Is the EU a capable security actor?

In 2003, the European Security Strategy Paper opened by stating that “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free”. Net of the personal convictions of us European citizens, there is no doubt that those words sound strange if nothing else.

The prosperity mentioned in the European Security Strategy Paper crashed into the great financial recession of 2008, which triggered the European sovereign debt crisis. Perceived in the very mid of the U.S. unipolar moment, safety, and security, as they are mentioned in the paper were, at last, confronted with a series of events that the EU could not face on its own. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, along with decreasing consensus towards EU integration, finally put Brussels between a rock and a hard place. Domestic issues then skyrocketed in 2016, when the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum announced the divorce between the Brits and the Eu, made official in January 2020. Then, the crisis following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president added to the other challenges in the European global abroad, among which the Ukrainian dossier and the recurring migration crises. Most recently, a new migration disaster triggered by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka with, perhaps, the complicity of Ankara and Moscow, has hit the EU and remarked its weakness as a security actor.

The current state

Occidente in crisi: ecco perché agli europei non conviene ampliare il solco  con gli Usa - Atlantico Quotidiano, Atlantico Quotidiano

If it is true, as they say, that European integration goes hand in hand with the crises affecting it, then this is good news. As this short article is concerned with the EU status as a security actor, it might be helpful to first define its meaning(s). International relations theories pertaining to realism have long regarded “security actorness” as very essentially given by the capacity of international actors to defend their vital interests and core priorities by means of hard power – i.e. through the coordinated and effective use of military power. For realist political scientists the assumption that only states could enjoy “security actorness” seemed a foregone conclusion. Yet, British academics Barry Buzan contested this idea by the 80s, when he theorized that security actors should be so in at least five domains, military, political, economic, societal, and environmental (Zwolski, 2008). In so doing, Buzan set the new standards of security studies, which include once-unconventional layers like economy, ecology, and social-cohesiveness. Eventually, Buzan’s more comprehensive concept of security became dominant following the end of the Cold war. The emergence of a US-led unipolar world order following the demise of the USSR benefitted sui generis players like the European union, allowing for further domestic integration. Coherently, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty transformed the European Economic Community into the European Union. By that time, European leaders agreed on the three-pillar system, which included the CFSP – the Common Foreign & Security Policy.

However, Europeans had not forgotten 1991, when NATO intervened in the face of Europe’s total inability to respond to the Yugoslav crisis. Then, in 1999 the European Security & Defense Policy (ESDP, then CSDP) was adopted, which intended to ensure the Union’s response and deployment capabilities in times of crisis. Despite these measures, the intergovernmental structure of CFSP and CSDP prevented the EU from developing a common foreign policy awareness. Lacking decisiveness, in the timespan between 2001 and 2009 the EU suffered the total US unipolarity under Bush Jr. So, while new US president Barack Obama was getting acquainted to the White House, the EU’s member states ratified the Lisbon Treaty. With the abolishment of the three-pillars system the EU created the post of the High representative, but nothing changed in the intergovernmental foreign policy method of the Union. Last, in 2016, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Italian Federica Mogherini, presented the “EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy”. The paper pointed at the five top EU priorities: the Union’s security (e.g. counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and energy security); improved resilience in the Eastern and Southern neighborhood; an integrated EU approach to conflicts based on prevention, settlement, and reconciliation; a counterbalancing strategy against Russia, indicating the MENA region, the Mediterranean, Asia and the Arctic as privileged zones of EU interests; a renewed commitment towards multilateralism (Frontini, 2016).

Importantly, the EUGS launched the strategic autonomy concept. This brief resume of the evolution of the European Union’s foreign policy concept is essential to understand how, and why, Brussels is still largely inefficient on a purely security level. But first, let us start from positive examples of the EU as a security actor. Since the publication of the EUGS, a number of new organs and administrative tools have been put in place. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) are all meant to better coordinate national defence services and ministries (Fiott, 2020). Plus, the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) reinforced command centralization for all EU missions abroad. If we adopt a rather “Buzanian” viewpoint on EU security actorness, some positive aspects are noteworthy. As a responsible norms-driven player in the international arena, the European Union has emerged as a decent crisis manager. Ever since the EU first deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003), Brussels committed to peacekeeping, peace-building and other types of operations in around twenty countries globally. The EU’s involvement in its global abroad certainly did impact the sedimentation of political and negotiation practices within it, with the result of making it less difficult to achieve strategic objectives. A brilliant achievement came in 2009, when the EU successfully commanded anti-piracy operations which allowed for the reopening of some trade routes between the Horn of Africa and the Indian ocean. Yet, a number of challenges remain un-responded with regard to the European Union’s status an effective security provider, or security actor.

Brakes to the integration

NATO - News: The Prospects for NATO and EU Defence Cooperation ,  17-Dec.-2013

First, the EU’s geopolitical disunity. From the Eastern European plains to the Mediterranean\Southern frontier, most member states disagree on the Union’s geopolitical priorities. The persistent migration crisis through central and eastern Mediterranean routes has largely remained unresolved (and to an extent, unaddressed) in terms of an EU common foreign policy posture. Russia is also an unresolved conundrum. With the exception of Hungary, Eu member states under former Soviet domination have come to hold largely different viewpoints of Moscow than, say, France, Germany, or Italy.

Second, the lack of political will to speak one voice on the side of its member states. As EU members have strikingly different geo-economic priorities, the intergovernmental policy of the CSFP does not allow for anything than loose political statements. While there is some theoretical convergence of EU member states on topics like anti-terrorism, conflicts’ prevention and joint resolution of international crises, EU institutions have oftentimes been used as echo-chambers for great powers’ competition. To date, Germany does its best to compromise between its energetic interests with Moscow and the pressures of the United States, which would like Berlin to join Eastern Europe in containing the Kremlin. In Libya, a region that should be a privileged ground for testing EU diplomatic synergies, Italy stands with the UN recognized government, while France sided with Russia, supporting Haftar’s Libyan National Army. It seems that when the European powers are faced with the choice between their own interests and those of the European institutions – if there are any – they always choose the more realistic option.

Third, US hegemony. Ever since the end of World War Two, western European states found themselves under the US anti-Soviet military umbrella. Even though it is portrayed as an alliance, NATO represents the US armed wing in Europe, and it is not in place only for protection. Although there is some degree of convergence between Washington and western European powers, further integration in the field of security and collective defense is severely undermined by the American posture. It follows that the creation of a European unified army overlapping with NATO in Europe remains inconceivable.

Work in progress, still

Concluding, although security actorness does not consist exclusively of military response capacity, the latter remains essential. It is true that the European Union has developed good crisis management skills, but Brussels is not the main actor in any crisis that requires military intervention in its near abroad. For the European Union to establish itself as a reliable security actor, it needs to develop a common strategic awareness, which in turn could lead to a more comprehensive approach in foreign and security policy issues. At the moment, the status of the European Union as a security actor is in the making, but it is far from being in place.

A cura di Samuele Vasapollo


  • Ana Sanchez Cobaleda, Case Study of the European Security Architecture: NATO and OSCE, GLOBE – Global Governance and the European Union;
  • Arnout Molenaar, Unlocking European Defence: In Search of the Long Overdue Paradigm Shift, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), 2021;
  • Daniel Fiott, The CSDP in 2020: the Eu’s legacy and ambition in security and defense, 2020, European Union’s institute for security studies;
  • D. Zandee, B. Deen, K. Kruikver, A. Stoetman, European strategic autonomy in security and defence, Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 2021;
  • Kamil Zwolski, The European Union as a Security Actor, Journal of Contemporary European Research, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 82-96, 2008;
  • Permille Rieker, The Eu as a security actor: the development of political and administrative capabilities, Norwegian Institute, 2007;
  • Riccardo Alcaro, The Constraints on the EU Foreign and Security Policy, JOINT, May 2021;
  • Stephanie Hofmann, Overlapping Institutions in the Realm of International Security: The Case of NATO and ESDP, American Political Science Association, 2009, JSTOR;
  • Tania Latici, Elena Lazarou, Peace and Security in 2021: Overview of EU action and outlook for the future, European Parliament, 2021;


Inserisci i tuoi dati qui sotto o clicca su un'icona per effettuare l'accesso:

Logo di

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Foto di Facebook

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Facebook. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Connessione a %s...