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Does the EU require an independent defence capability?

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There is a widely recognised capability-expectations gap within the EU. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the realm of defence. If the EU acquires an independent defence capability, this would be a massive step towards becoming a major international actor. This would increase the EU's influence over international trade, project much needed military strength, and provide a second western voice in international diplomacy. However, whether this is required depends on our conception of what the EU is and what we should expect from it. This paper will argue that American withdrawal, the threat posed by emerging powers, along with the opportunity to establish itself as a global power, should incentivise the development of EU defence capabilities. However, since the EU is not seeking to balance against the USA and primarily wishes to be a civilian power, it should not develop an independent defence capability. Instead, it should develop EU-wide defence capabilities to coordinate with the US to achieve shared goals.

EU and Balancing

The fall of the USSR created a vacuum in international politics, with America as the single world's superpower. As part of the 'balance of power dynamic, US hegemony should encourage balancing behaviour by other leading powers in the system (Waltz 2000). This is because excessive concentrations of power threaten states' long-term odds of survival. However, since the EU is sui generis and is too strong to be attacked, it has failed to internally balance the threat of the US by investing in military resources. However, where the US does pose a threat is in its willingness to change the rules of the game.

Following the Gulf War, the US has increasingly resorted to unilateralism and failed to acknowledge any constraints, including the views of its allies when it is national interests are threatened. Attempts by EU powers to constrain the US by countering it in the United Nations Security Council have failed, most notably before the Iraq Invasion in 2003. Despite this, the security-seeking outlook of the US has done much to reassure EU Member States of their security, and therefore they do not see the need to balance by creating an independent defence force (Walt 2005). This is why the EU has been able to bandwagon on US' hegemony for some time.

However, with American withdrawal from Europe accelerating, there is a need for Europe to bump up its collective defence efforts. While this does not constitute balancing since it is a response to American withdrawal rather than its threat, it is unsurprising that EU leaders have used 'balancing' rhetoric. This is to whip up public support for initiatives such as the European Security & Defence Policy (ESDP) and a 60,000-man rapid reaction force. Behind the rhetoric, these developments are a part of the EU's desire to maintain regional security. The EU must pool its military resources to protect itself from the threats the US once guaranteed protection from now that bandwagoning is no longer an option.

Any progress in EU defence cooperation can only go forward is seen as complementary to its alliance with the US. This is because it is prohibitively expensive for the EU to narrow the gap in military power with the US. Even if the most ambitious EU military plans succeed, the US will have a generational lead in military technology. So there is virtually zero chance of constraining US power in this manner (Brooks & Wohlforth 2005:93). As such, the EU should develop its defence capabilities to complement the United States rather than oppose it. This would allow it to deal with regional security threats as tensions rise with Russia post-Ukraine without facing the daunting prospect of financing huge military expenditures to catch up to the US or China.

EU Power

The EU has already launched more than thirty CSDP missions and has developed a range of new policy instruments. These include the EUFOR, a Gendarmerie Force, and a series of Battlegroups. However, despite Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty calling for a "common defence Union policy" and repeated calls by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a "fully-fledged European Defence Union", this policy area remains the least integrated. Since defence policy is more intimately related to state sovereignty and less related to 'low politics, neo-functionalism struggles to explain the lack of integration. Instead, liberal intergovernmentalism and realism are better suited to this since they argue that integration in this area is driven by rational decision-making over what is in the national interest of Member States (Hill et al., 2017: 200).

In this light, demands for an independent defence capability have arisen due to a growing recognition of the deteriorating security environment (EUROMIL 2016). However, failure to coordinate spending, the duplication of efforts, and a free-riding problem suggest that the EU has raised expectations beyond its capabilities. The focus on internal challenges, notably setting up the EEAS, and the continued use of informal coalitions indicate a lack of agenda-shaping capability and a reluctance to use the Lisbon Treaty reforms. This, coupled with the continued dependency on NATO, particularly during the 2011 Libyan Revolution, suggests that integration will be limited and lends credence to the idea that the EU should focus its efforts on complementing the US.

Since trade was the EU's raison d'etre, it does not give primacy to military force. Instead, it stresses the value of a wide range of power resources, including economic and normative power. This is why it enjoys the greatest legitimacy in trade and arguably the least in defence. Its own experiences mould the EU's strategic culture as an institution, as well as the history of the continent and Member States. Since European history is so violent, this has geared the European Security Strategy towards development, poverty reduction, education, and tackling the long-term roots of insecurity. None of these threats can be tackled by purely military means. This suggests that the EU does not wish to be a military superpower. Instead, it is content knowing that it is too strong to get attacked and too weak to sort out the world's problems. Instead of projecting military might, the EU has exerted influence on the international stage through its economic power and exporting liberal values abroad. Suppose the EU wishes to remain a civilian, liberal power. In that case, it does not need to develop an independent defence capability since this will not solve most of the 'security issues' it seeks to remedy.


The loss of a perceived 'protection automatism' by the US and an increasing threat of confrontation with emerging powers has brought defence strategy onto the EU macro-agenda. Integration in this area has been limited by the desire of Member States to retain control of a mechanism perceived as crucial to preserving their national sovereignty. Suppose the EU is to maintain regional security in the absence of an American security guarantee. In that case, it must further integrate its forces into NATO or develop defence mechanisms to complement the US'. This is particularly important since balancing is prohibitively costly and unnecessary given the US' security-seeking outlook. The EU does not need an independent defence capability since its security strategy aims to deal with development issues as much as external threats. However, what is must do is step up EU-wide defence coordination to assume its fair share of responsibility in crisis management and, in doing so, perhaps even reignite the US' interest in the transatlantic alliance.


Brooks, S. G., & Wohlforth, W. C. (2005) 'Hard Times for Soft Balancing', in International Security (MIT Press), Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 72-108.

EUROMIL (2016) ‘Letter on European Defence Union’, URL: http://euromil.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/1609_EUROMIL_Letter_to_Le_Drian_and_von_der_Leyen.pdf. [Accessed on: 14/01/2021].

Hill, C. J., Smith, M., & Vanhoonacker, S. (2017) 'International Relations and The

King's College London 6SSPP341 AB02984


European Union (Oxford University Press).

Walt, S. (2005) 'The Taming of US Power: The Global Response to US Primacy' (New York: Norton).

Waltz, K. N. (2000) 'Structural Realism after the Cold War', in International Security (MIT Press), Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 5-41.

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