What is the Future of European Defence? European Horizons Panel

Darren Wong 24 February 2020
Image Credit: European Council for Foreign Relations

The Cambridge Chapter of European Horizons recently brought together several high-profile speakers for a thought-provoking panel event on European Defence: Michael Zimmermann, Ambassador of Austria; Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras, Ambassador of Greece; Igor Pokaz, Ambassador of Croatia; David Patrikarakos, author of well-received book “War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century”; and Catherine Arnold, Master of St. Edmund’s College and Former UK Ambassador to Mongolia, who also moderated the panel. Centred on the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CDSP), a comprehensive and collaborative approach to peacekeeping and conflict prevention in Europe, this panel takes place at an important junction of Europe’s history, with the United Kingdom having recently left the European Union amidst rising right-wing nationalism around the world.

What does this mean for the future of European defence? This panel sought to navigate a tumultuous climate of waning European influence, relook at Europe’s priorities and discuss ways in which Europe have, and should, reorientated itself to best cope with the changing nature of the contemporary risks and threats Europe faces today.

The entire panel unanimously agreed on the importance of the CDSP to not just Europe as a collective, but the future of each country. Caramitsos-Tziras maintained that “the European project of integration would not be complete without the CDSP” — it is a natural evolution of the European Union as a geo-economic entity, through “different levels of integration that eventually lead to security imperatives”.

Involvement in the CDSP is contingent on each country’s geopolitical interests and historical background — for Greece, there is added incentive to participate in such a defence project as it is geographically situated in a “troubled neighbourhood”. Pokaz said that “it’s natural for Croatia to want [involvement in] CDSP, given that it gained its independence through war”. Croatia is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), an intergovernmental military alliance between North American and European countries. “NATO still presents an appeal to [Croatia’s] security but [I] believe the EU and the process of strengthening its position globally would need to address this specific pillar [of defence] and set of capabilities to allow the EU to become a more visible global player.”

Multiple references were made to novel threats that Europe are, and will be, facing. Zimmermann highlighted that “the threats of the 21st Century not only transcends geographical boundaries, but also classic concepts of army, military or fighting” and that it is this “combination of non-traditional threat” that spurs the need for participating in international missions and discussions in Brussels to “find out what is actually happening out there n the world”. Patrikarakos’s book “War in 140 Characters” encapsulates this perspective and he reminded the audience to “accept that war and conflict are changing — it is not a switch, you don’t turn it on and off. There is no necessary start and ending, it’s a paradigm shift”. The significance of CDSP hence lies in elucidating the global role Europe can or should be playing.

accept that war and conflict are changing — it is not a switch, you don’t turn it on and off

What are the principal successes of CDSP and has past experience identified areas that the CDSP should focus on moving forward?

There has been a tendency to decentralise borders, projecting them both outwards and inwards, such that borders are no longer territorially bound, but rather practised for security. “There are missions that extend into Africa and central Africa, which would not be possible without the policy for technical reasons, such as the [logistical] requirements of transporting infrastructure and communication.” This opens up the CDSP to involve other countries too, which is an extremely important element of the policy given the cross-border nature of many security threats too. Zimmermann suggested “starting in our neighbourhood with immigration”, pointing out illegal migration from Africa but also recognised the scale — “it could take decades to be where we want to be in terms of overall stability.”

The EU is a 27-nation project — some with a full spectrum of capabilities, including nuclear, others with more limited ones — so having a common platform for everyone to contribute is important to feel included”. In terms of collaboration, Caramitsos-Tziras mentioned that Greece has been working bilaterally with non-member states as well, such as with Cyprus on illegal migration in the Mediterranean Sea. On a more practical note, the CDSP is not just a security endeavour but a geopolitical tool at its core. “Europe has to be assertive”, said Caramitsos-Tziras, who believed that “you cannot have a strong group without having a strong military or defence capability. You don’t plan it on the threats you foresee, but as a tool to be assertive on the international scene.”

“We must ensure we are not blindsided.” Given the dynamic and evolving threats Europe will face, what it needs is “not an army of ten thousand soldiers marching in step”. “Command structures, hierarchy and military training work well”, but different problems call for different answers. Is a cyberthreat against Europe a military or a police matter? “It just happens and you need to combine all forces. Will it take the form of a classic army or something different?” Zimmerman expressed his uncertainty.

This shifted the debate to the necessity and role of a traditional army. While Caramitsos-Tziras insisted on the inevitability of the European army, despite “capability that exists” due to wavering political decision, Pokaz argued that there has yet to be a consensus on its need, but rather the focus has been on synchronising joint efforts to capitalise on the each country’s strengths. “What is more important is to have capabilities and different instruments. It’s better to share and use it.”  In fact, David argued that perhaps Europe should first look at how people fight today, citing the lack of military force in the South China Sea dispute.

What is more important is to have capabilities and different instruments. It’s better to share and use it.

Now that Britain has left the EU, what does this bode for Europe’s vision of economic integration and collective security? The panellists broadly agreed that it is “not a good development for European defence policy, as the UK is an important country in the world with nuclear power capabilities.” It would also depend on how negotiations pan out, with mutual recognition that there is a real cause for continued cooperation — there are no opposing interests. Nonetheless, security was not part of the common discussion during Brexit negotiations, though Britain already has a set of deep defence mechanisms with several countries in the EU that will serve as the framework for further cooperation.

The CDSP and its accompanying discourses appear to be largely top-down efforts at the governmental and intergovernmental level. Yet, the issues of safety, security and threat can be understood as embodied experiences that the ordinary person lives with daily. Pokas said, “[Croatians] know the concept of security and that NATO and the EU can provide in. One of the migrant routes cut through the borders of Croatia now. Living with [the uncertainty], they have a good understanding of the importance of security and how it can be provided — bilaterally, membership in NATO or partnerships with other member states.”

Likewise, Caramitsos-Tziras discussed how Greek citizens are naturally more concerned about security in their neighbourhood, rather than neighbouring ones. “As an entry point for migration, there is worry about how a small country with limited capabilities can take the burden and it confuses them. Is it the state, police, army or “bigger army” that resolves this?” Visible or discernible threats receive more support, and Patrikarakos raised the shift in power from governments and institutions to people and networks. The smartphone has potentially empowered ordinary people and boosted public engagement, although there is the danger of going too far, whereby the Internet becomes used oppressively.

“We are being attacked every single day but no one realises it. And when we do, there is no choice but to devote more money to [security].” So, what is the future of European defence? The common strand of the panel centred on engagement — how best to defend society, its values and common systems of doing things — while recognising that these elements themselves will very likely evolve as new threats surface.

We are being attacked every single day but no one realises it. And when we do, there is no choice but to devote more money to [security].