On September 10, 2019, incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with her team of nominees for Commissioners, presented her ambitions for the next five years. In her Mission Letter to High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy Josep Borrell, von der Leyen stated that she wanted her team to be “a geopolitical Commission” that would be more “strategic, more assertive and more united” in its foreign policy approach. In a speech on the state of Europe two months later in Berlin, she stressed that “[s]oft power alone won’t suffice today if we Europeans want to assert ourselves in the world. Europe must also learn the language of power”.
While the term “geopolitical Commission” is new, von der Leyen’s call for a more muscular EU follows a clear impetus in EU security and defence since 2016. The previous Commission, led by her predecessor Jean Claude Juncker, made significant efforts to relaunch the EU’s security and defence project. Among these were the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the launch of the process of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the introduction of a single military headquarters in Brussels – currently used for three EU Military training missions but soon to be leading one EU military operation – and a new European Defence Fund (EDF) of approximately €13 billion for research and development in armaments and defence equipment between 2021-27. These initiatives were prompted by a widespread concern in Brussels with the EU’s ability to act in an increasingly ‘dangerous’ world. Developments in and around Europe, such as the so-called migration crisis at Europe’s Southern borders, a resurgent Russia in the East, Brexit, and criticism of NATO from both US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron (who recently called the alliance “brain dead”), all invoked a sense of crisis that increased support for a more muscular, masculine, and more militarised EU. As Juncker demanded, “Europe needs to toughen up”.
While the EU assumes that a more militarised approach to foreign policy is the right and rational course of action to counter these threats and the multiple crises Europe is facing, critical reflection is gravely needed. First of all, what we are witnessing today in Brussels is a normalisation of militarism – defined here as “the social and international relations of the preparation for, and conduct of, organised political violence” – and the extension of militarism beyond the military proper. This allows for the transfer of military strategy, equipment and funding to other policy domains, such as migration or development.
What we are witnessing today in Brussels is a normalisation of militarism… and the extension of militarism beyond the military proper.
A case in point is the European Peace Facility (EPF), a new fund of initially €10.5 billion for the next seven years that will replace the Athena mechanism and the African Peace Facility (APF). Whereas the Athena mechanism financed EU military operations, the APF was funded through the European Development Fund, supporting the African Union and the African Regional Economic Communities in peace and security. The latter was explicitly not allowed to provide financial resources for military equipment, arms or military training. The new EPF, however, does explicitly allow for the provision of funds to non-EU partners to enable them to buy military equipment. Whereas peace organisations have called on the EU to stop the EPF and to “avoid investing in militarised approaches that are prone to failure and risk”, the EU’s diplomatic service, the EU External Action Service (EEAS), has defended the new approach by stating that “our security is not for free” – reiterating the US military’s slogan “our freedom is not free”– and that “hard power has to complement soft power”.
Secondly, current EU initiatives blur the line between the military and the civilian sphere by militarising the EU’s Research and Development (R&D) funding, thereby fundamentally challenging “the nature of the European Union (EU) as a peace project”. The EDF of 13bn euros is probably the most important security and defence initiative the EU is currently undertaking. Von der Leyen has committed to strengthening the EDF with more funding during her term in office, although this may become more difficult now that the Finnish Presidency has proposed to significantly reduce the EU’s overall budget.
Nevertheless, the institutional embeddedness of the EDF – currently organised under the newly created Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space – and the approach taken – focusing on market competitiveness, industrial regulation, and innovation rather than defence cooperation per se – present a significant development within European defence cooperation. This approach enables the EU to use its own budget to finance the development of military capacities, even if EU treaties do not allow for the EU budget to finance military instruments and operations. While this use of the EU’s budget for military purposes is unprecedented, the marketisation of security and defence limits our ability to hold the EU accountable in defence as it becomes increasingly subject to principles of competitiveness instead of governing and regulation.
Whose security ?
Third, while the EU justifies militarism and the use of military force by referring to the need to protect on the one hand the ‘security, prosperity and democracies’ of European citizens, and on the other hand ‘lives abroad’, we should interrogate whose security the EU’s militarism is actually protecting and defending.
Militarism reduces resources for other public investments at home and abroad, such as social security. Moreover, it hinders the consideration of local contexts and structural causes of insecurity. Militarism – as a response to crisis – in this way reinforces causes and consequences of crises and produces new insecurities, particularly of already marginalised groups.
The European Union Naval Force Mediterranean Operation Sophia is a good example. Before it was downscaled after pressure from the Italian government in March 2019, it deployed military vessels and trained Libyan coastguards to disrupt human smugglers and trafficker networks. While the mission’s core mandate is to fight organised crime (normally a police/civilian task), EU documents and officials have stressed that militarism in migration policy and the deployment of military force protects migrants, especially women and children, and saves lives at sea.
Human rights organisations – many of which have been criminalised for their search and rescue activities – have questioned these motives because of Operation Sophia’s implicit goal to deter migration. A leaked report published by Politico revealed that the EU is aware that “a number of its policies have made the sea crossing more dangerous for migrants” because migrants had to use more dangerous rubber boats once the EU operation had destroyed the smugglers’ wooden ones and given that some of the Libyan coastguards that were part of the EU’s training were “collaborating with smuggling networks”.
Militarism produces more insecurity, especially for women and marginalised groups, but also for European citizens.
While the presence of militarism in European politics more broadly is not a new development, the EU is currently advancing militarism and ‘hard’ power – moving away from its normative power image – and legitimises this with reference to a set of crises encircling Europe. Yet, militarism produces more insecurity, especially for women and marginalised groups, but also for European citizens. It normalises aggressive forms of masculinities by valuing ideas of power, strength, and rationalism, and by connecting them to military force. That EU member states agree on strengthening EU security and defence in the current political climate should not surprise us. The idea that Europe is surrounded by threats and has to be protected from the dangerous world around us perfectly feeds into the current discourses of nationalists and populists in Europe.
Policy makers in Brussels and scholars have to reflect more seriously on the consequences of normalising militarism within security and defence and beyond if they are serious about addressing people’s insecurities.
 Stavrianakis A and Selby J (2012) Militarism and International Relations in the Twenty-First Century. In: Stavrianakis A and Selby J (eds) Militarism and International Relations: Political Economy, Security, Theory. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.3–18.
This commentary is based on a previous article by the authors published in Political Studies Review.