Earlier this year, the European Leadership Network sought the opinions of some of its membership about the future of the European defence project. The ELN Caucus represents a diverse group of 45 individuals from 16 countries and all the major regions of the Euro-Atlantic area. Its members are former, present and emerging political, military and diplomatic leaders. They responded to our questionnaire and the following is an analysis of their views. The key findings of the ELN Caucus reveal a wide diversity of opinion among Europeans on several issues:
• There is no common view on the greatest threats facing Europe;
• Disagreement persists over the level of ambition for EU-NATO relations and the meaning of EU ‘strategic autonomy’. At the same time, we found greater convergence of views on a number of topics:
• There is significant backing for the increases in national defence investment and closer collaboration on military-related research and development;
• The Caucus sends a clear message of support for better EU-NATO coordination;
• A clear majority supports the EU developing limited capabilities for external crisis management, while relying on NATO and national militaries for defence;
• and Strong support exists across the entire continent for Theresa May’s vision of a “deep and special” security and defence relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit.
Political events across Europe and beyond in 2016 gave Europeans much needed impetus to examine and engage with the issues threatening the security and defence of Europe from within and outwith the continent. Even though the sense of urgency has increased in parallel with the developing threats and dangers, the way forward remains unclear.
Questions about the role of the two main security stakeholders in Europe, the European Union (EU) and NATO, have been at the forefront of policy discussions, alongside such issues as the division of labour between the two organisations and the various priorities of individual member states and Allies. The complexity and fluidity of current domestic and international politics on the European continent, uncertainty about US foreign policy following the election of Donald Trump and the increased wariness about Russia’s activities in Europe and the USA present both a challenge and an opportunity to transform and improve the architecture of Europe’s security and defence.
1.1 No common view on the greatest threat
If Europeans want to improve their own security, one of the biggest challenges they will have to overcome is bridging divisions over what constitutes the greatest danger to the continent. Without consensus on the main priority (or priorities), it will be difficult to adopt and implement policies that deliver meaningful change. The largest group among our respondents cited regional instability as the single biggest danger to Europe.
Uncontrolled migration followed closely in second place. Each of these issues collected over and under a quarter of all responses respectively. Financial volatility and terrorism each shared just over a sixth of the votes. It is important to note that all these phenomena pose significant risks to the entire Euro-Atlantic space and may be interrelated.
However, the ways in which they must be addressed require different strategies and tools, dependent on the capability and resources of individual states. Such multidirectional splits on priorities will permeate decision-making across such critical areas as the strategic direction of EU-NATO collaboration, investment in defence and technological development. As a result, consensus will be more difficult to achieve.
The threat of state aggression in Europe was highlighted in a small portion of the overall responses, which illustrates further nuances in European perceptions of the gravest dangers to their security.
1.2 Support for developing CSDP further, but no backing for full EU strategic autonomy Over the past nine months the EU has articulated a view of security that directly stems from the concept of strategic autonomy as its stated level of ambition.
Part of the proposed implementation plans designed to meet this level of ambition encompass greater defence investment, restructuring of institutional arrangements, engagement with the European Commission and the re-evaluation of the forces and capabilities that the Union can utilise. When asked about the relevance and sufficiency of such measures, nearly half the respondents agreed that these priorities were set correctly.
A further third supported the spirit of the initiative, but regarded it as not ambitious enough. Importantly, only a small group rejected the need for EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as such. Just over a fifth of the people surveyed did not take a position on the matter, which may indicate that more effort should be directed at explaining the current developments and plans for the CSDP to European publics and politicians.
Further, when prompted to elaborate on their vision for the EU’s contribution to security and defence, three quarters of all respondents expressed the opinion that the Union should only develop limited capabilities for external crisis management. Such a majority shows a clear preference for the EU to focus its ambitions towards external crisis management, not defence.
Comparing the overwhelming majority in favour of increasing Europe’s crisis management capabilities to those who saw the EU’s current priorities as correctly set, it becomes clear that there is a tension between the EU stated level of ambition (‘strategic autonomy’) and the rather narrow set of the military tasks (crisis management) that a significant number of respondents would endorse.
An even more controversial issue is the proposal to develop joint EU civil-military headquarters. Despite the fact that the Union recently agreed to establish the military planning and conduct capability, it appears that the more ambitious suggestion to run EU operations from a single commanding structure may not be accepted. Only a third of the respondents supported this proposal and a critical majority did not agree with its suitability, for a variety of reasons: some saw the current set up as sufficient, some favoured establishing new regional structures, and others feared it would duplicate NATO’s functions.
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