The Role of the EU in Peace and Security

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  • 2012•08•05

    Luk Van Langenhove and Léonie Maes

    The Role of the EU in Peace and Security

    Final conference of EU-GRASP project in Brussels. Photo: UNU-CRIS

    Spring 2012 brought to a close the 3-year project on Changing Multilateralism: The EU as a Global-Regional Actor in Security and Peace (or EU-GRASP). Under the coordination of UNU-CRIS, this project brought together a consortium of nine partners from across the globe to examine the changing notions and practice of multilateralism and security.

    The objective was to assess the current security activities of the European Union (EU) at different levels of cooperation — ranging from bilateralism to inter-regionalism and multilateralism — and their inter-linkages.

    The policy brief “Multilateralism Today: What Role for the European Union in the Field of Peace and Security” outlines the key findings of the project. The brief develops an analysis of the role of the EU as a global-regional actor in peace and security.

    Multilateralism today

    Multilateralism is far from being a novel concept. Originally, multilateralism was instituted as a form of cooperation among sovereign states, which are the building blocks of any multilateral arrangement or enterprise. However, today’s increasing diversification of multilateral actors and of multilateral playing fields means that this conception of international relations no longer accurately depicts reality.

    The United Nations (UN), as the paramount organization at the international level, represents the primary platform for multilateral cooperation. This, however, does not preclude other organizations from playing a role. Regional organizations have the potential to ease the burden on the UN and play a role of international reach, for example in peace and security operations. The position of the EU is analysed within this framework.

    The role of the EU in peace and security

    Since the creation of Europe, security and defence concerns have been both of primary importance and highly controversial. Early attempts to set up a defence union were largely unsuccessful. New security threats arising at the end of the cold war provoked a renewed interest in security and defence-related issues.

    Three determinants shape the role and influence of the EU as a global-regional actor in peace and security:

    • Capacity (institutional, material, human and operational, and financial) to undertake missions;
    • Willingness to devote resources to security and defence purposes, mainly driven by member states’ priorities; and
    • Acceptance (internal and external) of the EU as a leading actor in peace and security.


    The EU’s capacity to undertake missions is influenced not only by its resources but also by the level of sophistication of its command structures.

    First, the institutional security and defence framework of the EU has undergone many reforms in the past two decades. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992) established the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) with the ambitious goal of coordinating EU member states′ foreign policies. The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has been developed as part of the CFSP.

    While the merits of the policy must be acknowledged, the effectiveness of the ESDP was hampered by numerous inconsistencies.The Treaty of Lisbon (2007) was a relevant answer to a number of them. It renamed the ESDP as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). These developments promise a strengthened EU institutional framework, endowing it with strengthened capabilities in terms of political control and strategic command.

    However, the EU still sorely lacks military planning capability, The establishment of the Permanent Structured Cooperation has stalled. Moreover, the absence of a common operational structure for coordination on the ground remains a pressing issue.

    Also, CSPD’s narrow reactive focus on crisis management negatively impacts on the efficiency of its military interventions. CSDP operations would benefit from a comprehensive contingency planning capability invested with three crucial tasks besides intervention, namely knowledge and anticipation, prevention, and deterrence.

    Thirdly, the EU’s defence budget is important, and its financial contributions to UN peace missions are considerable. However, the ongoing budget cuts might generate problems in the future if they are uncoordinated.


    The second dimension that conditions action is the willingness to act. Willingness relates to the power that member states entrust upon the EU. Common security and defence policies fall under the EU’s intergovernmental pillar, which implies that member states are the main responsible actors for decision-making and policy output.

    Thus, one has to keep in mind that member states, while committed to the purposes of the Union, remain driven by their national agenda. The diverging interests of EU member states make it difficult to reach a common strategic position at the European level.

    While the very preferences of the EU member states are unlikely to be easily altered, strong and coordinated European institutions have the potential to shape the member states’ behaviour and influence their willingness to involve financial and military assets. Indeed, the link between levels of willingness and the eventual deployed capacity is arguably strong.

    Germany provided an outstanding illustration thereof in the intervention in Libya, being conspicuous for its absence from the operations. This continued reluctance to resort to military force is rooted in Germany’s past and history of military debacles, and is now part of its foreign policy strategy.


    The third factor, relates to the importance of the acceptance of the EU’s actions and its potential to play a relevant role in maintaining global peace and security. The support of European citizens is of utmost importance, as it provides the EU with leverage in terms of authority at the global level, as well as positively influencing member states’ willingness to engage their resources in EU entreprises.

    A relevant example thereof is again provided by Germany. The context of probable low levels of citizen support for a forceful intervention in Libya conditioned the country’s willingness to take part in the military operation. The ineffectiveness of the Union can therefore not be entirely attributed to the institutional configuration of the EU, and the responsibility of every member states shall not to be overlooked

    However, looking exclusively inwards is insufficient. For the EU to establish itself as a globally recognised leader, its acceptance by external actors and international organizations is essential. Effectiveness and consistency are highly relevant in this context, as bad performance will cast doubts about the EU’s capacity and willingness and will negatively impact on both external and internal acceptance.

    Given the complexity of the EU context and framework for external action, institutional reforms and advancements must be promoted, as much remains to be done to make the EU a coherent capable, willing and accepted global player.

    The EU and the “‘triple F’ strategy

    The “triple F” strategy recommends the EU to be “flexible” in its strategic approaches towards the increasing number of relevant actors, “focused” with regards to its battles in order to be efficient in the tasks it has committed to, and “fast” in taking important decisions despite its internal diversity.


    The EU has been criticized for its tendency to adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy, often taking insufficient account often taken of the internal dynamics and particular contexts of the partners it engages with. Therefore, the EU should adopt a flexible approach in its relations with the outside world. This will also contribute to enhancing confidence and trust among its partners.

    The EU, as a regional organization, has had a tendency to emphasize inter-regional dialogue. This has led to successful achievements and should be continued. However, the EU should adopt (tailored) strategic approaches that would allow it to interact with the wide variety of actors that make up the international environment.


    The EU clearly aspires to become an ubiquitous player in the field of peace and security. This is commendable. However, as demonstrated above, the EU has not yet fully developed its capacity to deploy and coordinate peace missions worldwide. Therefore, the EU should be more Focused in its choices in order to maximize its strengths.

    A rational direction for the EU would be to focus on its direct neighbourhood, including the Balkans, the Caucasus and North Africa. This is for reasons of geographical proximity, since instability in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood has inevitably negative side-effects on the EU’s order, and, because the EU is likely to be efficient in swift deployments, as it has resources and personnel situated near the regions prone to disorder. Relevant operational experience and knowledge gained in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood give hope to further successful developments. These factors can account for increased credibility and legitimacy.


    Finally, the enlargement of the EU to its present strength of 27 members bodes well for the organization. However, experience has demonstrated the difficulty for such a large group to reach common decisions given differing interests, especially when it comes to sensitive security issues.

    In this regard, it is tempting to suggest that core decision-making in the EU should be left to a group of states taking the lead, as France and UK did in favour of an intervention in Libya. While this may reveal the lack of internal cohesion, it may in the short-term help prevent stalemate and impasses.

    This option may enhance EU’s decision-making processes and will mean that decisions are reached much faster. It would, however, be naïve to assume that Fast is an easy option. To start with, choosing the group of states deemed competent to take decisions on behalf of the whole EU is likely to be a highly controversial issue.

    Nonetheless, it is possible that with increased promotion of common values by EU institutions and dialogue and coordination among member states, the EU decision-making process can become more expedient. Thus, for now, the EU should focus on developing mechanisms that can help it achieve a faster turn-around time in decision-making.


    A successful application of the advocated “triple F” strategy may have positive implications on the three determinants that shape the role and influence of the EU as a global-regional actor in peace and security. The EU would potentially strengthen its role in the maintenance of international peace and security and enhance its credibility and legitimacy. This, in turn would increase internal and external acceptance of EU’s external engagement and international role.

    Internal support would ideally translate into a strong willingness on the part of member states to contribute to the peace and security goals of the EU. This would then contribute to strengthening the capability of the EU to deploy important peace and security missions. To complete this virtuous circle, a Union that performs successfully as a global and regional peace and security actor will inevitably gain legitimacy and credibility.

    For more information on the EU-GRASP project and to access key publications.

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    EU-GRASP partners were: UNU-CRIS, University of Warwick (UK), University of Gothenburg (Sweden), Florence Forum on the Problems of Peace and War (Italy), KULeuven (Belgium), Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada), Peking University (China, Institute for Security Studies (South Africa) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel).