3rd Dec 2023


Why aren't EU's CSDP missions working?

  • The EU currently deploys such missions in Ukraine, Kosovo (graffiti, above), Iraq, Palestine and the Central African Republic with the ambition to make them more accountable states that are trusted by their citizens (Photo: Matthijs Gall)

The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has become a flagship for EU external action, under which the Union today runs 17 missions in response to different crises around the world. The most ambitious of these CSDP missions involve strategic advisory, by which the EU seeks to promote domestic reform to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable states in its immediate and wider periphery.

The EU currently deploys such missions in Ukraine, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and the Central African Republic with the ambition to make them more accountable states that are trusted by their citizens.

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The EU's decisions to deploy strategic advisory missions in principle are based on the right diagnoses. The countries need to start with reform of their law-enforcement agencies and judiciaries, if they wish to experience economic growth and become more resilient.

In Ukraine, the strategically most-important country for the EU, the CSDP mission is mandated to fight the deficiencies and the politicisation of the domestic security institutions as problems equal to Russia's aggression.

In Kosovo, the mission known as EULEX had an executive mandate to help the young state adjudicate selected cases related to war crimes, organised crime and corruption.

The reform missions in Iraq, Palestine and the Central African Republic are similarly predicated on the necessity of European expertise transfer to improve the governance of their domestic security sectors.

Once deployed, however, the CSDP missions almost immediately run into the fundamental problem of lack of political will. Simply put, the missions operate in countries where the political elites resist reform because they seek to maintain control over the security sectors and the ability to influence the courts.

Welcomed, then ignored

Governments accept the CSDP missions to show official commitment to reform but rarely do they adopt the strategic advice that goes against the domestic interests on which they depend.

And if there is political buy-in, other domestic factors such as oligarchs (Ukraine), criminal networks (Kosovo), sectarian groups (Iraq) or administrative incapacity (Palestine, Central African Republic) typically stand in the way of their implementation.

As a result, even after a decade on the ground, the CSDP missions are successful in little other than operational advice and in conducting trainings – far from the ambition of strategic change.

The circumstance under which the CSDP missions are unable to deliver against their mandates calls for a rethinking of their utility. The EU members have deployed thousands of advisers over the past 15 years and they spend hundreds of millions of euro each year to keep the missions operational.

The CSDP mission set-up can certainly be optimised, for instance having advisers deployed for longer periods or through a better coordination with the other instruments of the EU's external action. However, as long as they fail to address the political character of security sector and justice reform, the missions will remain unable to make strategic value of their rich technical expertise. They need to make two major adjustments.

Two tweaks

First, the CSDP missions can no longer be open-ended, which risks legitimising the absence of progress in the host country.

The EU and its member states should never leave doubt about their readiness to assist countries wishing to transform. But they should also be prepared to not extend a mission in the case of negligible progress. Ideally, the missions should be deployed for time frames within which one can reasonably expect change – for instance, three years for the law-enforcement agencies and five years for the judiciary.

Second, the CSDP missions need to invigorate their public diplomacy efforts. Many of them operate in democracies, although imperfect, where voters pay attention to public criticism by a benign foreign actor like the EU. A stronger CSDP voice in the public space than currently is the case could bolster domestic pressure against self-interested elites for not delivering on their official reform commitments.

In the end, the EU cannot separate its CSDP missions from the recurrent discussions about European strategic autonomy. Ineffective missions will reinforce the perception of a Union unable to translate its internal potential into foreign-policy result, whereas missions playing a meaningful role in countries' transitions will increase the Union's credibility.

The EU is surrounded by a ring neither of friends, nor of fire, but rather by a 'ring of poor governance', which is the root cause of the instability the Union struggles to manage. Requiring a government or domestic non-state actors to give up their power begins with recognising the paradox inherent to changing the governance of a country that is officially a partner.

CSDP has yet to demonstrate its preparedness to approach reform as a profoundly political struggle. Developing the capacity to do so will be an essential element in boosting the EU's role as an autonomous foreign and security policy actor.

Author bio

Dr Henrik Larsen is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He served a political adviser with the EU Advisory Mission Ukraine from 2014 to 2017.


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

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