25th Sep 2023


Will Portugal fix EU's defence and security policy?

  • The question of whether the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy should focus on territorial defence and the protection of Europe or be used primarily for external crisis management also requires fundamental clarification (Photo: Public Affairs Office)

Santa Maria da Feira is a county seat in northern Portugal with a listed historic centre and an impressive 16th century fort.

But for the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), however, 'Feira' is much more.

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In June 2000, the European Council met in Feira under the then Portuguese EU Council presidency and took key decisions on the further structural and substantive design of the European Union's military and civilian crisis management operations.

Since then, the tasks of civilian CSDP missions have been referred to as "Feira Priorities": police, rule of law, civil administration, and civil protection.

With the exception of civil protection, all tasks have already been implemented in a number of civilian missions. Monitoring of ceasefire agreements and lines of contact between warring parties, support to EU special representatives, security sector reform (SSR), and disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants were added later.

With the civilian CSDP Compact in 2018, potential lines of operation such as ones "related to irregular migration, hybrid threats, cybersecurity, terrorism and radicalisation, organised crime, border management and maritime security, and preventing and countering violent extremism" were added.

Since 2020, climate security and, after the outbreak of corona, pandemic response have also been discussed as potential tasks for civilian CSDP.

Unfortunately, the increase in theoretically possible tasks and mandates for European crisis operations could not prevent civilian missions - just like military ones - from struggling with a lack of commitment and declining interest on the part of member states, especially since the Lisbon Treaty.

While the decisions of Feira led to the European Security Strategy (ESS) and, from 2003 on, to large civilian and military missions of the EU (sometimes up to 3,000-4,000 deployed personnel) in Congo, Chad, Bosnia and Kosovo, among others, the enlargement of the EU with the Treaty of Lisbon has resulted in a differentiation of threat perceptions within the Union: in the Baltic States, people fear different things than around the Mediterranean.

In addition, there has been a shift and fragmentation of the interests of the member states, both in terms of the scope of global intervention (or whether to intervene at all) and in terms of the respective regional focal points of possible European intervention.

Since Lisbon, the size of EU missions - with the exception of maritime deployments - has often been in the range from a few dozen to several hundred, with most mandates focusing on advising and training security actors in the host country.

The difficulty of getting enough support for a mission even in extreme crisis situations was demonstrated, for example, by the six rounds of negotiations it took to raise 700 troops for the EU operation in the Central African Republic in spring 2014 - and in the end, the second-largest troop contributor was non-EU member Georgia.

After the Berlin Libya Conference in February 2020, it took nearly three months before member states could agree on a Libya mission. By then, the momentum of the conference had already dissipated.

Operation Irini has since focused primarily on sorting out its flawed mandate.

'No real strategy'

At present, there is no real strategy for joint action using CSDP as an instrument. Compromises based on the lowest common denominator seem to dominate and, of course, entail the risk of achieving hardly any effect (or not the right effect) with the missions.

A remedy could be the current process for the creation of a "strategic compass" for the EU's security and defence policy, including civilian and military crisis operations.

This new basic security policy document, which is to be completed for the French EU Council presidency in 2022, also aims to place missions on a new strategic footing.

After completion of the first phase - the compilation and drafting of threat scenarios by all member states - the "strategic dialogue" of that initiative is scheduled for the first half of 2021 under the Portuguese Council presidency.

It would be useful if Portugal were to use this phase of the Strategic Compass to make a big splash and organise a "Feira 2.0". Here, clarity could finally be created about what the member states actually want to achieve with their crisis missions.

Instead of defining more and more tasks for smaller and smaller missions and maintaining the division into military and civilian CSDP, future missions should be implemented in an ambitious, integrated civil-military manner and with strong political support.

Smaller advisory and training tasks could instead be implemented by the EU Commission and its delegations, or by agencies such as Frontex.

The question of whether CSDP should focus on territorial defence and the protection of Europe or be used primarily for external crisis management also requires fundamental clarification - and, building on this, a structural reorganisation of the security and defence institutions in Brussels.

The Feira meeting more than two decades ago, in a series with predecessor and successor meetings in Cologne and Gothenburg, was characterised by a spirit of optimism and a strong will on the part of the EU member states to shape foreign and security policy.

The Common Security and Defence Policy can make good use of this "Feira spirit" this year - Portugal could provide an important impetus for this with a renewed meeting in Santa Maria da Feira in early summer.

Author bio

Tobias Pietz is deputy head of analysis at the Berlin-based Center for International Peace Operations.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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