from the order of US policy priorities. The stated EU priorities are: extending the zone of peace around Europe; promoting 'effective multilateralism'; and countering new security threats. Still, when describing its call for 'effective multilateralism', the strategy underlines that countries that 'persistently violate international norms should understand that there is a price to be paid, including in the relationship with the EU'. The EU will continue to champion international law and regimes, but would be prepared to act in a tougher manner than before when states or people break the rules: 'If we want international organisations, regimes and treaties to be effective in confronting threats to international peace and security, we should be ready to act when their rules are broken'.

Pre-emptive engagement and use of force

EU leaders often stress in their speeches that no other organisation has such a diverse foreign policy 'tool kit'. While this is true in principle, the weakest link in EU foreign policy has been the poor connection between the EU's wide-ranging instruments and its policy aims. The EU now accepts that it must use all its instruments – policies on trade, aid and migration – in a politically targeted and conditional manner. Encouragingly, the Security Strategy states explicitly that the EU must be prepared to use the tools of financial assistance and sanctions to encourage political reforms or better standards of governance. More controversially, the document says that the EU could use its financial carrots and economic sticks for 'pre-emptive engagement'. The use of the term 'pre-emptive' caused a political storm in Europe, since it seemed to mirror the US military doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Yet the European version of pre-emption would be limited to non-military tools.

Politically, the most difficult issue in the Security Strategy has been the question of when the EU should (or should not) contemplate using force. The Solana draft notes that 'with the new threats the first line of defence will often be abroad'. It adds that the EU should 'develop a strategic culture that fosters early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention'. But the paper is rather vague when it comes to the matter of which legal and political conditions should be met before the EU deploys soldiers for military interventions.

Indeed, another EU document produced in June 2003, dealing specifically with WMD threats, was much more explicit and restrictive about the use of force. The WMD statement stressed that the EU would only use force 'under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and international law', and argued that 'the UN Security Council should play a central role'. In the subsequent debates in Brussels and national capitals, it has become clear that the final version of the Security Strategy will say nothing contrary to this position on sanctioning the use of force.

Tests ahead

There will undoubtedly be changes to the draft Security Strategy. Some countries, such as Sweden and Italy, stress that 'old threats', for example regional conflicts that often fuel manifestations of 'new threats', should receive more attention. Other countries, such as Spain, want a clear statement that domestic terrorist groups like the Basque separatist ETA should be considered as much a part of the 'strategic terrorist' threat as groups like al-Qaeda. But the most controversial issue concerns whether or not the term 'pre-emption' should be replaced with the less-threatening construction 'preventative measures'. Germany in particular fears that the formulation used in the draft would provide scope for pre-emptive military strikes.

Work on completing Iran´s Bushehr nuclear plant continues apace
In any event, at the Brussels summit EU leaders will undoubtedly greet the final version of the Security Strategy with much fanfare. The hard part will be to 'operationalise' the document and put it into action. In this regard, the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear activities is becoming a key test case for EU foreign policy and the Security Strategy. In recent months the EU has adopted a more sober assessment of Iran's nuclear activities and of the probability that Tehran is operating a weapons programme. This did not happen at Washington's insistence but mainly as a result of Europe's own analyses and the reports produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Europe recognises that Iran has legitimate security concerns, it is stressing that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not an answer to these. The EU's position is that it expects verifiable reassurances regarding Iran's nuclear programme. Like the US and Russia, it has been calling on Iran to sign and implement the IAEA Additional Protocol, which would pave the way for tougher 'challenge' inspections of nuclear facilities. This was the message delivered by the British, French and German foreign ministers when they visited Tehran at the end of October. In what was heralded as a victory for European diplomacy, Tehran agreed to sign and implement the Additional Protocol and to suspend uranium-enrichment efforts.

Perhaps emboldened by its success, the EU is now thinking about promoting regional security talks involving the US to address underlying threat perceptions and military postures as part of efforts to dampen Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is sketching out the benefits to Iran, in terms of closer economic and technological cooperation, if it complies with the IAEA – but it is also stressing that the EU is fully prepared to terminate negotiations on a valuable trade agreement if Iran refuses to comply with its obligations to the IAEA. Meanwhile, European powers have been prepared to adhere to a distinctive position on Iran in their dealings with the United States. The terms of a resolution adopted by the IAEA on 26 November, censuring Iran for its concealment of nuclear activities, amounted to a transatlantic compromise. While the resolution did not meet the US demand for an explicit threat that future Iranian non-compliance and inadequate transparency would be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions measures – which the Europeans tended to regard as too confrontational an approach – the resolution does at least implicitly contain such a threat.

Moving forward, much will clearly depend on Iran's behaviour and the manner in which its actions are perceived in the US and in Europe. There is a risk that any prevarication or concealment by Iran will lead to US demands that the threats implicit in the IAEA resolution be realised more quickly than Europe believes prudent, leading to renewed American charges that EU foreign policy consists of talk but little action. Equally, however, success in the case of Iran would not only do much to enhance the credibility and coherence of EU foreign policy but also shore up the basis for transatlantic reconciliation.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Strategic Comments and appears by permission of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which retains the copyright. Strategic Comments, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides fact-based analysis on issues of strategic significance. It responds to breaking developments in international affairs and anticipates policy questions that are likely to loom large in the calculations of governments, analysts and businesses. Ten issues, each containing five 1,700-word illustrated articles, are published each year. If you would like to subscribe to Strategic Comments, please email James Hackett at or click here

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