How the EU safeguards its trade policy by military means

by Thomas Roithner

The EU’s 2016 Global Strategy has something for all. “Our interests and values go hand in hand,” it says, whereby “soft power and hard power” also appear to be firm companions. While some read the document and see fairness, prosperity and conflict prevention, others see an arms programme facilitating “high-end military capabilities”. According to the EU strategy, a comprehensive programme is to be implemented to ensure “full-spectrum land, air, space and maritime capabilities”. Military and trade power within the EU are to go hand in hand. Geopolitics and geoeconomics are forming an amalgam, so say Birgit Mahnkopf and Elmar Altvater – and accordingly, the neoliberal economic policy and the (overwhelmingly military-oriented) foreign assignments of the EU are to be designed in tandem. Because of this, it’s important to consider social justice and peace alongside each other as part of the resistance.

Current logic of security and military

Over the past two decades, wars and disasters have meant that foreign, security and military policies have had to “evolve”, say military, political majorities and the defence industry. This is nothing more than “militarisation” and “securitisation”, say the critics.

Think back briefly to NATO’s Kosovo war, which contravened international law and led to the formation of a 60,000-strong EU intervention force. The EU’s commitment to upholding international law has been intensely debated ever since. Will the EU wage war in contravention of international law in the future? 9/11 has also significantly disrupted the relationship between freedom and security in Europe. Ireland’s rejection of the Nice Treaty – the only popular vote to be held on this matter – was pivotal in establishing a security-focused “core Europe” with the aim of facilitating EU military operations. The terrorist attacks in London and Madrid gave the European Defence Agency – formerly and more accurately referred to as the European Arms Agency – the boost it needed to begin its work. Now, barely a crisis goes by in which calls for an EU army are not heard. One of the social democratic consequences of Brexit, for example, was the demand for a European FBI and a powerful military core Europe led by the German and French. Every crisis brought with it a disproportionate degree of securitisation and valorisation of the military and surveillance services, with too little crisis prevention and civilian crisis management alongside it.

Foreign missions are one of the more visible manifestations of foreign and security policy. In numerical terms, some two thirds of the three dozen past and current missions are civil in nature, with only the remaining third being military (figures correct as of 2018; however, if you look at the number of staff, about 80 percent are military and only 20 percent civilian, with the majority of this 20 percent being police).

It has been suggested – for a not-insignificant number of the EU’s foreign assignments – that the desire to secure access to raw materials also plays a role, and it’s an accusation that is not easy to dismiss. Examples include naval deployment in the Horn of Africa, EU military operations in Chad and Congo or missions in Georgia and Libya. The EU “Battlegroup” units train, for example for combat operations in deserts, mountains and jungles. Debate on EU reform sees security policy (in general) and the upgrading of a globally deployable military (in particular) as a catalyst for further integration. These measures are also visualised as a core European project from which other EU members can be decoupled under specific conditions. The EU purports to be moving in a social direction, but is actually turning towards military power.

Back in 2003, the EU’s security strategy noted that in the event of new threats, the first line of defence would often be deployed overseas. The term “defence” has become an Orwellian one in the EU context, and is frequently used interchangeably with intervention.

A glance at the arms industry reveals significant concentration processes. When it comes to the purchase of arms, the rule of the otherwise-free market – which is normally held in such high esteem – is suspended. While public debt that bolsters into the social budget is frowned upon, debt for the purchase of weapons has become socially acceptable, and exceptions are often demanded accordingly. The EU makes this expenditure palatable to the population by invoking the argument of jobs and employment. A separate EU agency exists to promote global arms exports, with the result that since the 2003 Iraq war, EU countries have sold almost as many weapons as the US or Russia. Not infrequently, EU export interests and EU values (human dignity, equality and freedom) are two completely different kettles of fish. A force for peace would certainly look very different.

From a security mindset to one of peace

The EU pursues a so-called “coherent approach” whereby different policy areas – global trade, economics, justice, military or development – interlock and work efficiently. In principle, this is an added value of the EU. Crucially, however, it indicates nothing about the actual direction of policy. It is not only efficiency that must be pursued, but peaceful trade, economic and resource policies. Today, in the field of security, “more Europe” is a byword for “more military”.

Securitisation means giving disproportionate weight to traditional security instruments – arms, military, violence, the construction of walls – while systematically eradicating civilian alternatives from the debate. The criticism of the EU’s foreign and security policy and the sometimes isolationist and protectionist policy of the nation states should not limit our thinking on alternatives. A comprehensive paradigm shift from security to peace logic must encompass actors, instruments and principles.

We are constantly relayed the message that war and military force are the “last resort” – yet we do too little make a success of the penultimate and pre-penultimate options. Civilian means are not only more effective, but cheaper, too. The staffing balance of the EU’s foreign deployment forces is characterised by enormous asymmetry: for its 93,000 registered military personnel, there are only around 12,500 civilian personnel (mainly police and civil defence). Trained civilian forces operating beyond the scope of the police and judiciary on a non-violent basis are an essential feature of credible foreign policy. This would require that EU states make these instruments available and undertake political commitments to use them.

In addition, too little attention is paid to the multilateral network of institutions existing at the global level. In foreign and security policy, in particular, the UN offers a broad range of instruments and opportunities for progress. Operating through its institutions, and deploying a number of important approaches, it pursues a comprehensive peace policy that goes far beyond the narrow concept of security. The Environmental Program (UNEP), the Development Program (UNDP) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are all examples of projects whose scope goes beyond the mere economic interests of a bloc of states. These programmes give rise to opportunities and majorities for disarmament and arms control – opportunities that have been rejected by a majority of EU countries, e.g. through the rejection of the nuclear weapons ban.

Furthermore, the UN’s prohibition of force is not only a central component of the international order, but one which has been violated repeatedly by states – particularly Western states – since 1989. The expertise gained by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regarding civilian crisis prevention and confidence-building measures is forced to compete with the “global player” face of the EU. As such, it is helpful to look beyond the EU and not be limited by its ideological corset. And for the purposes of clarification: the goal is internationalism, not a return to the nation state.

The responsibility for developing, researching and testing civil approaches must also be taken up by the EU institutions. Essentially, the proposal is for a core Europe run on a civil basis. Partners within and outside the EU should be derived based on the various relevant areas of responsibility: civilian crisis prevention, reconciliation, mediation, civilian crisis management, initiation and support of disarmament, oversight of peace processes or non-military post-conflict rehabilitation. This civilly-oriented core Europe can be understood as an approach in the overall collective interest, with monitoring and support for research placed on an equal footing with civil society and critical observation by the media. The design of a comprehensive prevention agenda is not an abstract concept, but a source of added value in the opposition of new fences and walls in and around the EU.


The referendum on the EU in Great Britain and the US foreign policy of Donald Trump have functioned like a catalyst for the implementation and strengthening of an autonomous EU military and armaments policy. Since these developments, a Military Planning Capability (a kind of headquarters) has been established, internal financial resistance to the EU battle groups has been removed and a new kind of mobility of troops and armament (“military Schengen”) has been promoted to improve foreign military assignments. In foreign and security policy, the current objective of the EU is not the overcoming of nation states and national interests, but rather their hierarchisation. The security-oriented core Europe group (Permanent Structured Cooperation; PESCO) is a good example of this, since the criteria and projects for core Europe are based exclusively on military factors. Civil factors are of no consequence for the security-oriented core Europe dominated by Germany and France. Those who are politically willing and militarily capable set the tone, even though currently, the approval of all EU states is required in order for military operations to take place. One of the official goals of core Europe is “regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms”.

Present and future military projects in the context of PESCO require a strong armaments industry. The European Commission proposed € 13 billion for the “European Defence Fund” (EDF) in the financial framework for 2021-2027. With the contributions of the individual member states, the budget for development is then quadrupled. The representatives of the armaments manufacturers have played an integral role in establishing this project, one of whose aims is to protect the global political and economic interests of the EU. Among the desired effects of these developments is a high level of global armament exports by EU member states. In this respect, the EU offers no alternative to the current global dynamic of confrontation.

A rapid development of military capacities, instruments and the armament industry within the EU is now apparent. At the same time, the EU has a lack of a common foreign policy, with no common stance on nuclear weapons, politics regarding Russia, the recognition of Palestine, Kosovo or dealing with refugees. The list of disagreements is long. Common EU combat forces will not be able to compensate for a divided foreign policy, but instead will serve to reinforce the democratic deficit.

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