This report is also available as a PDF-File


BITS Research Report 00.3
November 2000
ISBN 3-933111-07-2


The European Union's Common Foreign, Security, and Defense Policy

Denise M. Groves


Executive Summary


At the end of November 2000, the French Presidency of the European Council is scheduled to host a Capabilities Conference in Brussels. The conference is meant to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the EU's Rapid Reaction Force — a force of roughly 60,000 – 80,000 troops mandated to undertake humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping, and tasks of combat forces in crisis management operations, including peacemaking. The RRF is probably the most readily identifiable characteristic of the EU's ever-evolving common foreign, security and defense policies. But it is only one element of a broader effort to elevate the political and military status of the EU on international level.

The EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), as well as the second phase Common European Security and Defense Policy (CESDP), are ambitious programs for an institution whose Members have failed several times before to unite their foreign and defense policies. The swift pace at which both the CFSP and the CESDP are developing is also surprising given the EU's reputation as a notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy. But over the past several years, the CFSP and CESDP have progressed rapidly and have achieved a momentum that does not seem to be slowing. Indeed, decisions are being taken by the EU virtually everyday that are combining to enable the EU to advance towards its goal of "playing its full role on the international stage." 1

For all the activity that surrounds the CFSP and CESDP, however, there seems to be comparatively little public discussion about the significance of the events taking place. The steady progression of the CFSP and the CESDP will involve matters of supreme national interest, such as defense spending and export controls. For example, support for the RRF could spark greater integration and cooperation in the field of armaments, but also risk diluting the restrictive arms control standards of some Member States. The CFSP and CESDP will also have serious implications for relations with both the US and with Russia. For both countries, the question of whether the EU will duplicate the role of NATO is of utmost concern. Skepticism in Washington centers around the question of whether the Europeans will be able to make their plans work, and if so, whether the CESDP will then come into direct competition with NATO. At present, Russians take a relatively benign view of the EU's plans for a CESDP largely because of the strong economic relationship between the EU and Russia. But if the EU eventually adopts a collective defense mandate, the extent to which the EU has expanded Union membership could have serious strategic implications for the relationship with Russia.

In addition, the CFSP and CESDP will call into question a number of international legal and institutional questions, such as the role and authority of the United Nations regarding the use of force. By restricting itself to only those missions approved by the UN, the EU could make an important gesture in reaffirming the legitimacy of that organization and the supremacy of international law. The fate of the Western European Union also hangs in the balance as the EU gradually absorbs the WEU's functions and structures. However, the EU must still find a way to protect the integrity of the Article V collective defense commitment attached to the WEU's founding treaty. This matter, in addition to the several legal binding commitments between the WEU and NATO, are already proving to be too complicated for the EU to resolve in the immediate future.

Furthermore, the field of crisis management will be greatly affected and possibly improved by the actions taken by the EU. Whereas in years past, Western Europe was either unwilling or unable to rapidly respond to the brewing crises in the Balkans, the goal of the EU now is to be better prepared to deal with such situations. There is also the more subtle, but equally important goal of improving Europe's ability to undertake crisis management operations independent of the United States. But by pursuing an approach that largely prioritizes the military means of Europeans to handle crisis management, the EU could be undermining its innate ability to effectively address complex emergencies that usually also entail political, economic, and humanitarian elements.

These and many more issues will confront the EU as it moves forward in its work to design the elaborate architecture of the CFSP and the CESDP. Over the longer term, the lessons the EU learns from its experience dealing with these issues will help it to decide exactly what sort of world power it would like to become.


Several times before, Europeans have attempted to adopt "common" foreign and defense policies. Several times before, they have failed. Still, both the French and the German governments doggedly persisted over the decades, intent to establish commonality in Western Europe on foreign and defense policies. For a variety of reasons, the Franco-German efforts always stalled — until recently. In the last few years, the Member States of the European Union (EU) have managed to coordinate a series of agreements that combine to act as a sort of engine, an engine that is propelling the EU towards the realization of a goal first envisioned in the early 1950's 2. Almost fifty years after the first consideration of establishing a "European Defense Community," the EU now has not only the legal mandate to formulate common foreign, security, and defense policies, but it has also fostered the political will to mobilize a 60,000 – 80,000 member Rapid Reaction Force that will respond to humanitarian emergencies and undertake peacekeeping operations.

The developments of recent years — indeed, recent months — are significant and surprising for an organization that is notorious for its cumbersome bureaucracy and its usually snail-like pace of action. The on-going process of developing the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) also represents a phenomenon not seen before. Like the adoption of common market standards and a common currency, the formulation of the CFSP represents another major stage in the gradual erosion of the trappings of statehood in Europe. The CFSP, and now a second phase that involves the progressive development of common European polices on security and defense (CESDP), involve matters of supreme national interest, including national foreign policies, defense policies, military capabilities, and even the architecture of export controls. It implies a level of trust and dependence that would not have been considered even twenty years ago. And considering the potential for the eventual establishment of a collective defense and the visions of some for the construction of a "federated Europe" 3, it will ultimately require significant sacrifices of sovereignty.

And yet, despite the historical and political significance of the EU's efforts for a CFSP and CESDP, there has been very little public discussion about the subject. Instead, it has been a largely academic debate generally restricted to officials and think-tanks with only sporadic input from the outside. Even that debate has tended to focus on defining the EU's relationship with NATO. The comparative lack of in-depth and thorough examination of the topic is discouraging. The CFSP entails far more than just the complex detail of orienting the EU alongside that other Brussels-based organization that busies itself with trans-Atlantic security issues. In fact, the CFSP and the CESDP will effect national defense spending and investment in military capabilities by Member States. It will have serious implications for EU-Russia relations, particularly as union membership expands eastward, and it is already straining Europe's relations with the United States over the future of NATO. The development of the CFSP calls into question a number of international legal and institutional issues, not the least of which includes the issue of collective defense commitments, the role and authority of the United Nations, and the fate of the Western European Union. And of course, it could also redefine the practice of conflict prevention and crisis management as they are understood today.

It is clear that much of the work still lays before the EU, but the pace and design of the on-going process for the incorporation of an effective CFSP, as well as for the establishment of an autonomous military and non-military capability for the European Union, implies a substantial change not just to the character of the Union itself, but also to the way it is perceived globally. Given this, in addition to the significant effect the CFSP will have on the politico-security environment within Europe, it is important to consider and understand exactly what consequences there may be.

In that context, the first section of this paper provides an overview of the recent history of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, highlighting the major decisions that have been taken by European leaders. The second part of this paper outlines and assesses the various issues and challenges that will confront the EU as it proceeds with the implementation of its common foreign, security and defense policies.


first chapter     /     next chapter ->