A more assertive EU in a volatile world

As Europe is taking more responsibility for its own security, the debate on European strategic autonomy has moved to the fore – and not without controversy.

Placards are pictured durng the "Rise for Cimate" demonstrations in russels on March 31 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Placards are pictured durng the "Rise for Cimate" demonstrations in russels on March 31
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The predictions made last year with regard to the growing importance of great power rivalries still ring in our ears.
What is more, our strategic environment grows ever more unpredictable. Major powers openly challenge the rules-based international order and seek to promote alternative visions of a world divided into spheres of influence. Geopolitical rivalry stokes tensions and raises the alarm bell of a new “proliferation age” that risks escalating into inadvertent military confrontation. Climate change is becoming an existential threat while cyberspace and disinformation campaigns are the new weapons of the 21st century.
For the European Union, these challenges can be tackled only through a multilateral approach. We have the tools and the political weight to shape the future global order if we stay united. This is why instead of retreating from international cooperation and global partnerships, the EU is stepping up its commitment to address global challenges together with its partners. This is true for the Paris agreement on climate change, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on non-proliferation, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the EU’s strategy for connectivity between Asia and Europe or the reform of the WTO.
While these agreements are – in essence – hard to reach, we are convinced they are the best way to ensure a more peaceful, prosperous and secure world environment. Even more so when it is clear that no single country can address these challenges alone. I am convinced this approach is the right one and the fact that demand for European action from our partners has never been so high speaks for itself.
At every given opportunity, the need to define common answers to common problems is not only highlighted but translated into action. The European Union is therefore investing in broader international cooperation and partnerships above all with NATO, the UN and regional organizations, such as the Africa Union and ASEAN. Our trilateral EU-AU-UN cooperation on common challenges such as migration illustrates how multilateral solutions can contribute to greater safety, stability and prosperity.
For instance, as the UN IPCC Special Report on Global Warming warned us recently, there is an urgent need to act on climate change. This is the logic for the EU’s tireless efforts to reach a successful outcome at COP 24 in Katowice. The EU will lead by example by turning its own ambitious commitments for 2030 into concrete action. This was made clear at the high-level event on climate and security hosted by the EU last June.
In the security sector, the EU continues to assert its role as a security provider. Not only is it working internally to intensify joint efforts to effectively fight terrorism, hatred and violent extremism, it is engaged on the ground with 16 crisis management missions with nearly 4,000 men and women. From building capacities in Mali, Niger and Central African Republic, to supporting security sector reform in Iraq, fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia or preventing a resurgence of violence in Georgia, the EU continues to strengthen international security in its neighborhood and beyond. This is complemented by continued engagement in more than 40 mediation activities across the world, from Colombia to Yemen and the Philippines, and underpinned by financial assistance, as the EU remains the lead donor for development and humanitarian aid.
As Europe is taking more responsibility for its own security, the debate on European strategic autonomy has moved to the fore – and not without controversy. However, at its heart is a simple reasoning: when needed, Europeans need to be able to protect and defend European interests and values and have the capacity to act. We want to be able to cooperate with third countries on our own terms.
In this respect, we stepped up the development of joint military capabilities. Through our Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), we will increase joint investments through the European Defense Fund. We are streamlining military command structures (MPCC) and we agreed on a compact to strengthen our civilian crisis management. These initiatives also contribute to strengthen NATO’s European pillar and contribution to collective defense.
Helga Schmid, secretary-general of the European External Action Service. (Courtesy)Helga Schmid, secretary-general of the European External Action Service. (Courtesy)
Greater responsibility also includes beefing up our own resilience and capacity in energy, space, infrastructure and other critical sectors. We Europeans cannot accept interference and destabilization through hybrid and cyberattacks, hence our ongoing focus on reinforcing cybersecurity capacities, improving the protection of data and containing disinformation through the recently adopted Action Plan on Disinformation.
We also need to be extra vigilant to preserve achievements on non-proliferation, such as the INF treaty or the nuclear deal with Iran, as the stakes for our own security are simply too high. The starting point cannot be to dismantle the current architecture and start from scratch. We Europeans are working at all levels to promote the universalization and implementation of existing
agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
We are also pushing for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to come into force, which could play an important role as we work toward a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Taking greater responsibility does not stop at defense issues. Security is also about economic security. This includes the strategic importance of the Euro and the need to ensure that the single currency can play its full role on the international scene. Promoting the Euro’s international role is part of Europe’s commitment to an open, multilateral rules-based global economy.
The extra-territorial effects of sanctions also challenge the EU’s capacity to follow through on our own political commitments. In this context, we are developing mechanisms that will assist, protect and reassure economic actors to pursue legitimate business abroad.
As Europeans, we cannot afford to waste time or to be less innovative than others. We need to modernize our approaches and engage more actively with new actors at the intersection of technology and foreign and security policy. This is why the High Representative launched the Global Tech panel with the CEOs of major tech companies, in order to help ensure that international ethics and rules can keep pace with human ingenuity. To harness these opportunities, we also must take the security implications seriously, hence the recent European Commission Communication on Artificial Intelligence.
Supporting rules-based multilateralism and greater European strategic autonomy are not contradictory objectives. If we strengthen our resilience in the face of new risks, the European Union will play its part in reinvigorating the multilateral order and be reckoned as an assertive actor in a volatile world.
This article originally appeared in ‘The Security Times,’ a publication of the Munich Security Conference. The writer is secretary-general of the European External Action Service.