Can Europe Make It?

Where is civil society in the EU’s new Maritime Security Strategy?

The new EU ‘Maritime Security Strategy’ neglects civil society and raises concerns over fundamental rights.

Theodore Baird
7 November 2014
German Navy Ship FGS Hamburg

German Navy Ship FGS Hamburg. Some rights reserved.

The adoption of an EU ‘Maritime Security Strategy’ (MSS) in June 2014 garnered much praise: Greek Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Evangelos Venizelos hailed the MSS as “a significant step forward in safeguarding the EU's maritime security interests against a plethora of risks and threats in the global maritime domain.” EU High Representative Catherine Ashton announced that the strategy “will help us better promote our maritime security interests and assume our global responsibilities”.

The main goals of MSS can be grouped into three main areas: first, to redefine maritime ‘threats’ and link the fields of internal and external maritime security; second, to promote “rules-based good governance at sea”; and third, to enhance cooperation among organizations at multiple levels from the local to the international and construct new civil-military linkages with industry. [1]  

The development of the MSS is timely given the current fundamental rights concerns in the Mediterranean, but also historically salient given Europe’s historical identity as a naval power forged through exploration and colonial expansion.

Nevertheless, although the Commission is “confident that the strategy once adopted will represent the views and interests of all stakeholders,” in the MSS we find no mention of civil society actors. Where is civil society in the Maritime Security Strategy? Why has it been left out? I argue that there is an imbalance in the proportion between military-industry organizations on the one hand, and civil society on the other, in the EU’s new Maritime Security Strategy, raising some criticisms and suggesting some ways forward. 

Civil society neglect

First, cooperation with civil society is not mentioned once in the formal strategy of June 2014. In a joint communication from the Commission to the Parliament and Council of March 2014 outlining the preliminary elements of a maritime security strategy, civil society is mentioned only once in the conclusion: “The EU's maritime security will be fundamentally strengthened if the duty of sincere cooperation is taken as a guiding principle. It will be further strengthened by partnerships between all maritime security stakeholders, at EU level and between and within Member States. This should also include industry, social partners and civil society.”

However in the final strategy document of June 2014, actors mentioned in addition to the EU only include for-profit firms (industry), international organizations, and Member State institutions, failing to include not-for-profit rights-promoting organizations from civil society. Since “establishing a civil-military agenda” sits at the core of the new strategy’s vision of cooperation and coordination, it is not clear that the 'civil' here incorporates non-governmental or rights-based organizations.[2] Civil-military cooperation in this sense does not focus on civil society, but rather on strengthening linkages between private industry, the military, and ministries involved in maritime security and surveillance.

In other words, there is not a balanced ratio of civil society to civil-military and industry actors in the document, and no envisioned cooperation with civil society that can be detected.

Fundamental rights concerns

The elaboration of new maritime security threats should be weighed against current and foreseen fundamental rights concerns. Minister Venizelos stressed that the MSS is “in accordance with the fundamental values and principles of the EU, including respect for international law and, in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” but throughout the MSS, discussion of sovereign rights concerns of Member States far outweigh the concerns of human rights or fundamental rights of individuals and groups who will be impacted by the MSS.

The MSS signals a change in how maritime security has been defined, how new threats are perceived and constructed, and how new problems are produced. However, the definition of maritime security and practical responses to perceived threats has been constructed without the guidance, let alone the full consent of civil society. Without the active cooperation of civil society, coordinated debate over the issues of social, economic, and political marginalization and access to fundamental rights for those affected by the strategy, are left out.

Certain groups inside and outside European societies will be effected socially, economically, and politically by the new actions carried out under the MSS, but without their participation in the construction and elaboration of what is considered a threat and what constitutes maritime security, pivotal relations between civil society and the EU will be undermined, trust that certain groups have for the EU will be diminished, and new rights concerns will arise. Civil society can provide guidance on how to ensure that certain groups inside and outside Europe will not be detrimentally affected by the new strategy, and that fundamental rights can be respected for those who will be effected by its implementation. 

MSS not going far enough

Not only the settlement of international disputes, but providing access to and safeguarding the fundamental rights of individuals should be at the core of the “rules-based good governance” outlined by the MSS.

The Council should be commended for giving regard to the promotion of principles of international law and human rights, but the document does not go far enough. Although engagement with international partners can enhance the respect for human rights law, by disregarding the important role that transnational civil society plays in safeguarding the protection of human rights, the Union undermines its own goals of strengthening ties with multiple stakeholders to improve respect for international law.

By removing civil society from the “good governance” aspects of the new strategy, the Union potentially weakens the chances for effective dialogue over human rights and the incorporation of transnational human rights practice into the Unions' efforts at sea. Furthermore, in the complex legal and institutional environment of maritime law and maritime security, the potential for regulatory overlap and legal contradictions is heightened, further raising the potential that fundamental rights concerns are sidestepped or forgotten altogether.

New constellations

Given that civil society has been sidelined, a number of familiar questions must be raised in relation to the MSS: Have human rights concerns been outweighed by security concerns or the sovereign concerns of States? What new networks of actors can bring fundamental rights concerns to the fore? With enhanced civil-military-industrial cooperation on research and design, a number of new security and surveillance technologies will be developed with public funding. What will the growth of these new technologies have on fundamental rights practice?

What will the putative effects of the new strategy be, in practice, on social, political, and economic systems? The ongoing privatization of maritime security will have unpredictable impacts on regional cooperation as well as social, economic, and political systems inside and outside Europe. We should remain cautious in sidelining civil society in these new constellations, as fundamental rights concerns have been raised in discussions of internal-external security networks and the cooperation of private industry in security,[3] and civil society can provide an important counterpoint and support in integrating fundamental rights into the new strategy.  

A number of other questions can be raised as developments progress, and transnational civil society can provide an important watchdog in observing and responding to these new developments.

Re-entering the dialogue

In sum, the Maritime Security Strategy outlines a bold approach to defining maritime security threats and crafting an approach that brings in new forms of cooperation and coordination between organizations. However, leaving out civil society organizations must  raise important concerns over fundamental rights for individuals who will be affected by the strategy and concerns over the putative effects at the local, regional, and global scales.

In assessing the way forward, civil society cooperation can improve the practice of ensuring access to justice and promotion of fundamental rights. Human-rights-based NGOs can assist in ensuring that all stakeholders benefit from cooperating to protect fundamental rights. The forthcoming Action Plan, to be penned by the end of 2014, should take stock of these developments and incorporate the concerns of civil society actors promoting fundamental rights.


[1] Council of the European Union (2014) “European Union Maritime Security Strategy”, General Secretariat of the Council, 11205/14, Brussels, 24 June 2014.

[2] Council of the European Union (2014) “European Union Maritime Security Strategy”, General Secretariat of the Council, 11205/14, Brussels, 24 June 2014.

[3] Bigo, D., Jeandesboz, J., Martin-Maze, M., and Ragazzi, F. (2014) “Review of Security Measures in the 7th Research Framework Programme FP7 2007-2013”, European Parliament: Policy Department C -Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Study for the LIBE Committee, April 2014, Brussels: European Union (

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData