By Stefanos Evripidou
There is a widely held view among a section of the planet’s inhabitants that we’re living in a more chaotic and unpredictable world. Then there are those who point to facts and figures that purport to show we’ve never lived longer or had so much peace and prosperity before.
Of course, the statistics are useful but we are too complex a species now to get bogged down in numbers alone.
From the perspective of countries in the middle to high income gap, the point is not so much about whether we’re smarter, richer or healthier, but more about how we feel. Do we feel safe and secure?
Technological advancements, particularly in telecommunications, have brought sweeping changes to the way we live our lives and interact with others, creating a plethora of new, interlinked and overlapping communities, specifically in the online world.
The dissemination of information has been revolutionised. We can get our news from a wide variety of colourful sources at any time, on time, and even before time.
And by news, I mean literally… anything. From white knuckle handshakes to bomb explosions and the latest in pet grooming, we have access to it all.
It is within this environment that one must question how safe and secure we feel, not simply within the confines of a graph showing global figures on violent deaths in the last 100 years. The question needs to be posed in the knowledge that we have access to almost everything that happens near or far, and that this enhanced awareness can often make one feel like they’ve been plugged into the physical heart of the ‘butterfly effect’. As Cosmo Kramer would say, “It’s no picnic.”
The impact of instant news and social media on our overall sense of security is rarely discussed when debating security issues at the highest levels. It’s simply taken for granted.
According to a 2016 Eurobarometer survey, immigration and terrorism are at the top of the list of concerns of EU citizens while the environment is at the bottom.
Nobody asks the question anymore: if a tree falls in a forest but nobody saw it, does it make a sound – because whether anyone saw it or not, there’s a YouTube video of the tree falling set to the sound of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. And it’s already got a billion views.
It is within this setting that many Europeans panicked when over a million migrants entered Europe in 2015 – a smaller figure than the number of refugees who’ve settled in Lebanon since the Syrian war broke out. Still, for a while, the EU bloc of half a billion people was at a loss as to what to do.
It is perhaps not surprising then to learn that a majority of Europeans are in favour of an integrated defence policy.
Despite the many trials and tribulations that the EU project has been through, particularly in recent years with the single currency, most Europeans actually want to see greater EU cooperation on security and defence in order to tackle existing or future security challenges.
According to a Eurobarometer survey from March 2017, 68 per cent of Europeans would like the EU to do more on security and defence policy.
Across member states, the percentage in favour of a common security and defence policy ranges from 87 per cent in Lithuania and Luxembourg, to 72 per cent in Greece, 64 per cent in Italy and 59 per cent in Sweden. Of course, the further East you go, the less popular it becomes, as former Warsaw Pact countries shun any collaboration that could overshadow NATO’s role as a bulwark against potential Russian aggression.
Cypriot public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of a more integrated policy among EU member states, with 81 per cent of respondents saying they support a common policy.
Ironically, it’s the national governments that have been holding back on pooling resources in this area. The legislation exists at an EU level – since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect in 2009 – to do a lot more on a common security and defence policy but the political will was never there.
However, it seems the migration flows from the Middle East and Africa, the latest wave of terrorist attacks, Brexit vote, Trump tweets (yes, really) and election of Emmanuel Macron have created a set of circumstances where EU leaders are actually ready to do more together.
Europe is getting a rude awakening from across the Atlantic that it cannot take for granted anymore the US provision of security for the continent. At the same time, the new French President has risen to the top after battling anti-EU elements within his country, and he is unabashedly pro-Europe.
With Trump distancing the US from Europe, Britain negotiating its sayonara, Macron fresh on the scene and Merkel sturdy as ever, the previously unthinkable is now looking like a real possibility.
Just last month, at Macron’s first EU summit, EU leaders agreed to establish permanent European defence cooperation, while pushing forward with a Defence Fund and EU battlegroups. The fund aims to provide over five billion euros annually by 2020 to promote research and financing capabilities in Europe’s defence sector. This will go towards rationalising defence purchases and developing an EU defence procurement market.
The sense of insecurity prevailing in EU and world affairs seems to have inspired some key figures within the EU to go ‘all in’, in an effort to create a Europe that can act independently and enjoy strategic autonomy in tackling threats and enhancing its security.
The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrede recently wrote that she heard the following comment in discussions with European experts and officials: “A golden decade may be dawning for Europe.”
At a media seminar in Madrid last month on the future of EU defence policies, organised by the European Parliament, one official said Brexit had created a new sense of urgency.
Despite being the second biggest spender in defence after the US, Europe is not as effective as it could be, said Dimitri Barua, Press Officer for the European Commission Representation in Spain.
We simply don’t get enough bang for our buck, he said, adding that the EU does not have strategic autonomy to act alone because it doesn’t have enough tools to do so.
The 28 members of the EU spent as a whole around €227 billion on defence last year, compared to €545 billion by the US, counting for 1.34 per cent and 3.3 per cent of GDP respectively.
Trump wants NATO members (22 of whom are EU members) to increase spending to 2 per cent of GDP. But spending in itself won’t improve Europe’s situation.
As Barua argued, “We need to spend more efficiently, which means spending collaboratively.” Purchasing weapons jointly provides for economies of scale. Developing systems in common also allows for interoperability.
Europe’s defence systems are plagued by duplication, evidenced by the number of different types of weapons used by EU member states, in comparison to the USA.
For example, there are 17 different types of main battle tanks across the 28 EU countries and only one in the US.
According to Barua, the EU notion of security is complex. The term does not entail one set of threats. There are many new types of hybrid threats out there, involving global and regional powers re-arming, terrorists striking in Europe and around the world, piracy, the escalation of cyber attacks, changing migration flows and so on. These are best tackled by working together, developing key technologies and strategic capabilities, he said.
If you don’t have strategic autonomy, you don’t have a seat at the table, Barua added.
The current thinking is that an integrated and multi-layered approach to conflicts and crises is required. Providing security does not mean adopting a single set of instruments. It entails many things, from providing humanitarian aid to capacity-building (strengthening law enforcement and administration in unstable regions), conflict prevention, tackling climate change and providing boots on the ground.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini delivered a Global Strategy for the EU’s foreign and security policy last year, highlighting the bloc’s main priorities, which included:
1) Responding to conflicts in an integrated manner– this requires capability, having civilian and military forces ready to take a multi-pronged approach to tackling a hot situation fast, with all that entails in terms of equipment, planning, command and control, mobility, intelligence etc.
2) Building up the capacity and resilience of partners – in other words, tackling the roots of rising instability at their source; incidentally the EU’s zone of interest, where many of the world’s hotspots can be found, is Cyprus’ neighbourhood.
3) Protecting the Union and its citizens – by working together in an interconnected manner on external security as well as internal security within the bloc (eg. implementing controls and sharing information to root out foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq).
Reflecting the mood of the public, the European Parliament has consistently encouraged greater cooperation on defence between EU member states.
One country that never liked the idea of the EU developing parallel capabilities to NATO and always opposed greater defence cooperation was the UK. Brexit could remove that obstacle, but at the same time, the EU is losing a UN P5 member and a nuclear power.
Head of the European Parliament Information Office in Madrid, Maria Andres, noted that since the election of Macron, the mood in Europe has changed.
On the day of his election, he celebrated playing the EU hymn, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. There is more will now among the institutions for greater cooperation and you can feel it in citizens too, said Andres.
Even with all the good will in the world, increasing cooperation on security and defence will not be a walk in the park when you’re dealing with so many national governments with their national sovereignties, sensitivities and competencies.
Saying that, the European Border Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has managed to create a rapid reaction pool of 1,500 officers from across member states that can be deployed immediately if there is an emergency at any one of the EU’s external borders. This would have been unheard of a while ago.
Frontex spokesperson Ewa Morcure explained that the responsibility for managing external borders lies primarily with the member states, while Frontex supports them to coordinate technical and other assistance.
She noted that after the migration experience, the agency has also added to its tasks the carrying out of vulnerability assessments to evaluate the capacity of member states to face challenges at their external borders.
Frontex officers are also able to gather evidence on cross-border crime such as human traffickers or stolen cars and pass it on to Europol or national authorities.
Also participating in the Madrid seminar, Cypriot MEP and member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, Eleni Theocharous said growing security risks have intensified the need to harmonise European defence cooperation.
She referred to a piece of information recently heard in Malta, that 30 million people are planning to move from the African continent to Europe in the coming years. The humanitarian refugee crisis has been turned into a political tool, threatening the social cohesion of the EU, argued Theocharous.
Among other challenges and threats to EU security, the Cypriot MEP and Solidarity leader underlined Turkey’s “destabilising policies” in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Balkans.
Portuguese MEP, Paulo Rangel, belonging to the European People’s Party (EPP), noted that the EU represents 7 per cent of the global population but 55 per cent of global social spending. Hence, everyone wants to come to Europe, he said.
Now, you can’t have freedom without a high level of security, but it would be naive to think we could close our borders, build walls and let no one enter, he argued.
Responding to a question, Rangel said Germany’s Merkel, a leading figure in the EPP, is of the view that we cannot avoid migration, so it’s better to regulate it than try to stop it in such a way that we’ll end up being confronted with a more chaotic situation in the future.
Most in the EPP agree with this analysis. There are some who don’t, specifically those belonging to the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia). These former Warsaw Pact countries seem to view the EU as some kind of postmodern Soviet stand-in.
As such, they don’t like being told what to do and tend to go against the grain when they think their national sovereignty’s being threatened.
Some also see their security strictly embedded in a NATO architecture and do not look kindly upon efforts to create new or parallel processes, regardless of what Trump says or tweets about those pesky European freeloaders.
At the end of the day, Europeans will determine how far they want to go in creating a common security and defence policy based on how safe and secure they feel.
Do they prefer to go it alone? Is it time for a European army? How many thousands of people can they accept drowning in the Mediterranean en route to Europe? Would they feel safer and more secure if they simply switched their smartphone off?
Difficult to say, but one thing’s for sure, the next couple of years are going to be very interesting.