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The EU's Security Strategy


In this paper, we look at the EU’s Security Strategy, A Secure Europe in a Better World, adopted by the Heads of State and Government in December 2003 in the immediate aftermath of the disagreements over the invasion of Iraq earlier that year and over the US doctrine of the preventive use of force, in the light of the re-examination of that strategy which took place in 2008. The December 2008 European Council effectively re-launched the strategy in the rather different security context that exists five years after it was first adopted.

The Maastricht Treaty, for the first time in the EC/EU’s history, brought defence and security within the remit of the European Union. This was a significant development with potentially far-reaching consequences. Since then, the EU has been involved in several major defence and security missions and operations, including the provision of a peacekeeping force in Bosnia and most recently, a naval taskforce off the coast of Somalia (a full list can be found in Annex II). More details on the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) can be found in the Senior Experts group paper, "The EU’s Common Foreign & Security Policy & the Common Security & Defence Policy".

The full details of the strategy are set out in Annex I at the end of the paper but the most important elements were its recognition of the change in threats to EU Member States since the end of the Cold War and of the need for the EU to be more active in the field of security. The strategy identified five current threats

  • terrorism;
  • the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  • regional conflicts;
  • state failure;
  • and organised crime.

The strategy said that "the best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states", that "a number of countries have placed themselves outside the bounds of international society" and that such countries needed to understand that there "is a price to be paid, including in their relationship with the EU" for their behaviour.

Under the heading "Policy implications for Europe" the strategy said that the EU needed to be:

  • more active – "we need to develop a strategic culture that fosters early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention"; it made the point that "preventive engagement can avoid more serious problems in the future";
  • more capable – Member States needed to transform their armed forces and to develop "greater capacity to bring all necessary civilian resources to bear" on security problems;
  • more coherent – the work of the EU and of Member States needed to be better co-ordinated;
  • more effective in working with partners – of which the US was one of the most important.

The 2008 Review

In advance of the December 2008 European Council there was review of the 2003 security strategy, with a report being presented to heads of governments at that meeting. This was not a replacement strategy but a review of progress in implementing the strategy since 2003 and a reiteration of the main goals of that strategy.

The 2008 report recognised that the international situation has changed considerably since 2003. There were positive developments, such as enlargement, an improving situation in the Balkans, the adoption of the neighbourhood policy and the EU’s positive role in addressing conflict in places such as Georgia and Afghanistan.

But the report noted that conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere remained unresolved, that state failure continued to threaten European security, terrorism and organised crime had "evolved with new menace" including within the EU and Iran’s nuclear programme had "significantly advanced" representing a danger to the region and to the non-proliferation system. Energy security and cyber security were now bigger issues for the EU than they had been in 2003. Climate change too was seen to have developed as a significant security threat.

The 2008 report reviewed progress since 2003 in meeting the threats and challenges identified in the strategy. It saw enlargement as continuing to be "a powerful driver for stability, peace and reform", noting recent developments, including the opening of negotiations with Turkey and the continuous "if slow" progress in the Western Balkans.

It referred to the development of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the EU’s support for the economy and institutions of Kosovo. It drew attention to the progress in improving relations with Ukraine and Moldova but warned of the dangers of the so-called "frozen conflicts" on the EU’s southern and eastern fringe. The situation in Georgia, following the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008, received a special mention because of the EU’s involvement in trying to resolve the disputes that triggered the conflict.

The instability in the Mediterranean area was identified as an on-going problem but more space was devoted to the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians where the EU had been particularly active.

The report identified continuing concerns about the threats to European security that were beyond its immediate neighbourhood. Afghanistan, where the EU, both as an institution and through its Member States, was making a major contribution to bringing stability, was said to be "a particular concern".

The link between development and security was referred to, with special reference to human rights and the fragility of some states and the need to recognise the new UN doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" endorsed by the UN Summit meeting in September 2005. Piracy was a new dimension in the threat from organised crime – to which the EU had already responded in the ATALANTA EDSP maritime mission off Somalia.

The December 2008 European Council

The European Council noted the report and endorsed its contents but went further by specifically supporting the recommendations that are designed to improve the EU’s capabilities. The obstacles to a more effective EU in the security field are partly political but they are also related to the inability (as the original strategy recognised) of Member States to deploy sufficiently robust forces at speed to respond to some threats.

The European Council reaffirmed previous commitments to set goals for operational forces able to be deployed for EDSP missions – in full co-operation with NATO. The European Council undertook to "make good the shortfall in the resources available in Europe by gradually improving civilian and military capabilities". The Council described this effort as a "prerequisite" for "allowing Europeans to assume in a credible and effective manner their responsibilities under a renewed transatlantic partnership" to which they reaffirmed their commitment.

The EDSP civil and military force goals agreed by Ministers before the European Council were ambitious:

  • the capacity to deploy 60,000 men in 60 days for a major operation;
  • this capability to be achieved by 2010 and to include the ability to conduct a number of simultaneous operations, both civil and military;
  • this would permit "two major stabilisation and reconstruction operations, with a suitable civilian component, supported by a maximum of 10,000 men for at least two years";
  • two rapid response operations of limited duration using the EU's battle groups;
  • an emergency operation for the evacuation of European nationals (in less than ten days);
  • a maritime or air surveillance/interdiction mission;
  • a civilian-military humanitarian assistance operation lasting up to 90 days;
  • around a dozen ESDP civilian missions, some of which could be large and last for several years.

These missions would use the resources of the EU and its Member States as appropriate, with the resources and capabilities of NATO for military operations.


The strategy serves the useful purpose of pulling together thinking among the Member States on security threats facing the Union and on the responses both before and after, that is, prevention as well as remedy, including the possibility of military action.

Nonetheless, the EU’s efforts in the field of defence and security have been much criticised. The inability of the Member States to provide the heavy lift, the helicopters, the communications and satellite capability required for larger-scale EDSP operations has undermined the credibility of the EU in this field. The commitment of the leaders of Member States to make up this shortfall at the December 2008 European Council was therefore particularly welcome but there must be serious doubts – given past performance – as to whether these promises will be realised. The reference to "gradually improving" does suggest, however, a greater degree of realism about how much can be achieved.

The value of the EU in the field of security and defence is the way in which it can combine civil and military power. There have been over 20 EDSP missions to date (some of them, such as the EU force in Bosnia and the naval mission off Somalia, involving significant military deployments) and their value is now recognised – including by some in the US previously reluctant to concede that the EU could add value in the security field. But the EU has not been seriously tested militarily and – as NATO found in Kosovo in 1999 and is finding today in Afghanistan – multinational military operations are extremely difficult both to manage and to deliver effectively in a hostile situation.

The link with NATO, and in particular the so-called Berlin Plus arrangements under which the EU has the right to call on NATO assets with the assumption of acceptance, is critical for both the credibility of the EDSP in those EU Member States with particularly strong transatlantic ties (including the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany and also several of the central and eastern European Members) and also for the capability to deliver what is needed. The leaders agreed at their December 2008 meeting that there should be an informal high-level EU-NATO group to improve co-operation on the ground; this is particularly relevant to Afghanistan, where NATO is focusing on security and the EU on development, justice and civic issues. The EU-NATO relationship will always be a delicate one because some Member States are not members of the Atlantic Alliance; but the French decision to rejoin NATO’s military command structure should improve the relationship. The arrival in office of the Obama administration will make the EU-NATO relationship easier as it is more supportive of the EU playing a role in security policy than its predecessor.

The 2003 European Security Strategy has proved to be an enduring statement of the threats and challenges the EU faces. Its implementation remains a work in progress and there is still much to do to increase the EU’s effectiveness in action.

June 2009

Annex I

The 2003 Strategy

A Secure Europe in a Better World hailed the development of a largely peaceful Europe since 1945, the replacement of authoritarian regimes on the European continent by stable democratic ones and the successful enlargement of the EU. The strategy noted the importance of the United States and of NATO to "European integration and European security", the dominance of the US as a military power after the end of the Cold War but also said that "no single country is able to tackle today’s complex problems on its own".

The strategy drew attention to the positive benefits of globalisation - such as increased trade and investment flows - but also the disbenefits of increased European dependence (and therefore greater vulnerability) as a result of the interconnected nature of infrastructure in transport, energy and information. The European vulnerability in respect of energy imports was highlighted.

It also referred to other global challenges - poverty and disease; climate change; and the competition for natural resources, particularly water - and that they were often interconnected.

The strategy identified five key threats faced by the EU: terrorism; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); regional conflicts; state failure; and organised crime. Of these, terrorism was first but the strategy described proliferation as "potentially the greatest threat to our security". Despite the partial success of international treaties and export control mechanisms, the strategy said that there was a danger of a "WMD arms race" (especially in the Middle East). It warned of scientific and technological developments worsening the threat from WMD and of the possibility of terrorists obtaining such weapons.

With reference to regional conflicts, the stragey referred to Kashmir, the Great Lakes Region of central Africa and the divided Korean peninsular as well as "conflicts nearer to home", particularly in the Middle East. It noted that regional insecurity "can fuel the demand for WMD".

State failure was the fourth of the threats the strategy mentioned. It warned of the dangers caused by bad governance and civil conflict and referred to Somalia and Afghanistan as recent examples.

The final threat was that of organised crime: "Europe is a prime target for organised crime" it declared. This was an internal threat with "an important extension dimension" including people trafficking, the drugs trade and the trade in illegal weapons.

The EU had responded to these threats in a number of ways, including the measures adopted after the attacks of September 11 2001 on the United States, the EU’s programme of action to stop proliferation, and the work the it had done in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to address regional conflicts and regional insecurity.

In contrast to the Cold War, "none of the new threats is purely military" nor were they as visible, the strategy said. The traditional concept of self-defence was based around the threat of invasion, but now the "first line of defence will often be abroad", it said. A range of instruments - economic, judicial, and civic - would be needed in addition to military ones. The EU was "particularly well equipped to respond" to situations where several of these elements were required.

On the EU’s neighbourhood, the strategy argued that it was in Europe’s interest that its neighbours were well-governed and free of conflict. The enlargement of the Union would strengthen security in one way but also increase vulnerabilities in others as the EU gained borders with troubled areas. It urged the EU to take a more active interest in the Southern Caucasus and said that the resolution of the Arab/Israel conflict is "a strategic priority for Europe".

Multilateralism and the rule of law are seen as the cornerstones of the EU’s approach, including strengthening multilateral institutions - not just the United Nations but other bodies such as the WTO and regional organisations. It identified "effective multilateralism" as one of the key objectives of the strategy. The strategy said that "the development of a stronger international society, well functioning institutions and a rule based international order is our objective".

Finally, the strategy looked at the policy implications for the EU. It wanted the EU to be more active in pursuit of its strategic objectives, including being able to sustain several defence and security operations simultaneously, acting before countries deteriorate and before humanitarian disasters occurred. A more capable Europe was a key aim too; but the paper acknowledged that it would take time to achieve this, although it saw the establishment of the European Defence Agency as an important first step. It also recognised that improved capability was not just about military matters but included diplomatic capability, better assessment of threats and stronger co-operation with NATO.

Greater coherence and the importance of working with partners were the other two areas where the strategy identified further work to be done. Within the EU it identified the need, for example, for greater co-ordination between external policy and justice and home affairs works. In terms of external partners, the critical importance of the EU-US relationship was highlighted.

Annex II

EDSP Operations

Ongoing Operations

  • Western Balkans

EU Military Operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR-Althea)

EU Police Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUPM)

European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX KOSOVO)

  • South Caucasus

European Union Monitoring Mission

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