30th Nov 2022


When 'peace' becomes self-defeating

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We should bury the dream of a common European security policy: the new idea of a 'First Entry Force', the vague notion of strategic autonomy, and so forth.

Dreaming in today's world is dangerous. It prevents countries from seeing threats clearly and getting to understand that they will face the consequences if they do not take their responsibility.

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  • We should bury the dream of a common European security policy

I expect optimists now to start about glasses that are half-full, or different crises making Europe's common security identity stronger. Look, they might retort, at the solidarity of countries in fighting forest fires, recently in the Balkans, or at the EU training missions, or the display of solidarity with tiny Lithuania as it faced Chinese retaliation for cosy ties with Taiwan.

Optimists might also utter that as long as member states are forced through the routine of foreign affairs council meetings or ambassadors' committees, they will be forced in some ways to work towards a common ground, converge in their positions on Russia, China, energy security, migration, and so forth.

But the counter arguments are problematic. We have been moving from crisis to crisis for over three decades since the end of the Cold War.

The Yugoslav wars. The humanitarian tragedies in Africa. Russian energy intimidation. The invasion in Iraq of 2003. The Arab Spring. Ukraine and the downing of flight MH17. Cyber-attacks from authoritarian competitors.

Three decades of hard, humiliating lessons. And what has changed? We talk about a European First Entry Force.

A European flag, however, will not help the lack of mission readiness. The EU, UK added, has a GDP of $20 trillion [€17 trillion] and around 1.4 million soldiers, yet keeps only around 20,000 troops abroad and 10,000 troops in missions in the EU.

A dozen deployed

The median size of deployment of a mission contribution of European member state is ...12 soldiers. Russia, by comparison, has a GDP five times smaller and less than one million soldiers, yet has over 50,000 soldiers abroad and significantly more tanks, aircraft, and so forth.

Despite the subsequent crises, only France and the UK deploy in significant numbers. Common EU operations are still mostly expensive training missions.

In terms of military security, the EU has remained a pygmy. In terms of other forms of security, there is not much progress either.

Think of strategic autonomy. While the Baltic states remain deeply worried about Russia, western European states rush to buy its oil and to restore pragmatic cooperation.

In countering China's economic power politics, Europe can at best unleash a riffraff of slogans.

Migration: it suffices to read the most recent audit of Frontex.

What underpins all this is not the lack of cooperation, but an excess of complacency after having lived through three decades of relative internal peace and underneath America's nuclear umbrella.

There is just no appetite to take our security seriously and to accept some of the sacrifices. More investment, for instance, and less unbalanced business with our competitors.

The French president Emmanuel Macron spoke of Nato as being "brain dead", but the EU is so too.

On the one hand, this is because citizens and politicians are no longer capable of realising what insecurity means. World War Two is far behind us; the Cold War a faint memory.

It's a good thing of course, not having lived through dictatorship and occupation, but the negative is that peace and security become ghostlike concepts. We kind of like them, but no longer understand what it means to lose them and hence feel less urgency to defend them.

Skeleton staff

Besides this lack of resolve, on the other hand, many European countries have given up on strategic thinking altogether. Their foreign services and military staff are so thinly-populated these days, that they have come to expect the EU and Nato to do it instead.

But that often does not materialise. And when it does, such strategy has become so alien and abstract, that it can be ignored.

Europe, finally, has become an alibi for muddling through.

When one member state is threatened, Brussels will come up with its usual denouncements and superficial sanctions, just to let the other member states relapse in their habit of trading with rivals and pretending that there is only one real battle to be won – the next election campaign.

Peace, indeed, can become self-defeating.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).


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


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