There are two schools of thought when it comes to EU hard power. School one has fantasized about the creation of a “European Army”, while school two dismisses EU military capabilities as almost non-existent. The truth — as usually happens — lies somewhere between the two.
The EU is widely viewed as a soft superpower, with an established record in providing humanitarian aid, acting as a mediator, or opening its doors to its huge and (prosperous) trading area. Less emphasized is the more than 40 peacekeeping missions it has engaged in during the last 20 years in regions including the Sahel and the Black Sea region; areas with immense geopolitical and strategic importance for Transatlantic security.
A decade after establishing the Common Foreign and Security Policy in 1993, the EU took a leap of faith and introduced its first peace operations in 2003. Of the three, two addressed the conflict in the Balkans; a first-of-its-kind civilian policing mission was established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the military operation in what is now North Macedonia (Operation Concordia).
The operations can be seen as a response to long-standing criticisms (especially from the US Clinton administration in the 1990s) that the bloc was failing to adequately address the Yugoslav wars of succession, and a linked argument that a complacent, rich Europe was belittling its Balkan backyard as somehow beyond the continent’s borders.
The EU’s new role as a “force for good” in the 2000s was a key element of the development of EU security and defense. However, subsequent years were marred by disputes among the Union’s so-called Big Three — Germany, France and the UK — on where to draw the line on intervention by the bloc. And the biggest enlargement in the EU’s history added further complexities for a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
The “pro-European defense” French battling with the UK emphasized the importance of avoiding duplication with NATO, while Germany’s cautious approach to the use of force was strengthened by the idea among Nordic states of a heavy civilian emphasis in CSDP. This emphasis is borne out by the numbers — since 2009, there have been 17 civilian missions and only six militaries.
The tug of war over European foreign and security policy eventually led to the institutionalization of the latter under the umbrella of the European External Action Service (EEAS) with the Lisbon treaty in 2009. While labeled as the Union’s diplomatic service, EEAS actually carries much more weight and functions as a de facto ministry of foreign affairs and defense.
So while the service is the headquarters to the extensive network of EU delegations around the world, it is also home to the Union’s situation room and intelligence centers and houses the first-ever permanent military command and control structure, the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) which was formed in 2017. The timing is again not coincidental, as the years between 2014 and 2016 provided momentum as security threats built — events like Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of its war against Ukraine; the migration crisis; and Islamist terrorist attacks on European capitals. In parallel, Brexit provided a strategic shock, giving a great deal of additional space to the pro-European defense team led by France. Conversely, it also threatened the idea of a more autonomous EU defense by losing one of the two EU powers (with France) that possessed a major expeditionary military capability.
With the MPCC reaching its full operational capability in late 2017, EU security and defense opened a new chapter by having military missions under pure EU command for the first time in the Union’s history, integrating operational planning, command, and control of three ongoing military training missions in Africa.
Since then, the EU has also initiated Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects boosting defense cooperation, such as military mobility, and adopted its first-ever de facto defense strategy, the EU Strategic Compass in 2022. Connecting defense, innovation, and trade in the EU was also given new impetus by the war in Ukraine. The EU launched its first grant program for defense capability building for member states — the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP) in 2019. For military purposes, the 2021 European Peace Facility (EPF) a refurbished version of the Athena financing mechanism, allowed member states greater room for the financing of military operations as well as security assistance and cooperation. EPF was also used to provide €3.6bn ($3.9bn) to Ukraine in military equipment and ammunition, as well as training through the European Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM) Ukraine.
The EU is slowly “entering the chat” of international security providers, although its parlance on the Union’s power identity and role in defending itself, both in Brussels and externally, still remains unclear.
And yet, stepping back to examine the whole picture, EU defense looks to be in significantly better shape than a decade ago, even as the US focus is shifting to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. In 2022, the EU launched a military training mission for Ukraine, renewed the mandate of almost all its existing military missions, and announced the establishment of a new military partnership mission in Niger.
In 2023, 40% of the EU’s 41 ongoing missions will be military (around 15% more than a decade ago). While the missions in Niger and Ukraine — as with almost all current EU military interventions — are lacking serious warfighting capabilities, mostly focusing on security assistance and the training of partner nations’ armed forces, it should be acknowledged that EU member states have become much more comfortable using military tools for crisis management.
And yet, there is a very long way to go. Accordingly, the next few years will be decisive in deciding how the EU defines itself in terms of security, especially if the war in Ukraine becomes a protracted conflict amounting to a direct threat at its doorstep.
Veronika Hornyák is a PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Military Sciences of the Ludovika University of Public Service, and a Doctoral Fellow at the European Security and Defense College. Her PhD research focuses on gender mainstreaming in EU-led military missions. Alongside her doctoral studies, Veronika works as a consultant on capacity-building projects in the fields of internationalization, education, and gender equality.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.