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Wed. February 01, 2023
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The Future of CFSP, CSDP, NATO, and Transatlantic Cooperation
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By Dr. Neil Winn

The European Union (EU) is an emerging actor in the fields of foreign and security policy predicated on mainly soft power values and policies. The EU’s policies in the fields of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) are based on unanimity and intergovernmental decision-making preserving the national veto. The Lisbon Treaty of December 2009 largely retains this status quo position and is best described as being a consolidating treaty as opposed to being a revolutionary, reformative treaty. The sovereignty of the member states of the EU in the areas of defense and foreign policy is maintained in those fields due to national interests particularly those of the larger member states. Britain, France and Germany have global diplomatic and economic interests, which transcend the borders of Europe. They collectively determine the shaping of foreign policy objectives in the CFSP/CSDP and have been accused of being a de-facto “directoire” in EU foreign policy-making, which also occasionally includes the likes of Italy and Spain depending on the issue.

European foreign trade policy is perhaps the most integrated of the Union’s external policies and arguably has the greatest impact in the global environment. The EU uses its economic and trade prowess in the world as a geopolitical tool to attain compliance in the absence of equivalent military and political power. This is particularly the case in respect of developing countries, which have less bargaining power; the EU also prefers bilateral trade agreements as this gives it more bargaining power. If the EU is anything it is an economic actor, partly because it has developed in this manner since the early 1950s and partly because its member states can see the benefits of external economic integration in the world economy.

The broader transatlantic trade relationship is deeply interconnected and interdependent at the level of trade, banking, goods, services, manufactures and capital. Each side of the Atlantic depends on the other to a great degree for its economic strength in the globalized system of trade preferences. Indeed:

“The transatlantic mechanisms created in the process of institutionalization [in the post-War period] have led to the creation of dense networks between the EU and the US. These networks, in turn, became transatlantic decision-making forums. Here, communication between EU and US counterparts forms the closest thing there is to a transatlantic ‘policy process’.”

Europe and America account for over half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they have the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world economy, and as such are arguably necessary partners in the global political economy. The EU exports 18 per cent of all its exports to the US (compared to 8.4 per cent for China) and imports 11.4 per cent of all its imports from the US (compared to 18.9 per cent for China). The transatlantic economy also shapes global trade investment flows as both the US and Europe are the primary targets for other countries trade and investment in the world economy. This arguably gives Europe and America the power to structure the world economy, in spite of the rise of China in recent years.

EU policy is somewhat less integrated in diplomatic and broader in foreign policy terms. The EU has engaged in intra-European foreign policy cooperation since European Political Cooperation (EPC) was instituted in 1970. Over the past four decades EU has encouraged its member states to “Europeanize” their national foreign policies and the Union has developed a “coordination reflex” based on the daily practice of cooperation. The member states expect to coordinate and harmonize their national foreign policies in an Europeanized, multilateral manner through a quasi-European lens because of decades of cooperation and learned behavior. However, the EU’s decision-making systems for the successor to EPC the so-called CFSP/CSDP are still intergovernmental and are subject to unanimity. In some ways the larger member states – particularly Britain, France and Germany – use CFSP/CSDP to pursue their own national interests. Both Britain and France seek to lead CFSP/CSDP as another avenue to punch above their weight in the realm of international relations beyond their medium sized power status. In this view the EU is just another venue for national foreign policy interests to be projected into the wider world. Britain, France and Germany do not have the global reach in politico-military terms that the United States (US) has. Hence the “big three” in the EU do, to an extent, use the Union as a foreign and defense policy multiplier to ratchet up their own global presence. The same point applies even more so to the smaller EU member states as the Union gives them a global platform that they would otherwise lack. Germany seeks to hide its power in the world and pursues a strong trade policy, with no global military policy to speak of apart from peacekeeping, security sector reform and the carrying out of wider Petersberg Tasks. Berlin is still the civilian power par excellence that can straddle Europe and America and remain friends with both without actually “normalizing” its foreign policy despite being labelled a laggard by the US in military terms. Germany is a product of its history and post-war democratic political culture and finds the use of force a non-issue in its own foreign policy.

In strictly foreign policy and diplomatic terms the EU is a longstanding actor in its own right, based on intergovernmental cooperation between its member states. New capabilities and institutions have been added in an ad-hoc fashion to EU foreign policy since the St.Malo Summit between Britain and France in December 1998, which mainly deal with crisis management, and Petersberg Tasks. The Union today has a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, its own diplomatic corps called the European External Action Service (EEAS) and a range of European-level institutions to underpin the EU’s foreign external actions. However, EU foreign policy still largely rests on national foundations, despite ongoing efforts to build capabilities for the future. Nevertheless, the new institutions are embryonic in terms of their operation, but the EEAS in particular has the potential to become a supranational diplomatic arm of European foreign policy.

In terms of defense policy the EU is an embryonic actor in comparison to the economic and diplomatic fields. Indeed, the EU does not per se have a defense policy: instead the Union has a defense profile that is largely based on intergovernmental cooperation and predicated on national sovereignty. The EU also suffers from a capabilities-expectations gap in defense terms. The CSDP relates to the field of crisis management and encompasses both civilian and military doctrines. Since 2003 the EU has undertaken over twenty civilian missions and military operations, most of which fall under the civilian heading. Military crisis management operations rely on national funding from the participating countries and are used to underpin civilian missions’ objectives. This explains why the Union has mainly tackled civilian crisis management missions - the Union finds it difficult to collect funds for military missions from the participating member states. The military missions are themselves used for broadly humanitarian purposes confirming the EU’s status as a “soft power”, built upon civilian power foundations.  Additionally, the Union lacks a central command structure for force projection. The defense of the European homeland is actually conceived of in Europe as being under the umbrella of the Atlantic Alliance (even though Europe has no existential threats to its security at present) whereas the EU pursues more autonomy in crisis management missions under CSDP structures that in the end still heavily rely on US assets. National armed forces in Europe are also organized along national lines and the loyalties of élites and masses alike are with the nation-states where defense is concerned. Few people would “die for Europe”, their identities are still nationally oriented. Europe also lacks a distinctive, supranational strategic/military culture that could bring together national militaries effectively, but the EU does, and in contradistinction, projects a distinctive political culture to the outside world that is predicated on normative “soft” power and civilian power mechanisms. Additionally, national militaries in Europe have not been making the necessary changes to their armed forces to adapt to the European level and for rapid reaction, although Britain and France will increasingly cooperate in military terms to boost European capabilities and save money. Indeed, European militaries are cooperating more closely together – as in the Lisbon Treaty’s Permanent Structured Cooperation – than ever before. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key threats that Europe faces are internal-security related within EU borders and relate to justice and home affairs that have also begun to translate themselves into EU foreign policy objectives externally. This means that the actual need for the EU to have a grand strategy in the world is arguably questionable if internal European threats are the drivers of foreign policy. It also probably means that the Atlantic Alliance is not the best institution to manage these security-related issues as opposed to defense-related problems. The conclusion of EU’s Lisbon Treaty (2009) and the conclusion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit in Lisbon on the renewal of the Strategic Concept in November 2010 has seen the emergence of much common ground between the EU and NATO as complementary institutions, particularly in the fields of crisis management and Petersberg Tasks. Others argue that the EU can only pursue successful policies in the fields of freedom, security and justice if the EU has a cohesive sense of internal and external security threats and the policies to address them in the fields of foreign policy, defense, development and external economic policy. Furthermore, the security threats actually facing the EU and its member states today are increasingly complex and arguably require that the Union attempts to shape world events to manage those threats in a cohesive manner and further to influence the structure of global politics to avoid irrelevance in the world. A strong EU-NATO relationship is important in this regard. Additionally, nobody can predict what security threats Europe will face in the future and a comprehensive strategy may be needed to address them or at least to have the option of deploying military forces both regionally and globally. In a slightly different vein, there are those in the Brussels institutions who see CFSP/CSDP as a component part of the broader integration project to build European political union along federal lines. The European federal project has been ongoing since the early 1950s and is mainly based on the Community method of technical functional integration. Thus far, the areas of defense and foreign policy have not been subject to this method and continue to be based on intergovernmental cooperation between member states.

EU Foreign Policy in the Context of Transatlantic Relations

What does this all mean for transatlantic relations? In particular, what does the forgoing mean for EU-US relations and EU- NATO relations?

Washington’s primary security focus in the past decade has been the “war on terror”. Most EU member states have not followed the US lead and have tended in the main to follow legal soft power approaches whereas the US has utilized a mixture of soft and hard power. Indeed, most European states would not define counter-terrorism as fighting a war. Instead, they prefer to utilize legal means to curb the al-Qaeda threat. Why is this? The majority of EU member states lack military capabilities. The Union is not a state and lacks the legitimate monopoly of the means of violence. Therefore, even if the EU wanted to treat the post-9/11 period as a “war” it could not. As Zielonka has stated:

The Union has no effective monopoly over the legitimate means of coercion. It has no clearly defined center of authority. Its territory is not fixed. Its geographical, administrative, economic and cultural borders diverge. It is a polity without coherent demos, a power without identifiable purpose, a geopolitical entity without defined territorial limits.

Additionally, the EU has developed as a soft power legal actor since its inception in the 1950s. There is also the empirical fact that America was attacked on September 11 and therefore feels itself as being under attack and at war, whereas Europe does not. Furthermore, the Obama Presidency has been lukewarm towards Europe, focusing on Asia-Pacific and Latin America in US foreign policy. In the President’s worldview Europe needs to shape up, take responsibility for some of the world’s problems and stop “free-riding” on the US for its parochial security needs in order to avoid decline as a global actor. There have also been transatlantic disagreements in recent years on how to respond to the global economic downturn, trade reform and climate change. Then there is the lack of Europe-wide support for the American led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan and for out-of-area operations more generally. This led the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to criticize several European states – particularly Germany – for not doing enough to assist the US in the Afghan operation. The implication is that Washington will gradually withdraw resources from Europe as it perceives that the European states are incapable of helping the US broader strategy in the world. This is further compounded by the fact that the recession has negatively impacted on defense spending in Europe sending a message to Washington that the Europeans do not intend to increase capabilities and hence commitments to transatlantic and global defense. The Europeans also lack key military capabilities such as intelligence, heavy-lift, command and control and sea power. This also makes the Europeans less useful to America in the context of NATO-led operations throughout the world. However, Washington does regard CSDP as having some utility under a NATO umbrella for operations in Europe and the region in the context of executing crisis management and Petersburg Tasks. This is where the EU can have an impact by niche marketing its limited military capabilities under CSDP within the context of humanitarian operations thereby making the EU-NATO relationship complementary in this area at least. Furthermore, as is mentioned above, Britain and France have also renewed military cooperation to boost European defense capabilities in areas such as rapid reaction working alongside NATO and CSDP as in Libya in early 2011.


As is mentioned above, Europe and America are deeply intertwined in the world economy; this in itself necessarily keeps both sides of the Atlantic in a state of close cooperation. Interests and values are seemingly aligned in the economic field. On the surface Europe and America seem to diverge more seriously in the defense and security fields. Post 9/11 the EU and its member states individually have broadly supported the US in its “war on terror”. However, whereas Washington has used a mixture soft and hard power, the Europeans have tended to use almost exclusively soft power instruments. Indeed, many European states do not see the utility of using force to combat the threat of terrorism and instead favor the use legal and economic means to address with the problem. It must also be said that the EU and its member states lack world-class military capabilities (save Britain and France) and this exasperates American foreign policy élites and both political parties in Washington. There is a feeling in the US that Europe is in decline and cannot add anything to American capabilities around the world. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has hinted that Europe will become less relevant in the American grand strategy because it has not grasped the nettle of making itself more useful in the management of international security. Indeed, Secretary Gates has stated that European demilitarization is a threat to world peace. This view arguably underplays Europe’s role in the world through civilian power tools. As Wallace has argued the EU plays an important role in the management of global security via its aid, trade, and development policies and well as being a good multilateral friend to the US. The EU and NATO have also reached some degree of complementarity on crisis management and the Petersburg Tasks working together for the greater European and transatlantic good. Additionally, the bilateral relationship in trade between the EU and US is the cornerstone of the global economy. Collectively, at European and transatlantic levels all the behind the scenes diplomacy contributes much to the stability of the international system. Indeed, as Calleo points out, both sides of the Atlantic seem parochial and adrift without each other in a political, economic and military sense.  Perhaps European soft and normative power has a role to play in the transatlantic relationships of the future alongside European and American “hard” power, as do the CFSP, CSDP and NATO as part of that broader core transatlantic relationship.

Dr. Neil Winn is Senior Lecturer in European Studies at Leeds University. His work focuses on the intersection of international relations and European politics, European international relations, and Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union.

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