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Can new realism save European security?

The European Union (EU) once deemed itself the living embodiment of a post-Cold war power. Having diluted internal nationalist sentiment through the project of a common European identity, the EU’s engagement of the international system now occurs through what is commonly conceived to be a liberal prism. This is an admirable achievement for a region whose political and economic structure has been traditionally defined by conflict. Yet when we evaluate the success of this approach in protecting European security interests, it is difficult not to be critical of the EU. The EU’s allegiance to soft power has allowed it to ignore some of the pressing structural inadequacies that prevent it to act coherently in times of crisis. Following the release of the EU’s new security and strategic policy, however, we could be witnessing the beginning of Europe’s transformation into a more consequential international actor.

In 2003 the EU released its first conceptual security framework. Titled the European Security Strategy (ESS), this document identified the common security interests of all member states, divided into region, and the general strategy the EU would employ to protect these interests. The timing of this document’s release was significant—earlier in 2003, the US intervention into Iraq created significant divisions between member states that supported the intervention and those that argued against any form of Western intervention in Iraq. The opportunity for the EU to present a defining and unified opinion on a controversial security issue was clearly missed, particularly at a time when Europe had made reasonable progress towards the initial integration of a common European security force to complement existing structures.

Between 2003 and 2008 the EU used the ESS as a guiding framework for the limited deployment of security missions in Africa, East Europe and Asia. These missions focused on the protection of human rights, conflict prevention and criminal prosecutions—deployments concerning non-state actors as opposed to nation-states. While the majority of these security missions were able to satisfy their stated objectives, the EU was criticised for the small scale of these missions, particularly given the security and political capabilities of the EU as a collective security force. In 2008 the EU updated the ESS taking into account new international developments. However, this update was not as comprehensive as initially anticipated, and EU engagement of the international system was noticeably limited.

Since 2008 the international system has changed dramatically. Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring and its aftermath in Egypt and Libya, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and China’s assertive position within the international community are just some of the issues which the EU has had to deal with since then. In light of this, the question is whether this revised strategy breaks EU security tradition by overlooking traditional liberal allegiances and providing a framework which allows the EU to proactively address immediate and long-term security threats.

So what’s the verdict? In short, the new security document is a positive step forward for the EU. Enhanced defence integration between member states is a core theme, bolstered by policy that encourages Europe’s indigenous defence industry. Most importantly, the EU has recognised the inadequacies of its current security strategy. The document opens by stating: ‘We need a stronger Europe. This is what our citizens deserve, this is what the wider world expects. We will in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the EU'. It seems that the EU is now willing to acknowledge that its current approach to security through a cosmopolitan and liberal framework has failed to address or prevent real security threats. Thus, it now finds itself in fragile state.

Reading through the security document, the EU has adopted what international relations scholars consider to be ‘new realism’. The essence of this new security approach is simple: the EU has recognised that soft power cannot address current security threats, and is now advocating for hard power to underpin its future security operations. This does not suggest a full-blown European army as is commonly perceived. Instead, the new security strategy demonstrates a renewed commitment to a more effective EU approach to security—a return to the controlled use of hard power.

Whether the EU is able to effectively convert policy into reality will be determined in the future months and years. Evidently, there will be some concern that Europe risks applying force in a manner commonly seen in the early 20th century that goes against the establishing principles of European integration. Time will tell, but the fact that the EU has openly admitted its fragile security position is already a positive step forward.

Rhys Merrett is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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