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Europe's debt crisis: A nudge toward a common security policy

By Stephen Majors

The global community is focused on the EU's efforts to implement the fiscal union that its currency union now demands, but ambitious eurocrats are quietly pursuing an even more fundamental change for the bloc: a truly common foreign and security policy. This lofty dream remains an unlikely prospect, but the painstaking process of European institution-building in response to the ongoing debt crisis is chipping away at obstacles that may once have been immovable.  

Brussels' efforts to implement the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) are closely tied to the far more high-profile efforts to achieve fiscal and banking union. The fiscal union that few considered possible just a few short years ago now appears to be the only way to save the euro, though it may takes years to emerge. The relinquishing of sovereignty this will require from member states provides the potential foundation for a collective security policy.

The global political and economic environment is also helping encourage consideration of a common foreign policy. European countries are on the verge of becoming security-takers instead of security-makers. European officials -- perhaps surprised by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' candor when he said European states were not pulling their weight in NATO -- concede the facts. In part, the issue is driven by economic stagnation. European countries had started to reduce defense spending even before the debt crisis, which has simply compounded the economic challenge. And the trend is expected to continue. By 2050, according to a projection from HSBC economists, Europe will only have five economies in the top 20, compared to eight today, illustrating the decline in the prominence of individual European countries. Collective security would be a logical way to address those concerns, if (and it's a big if) the political issues can be resolved. The EU could be a force to be reckoned with; it has more than 500 million people (far larger than the U.S., but smaller than China or India).

The evolving geopolitical environment provides another impetus for collective European security. The US is reorienting its security approach with its pivot to Asia in response to China's rise, and Europe feels less secure and less favored by the U.S. The Balkans crisis of the 1990s set in motion the move toward a collective foreign policy and Europe's leaders do not want to again find themselves unable to respond to vital security needs. The debate in Europe now revolves around whether EU member states will rally around the CSDP, or whether NATO will retain its primacy in the continent's security affairs. It is difficult to imagine how NATO could co-exist alongside a strong collective EU security body, should it come to fruition. But as Gates' comments illustrated, NATO is already fraying.

The EU is in the process of centralizing its foreign policy, albeit with a focus on soft power that avoids the thorniest concerns over sovereignty. The EU's External Action Service (the EU equivalent to the US State Department) already maintains delegations in 130 countries. The CFSP currently runs more than 20 missions abroad ranging from an anti-piracy mission in the Horn of Africa (Operation Atalanta) to the training of police forces (EUPOL) in Afghanistan. Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has an important role in many international negotiations, from Syria to the nuclear talks with Iran. The EU has also levied sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, and is considering whether to go further with additional penalties. But many member states maintain their own missions in parallel to the EU, and turf wars abound. And of course, sending European troops into combat under a European flag is many, many years away. 

Beyond the external forces that support the logic of the CSDP, internal politics within the EU also present some advantages. Germany, as the continent's economic power, has only been willing to disburse funds in favor of struggling EU economies after those states agree to cede sovereignty on economic issues, which has driven institution-building on the European level. And given its unique history in Europe, Germany itself is willing to cede sovereignty on security issues-in fact, it is only willing to project power abroad in the context of collective EU decision-making. France and the UK, conversely, would be most opposed to foreign policy integration. Notably, though, these two European powers have already begun cooperating with each other on military matters.

A truly unified European security policy is perhaps the grandest political experiment of them all. But it is a measure of Europe's evolution over the last couple of years that what once appeared to be a utopian EU dream now sounds almost feasible.

Stephen Majors is an editor with Eurasia Group. He recently completed the European Union Visitors Program fellowship in Brussels.

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