Europe needs to nurture security partnerships or face growing isolation

No matter who wins the US election, the EU will need to play a bigger security role in its neighbourhood

Olivér Várhelyi

The chain of crises in Europe’s neighbourhood shows that the EU must nurture security partnerships with its friends or face growing isolation and geopolitical irrelevance. Wars are raging in Libya and Syria, and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Belarus, Bosnia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo are all going through deep political crises that affect Europe. The EU’s relations with Turkey and Russia appear to have hit rock bottom. Though, as recent history shows, things can always get worse. Neither Ankara nor Moscow bothers to hide its scorn for the European Union’s geopolitical weakness. Everywhere from Serbia and Ukraine to Libya, Syria, and the Central African Republic, Russia has deployed military forces and formed political partnerships that directly threaten EU interests. And so has Turkey. In recent years, Ankara has become increasingly willing to project power and use military force in unprecedented ways in Libya, Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, and Azerbaijan. Unless Europe starts to play a greater security role in its neighbourhood, these crises will only grow worse.

If Donald Trump is re-elected as US president, the EU won’t simply be alone in tackling these issues. In some cases – such as on trade, Kosovo-Serbia relations, Israel, or EU unity in general – the bloc will also have to compete with the United States.

If Joe Biden is elected president, the EU will have a chance to renew the transatlantic partnership. But it will only be able to do so if it offers to take a fairer share of responsibility for managing a range of policy challenges – from NATO defence spending commitments to dealing with China, Russia, and countries in the EU’s neighbourhood. In other words, the EU would have to behave more like a partner and less like a free-rider, if it wanted to prevent the transatlantic relationship from lapsing into acrimony and mutual disappointment once again.

By becoming more geopolitically assertive, the EU would hedge against future difficulties in the transatlantic relationship and, if Biden won, be a more reliable partner for the US.

Regardless of who wins the election, Europe’s geopolitical influence will depend on whether it adopts a more assertive role in security developments in its neighbourhood. For almost three decades, Europe has based its promotion of security there almost solely on the enlargement of NATO and the EU. This has worked amazingly well in central Europe, and reasonably well in the Western Balkans. But one cannot scale up such an approach to security policy indefinitely. By becoming more geopolitically assertive, the EU would hedge against future difficulties in the transatlantic relationship and, if Biden won, be a more reliable partner for the US. Either way, the EU’s current timidity on security matters is outdated.

So, what is to be done?

Europeans need to start cultivating new security partnerships. Of course, the EU’s most important security partnerships are with the US and other liberal democracies – such as Canada, Japan, and Australia. The bloc needs to maintain and nurture these relationships.

Most other global and regional powers have networks of security partnerships. The US has strong security ties with dozens of states outside NATO. So does France – with the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Morocco, and several other African countries. Russia has beefed up its security partnerships with not just post-Soviet countries but also Serbia, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Central African Republic. Turkey and China have developed security links with new partners around the world. However, the EU and most of its member states have been incredibly reluctant to behave like a great power and develop security partnerships with states outside the EU and NATO. This must change.

Three former foreign ministers from the EU’s neighbourhood (including the author of this commentary) recently called on the EU to launch security compacts with a few strategic partners, primarily Eastern Partnership states. As part of such initiatives, the EU would combine its funding and other resources with its member states’ security capabilities.

Such partnerships could take many forms. The EU and its member states could launch capacity-building programmes, technical support efforts (particularly those on cross-border signals intelligence), and military intelligence cooperation initiatives to help reform their partners’ security sectors. They could also engage in greater cooperation with key external partners on cyber exercises and intelligence sharing on cyber threats, with the aim of protecting government communications and critical infrastructure. Counter-terrorism is another area in which the EU and Eastern Partnership countries have ample common interests. Many of the EU’s partners in its neighbourhood still face an uphill struggle in trying to counter the trafficking of weapons, ammunition, and explosives (particularly through warzones and ungoverned territories), as well as money laundering and other forms of illicit finance involving terrorists and other armed groups.

The EU could also invest more in ‘soft’ military cooperation – changing education, training, organisational procedures, military planning, doctrine, and tactics. Admitting more officers from the EU’s partners to the military Erasmus programme, allowing third-country officers to study in military academies across the EU at various stages of their careers, and providing experts to revise military education and training in Eastern Partnership countries are all relatively cheap measures that, over time, would strengthen the EU’s security profile.

To start with, the EU could establish security compacts with a few key countries in the wider Middle East (such as Tunisia and Morocco), eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia), and sub-Saharan Africa. The bloc already has good political and economic relations with these countries, but needs to supplement such connections with stronger security links. The EU’s global influence, as well as the health of the transatlantic alliance, will depend on whether it plays a bigger role in security developments in its neighbourhood.

Nicu Popescu is director for Wider Europe at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and former foreign minister of Moldova.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished policy fellow

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