The geopolitical landscape of the world has recently undergone rapid changes. The departure of the United States from the leading role in world affairs, disagreements within NATO, an assertive China and a resurgent Russia are all signals that a more multipolar world is in sight. The European Union, originally a peace project with no geopolitical ambitions, has found mantles of leadership thrust upon it as it has outgrown its humble beginnings, yet remains rather unprepared for this newfound reality due to divergent ideas internally on its future role and position in the international system.
The EU, an actor equipped to project its power rather through soft and economic means, has so far advanced very slowly in integrating security and defence policies of the member states. As a result, the epitome of such efforts, the European Army, still remains a divisive topic throughout the member states and the very existence of the NATO is still the most important obstacle in achieving such an ambitious project – or, as some argue, the best reason not to pursue it. However, the geopolitical changes have pushed the EU in the past years into greater cooperation in this field, leading to visible progress. After establishing the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and European Defence Fund (EDF) in 2017, the European Peace Facility (EPF) is yet another step in the efforts of the EU to be a more decisive global actor.
The uneasy path towards a deeper integration
Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), originally established already in 1999 and later renamed by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, has been recently transforming from an “integration resistant” area, mainly characterized by the relative inaction associated with unanimity in voting, to a field with several institutional reforms and new initiatives. The reasons for strengthening the security and defence domain are both geopolitical and internal; the departure of a lukewarm supporter of integration in this area, the UK, serves as an embodiment of the latter. As a direct consequence of Brexit, several initiatives had been introduced in 2017; the joint defence capacity building PESCO, the research and innovation-focused EDF and Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), which aims at synchronizing member states’ national defence plans. The momentum, however, did not stop here, and in 2018 High Representative Federica Mogherini introduced the EPF. The fund should improve financing the EU’s external actions concerning the military domain and will be operable from 2021.
The creation of such a mechanism should not come as a huge surprise. In today’s world comprising of various threats which are not always territorially limited, a strong global actor almost inevitably must be able to project its power abroad. More specifically, in the case of the EU, it is the ability to conduct external operations under CSDP framework such as peacekeeping, conflict prevention and other activities strengthening international security. These are the EU’s tools to enhance its own security and credibility.
What changes does the EPF introduce?
The direct predecessors of EPF are two CSDP mechanisms. At first, it is the Athena mechanism that allows to “share part of the common costs for military CSDP operations among all EU member states”. Current external EU missions, such as in Mali, Somalia or anti-piracy operation EUNAVFOR, are financed by this instrument. The second mechanism is the African Peace Facility that supports regional organizations in Africa, mainly the African Union, dealing with security challenges on the continent.
The EPF is a replacement that simplifies the funding process and significantly enhances the existing military abilities of the EU. The EPF introduces a few major changes. Firstly, the fund is going to be permanent and cover a greater amount of costs. This will increase the flexibility and effectiveness of the CSDP operations. Secondly, it enables the EU to militarily support third countries or other international and regional partners all over the world. That means the support will be no longer limited geographically to Africa and the EU’s partners there. Moreover, the EU can through the EPF supply the partners with military equipment such as weapons, uniforms etc. Under current rules such supplies of weapons coming from the EU are forbidden, thus the EU relies in its missions mostly on training activities, which is often limiting in terms of efficiency of the missions. This is also the point of the EPF that raises the most questions as the prohibition of provisioning external partners with weapons has been an integral part of the ‘peaceful’ identity of European integration. Finally, the EPF is going to equip the EU with better tools for future military operations amidst increasingly uncertain international relations. Whether it is going to broaden the scope and frequency of such actions, or in other words, if the EU is going to be more active internationally, remains an open question.
An instrument for a ‘new’ engaged Union in the emerging world order?
So far it seems clearly like a step towards further integration of the security and defence area. There are, however, some critical viewpoints that perceive the new EPF as an instrument prone to fuel conflicts around the world. Namely, the problematic point is that the EPF allows the EU to directly supply the third countries with weapons and other military equipment. The critics point out that very often these weapons end up in hands of armed groups these weapons should have originally helped to counter. Moreover, even the training of the security forces sometimes proves problematic as the third countries’ regimes are often authoritarian and training of the security forces might help to consolidate the power of repressive and corrupt leaders. The EPF, in this context, can enable the EU to foster ‘problematic’ partnerships more easily.
Such criticism can be viewed as a part of a much wider debate about the role of the EU in the emerging world order. Should the EU adhere purely to its foundational approach in its foreign policies which has prioritized bottom-up or society-building strategies? Is it even possible to supplement these strategies with hard power tools without losing the credibility as a ‘peaceful’ actor? Does an increasingly competitive world require the EU to use straightforward methods to deal with complex security issues and threats? As the international system changes, the EU adapts itself to this environment and tries to preserve its identity at the same time. This is not an easy task to do. Progress in the integration of the security domain is proof that the EU is actively and consciously reacting to these shifts, yet it remains to be seen whether it will succeed.