The EU's Common Security & Defence Policy

Introduction The aim of the CSDP is to give the EU a politico-military capability for European-led operations where the US and/or NATO do not want to be involved, for example, for peacekeeping and other military and security tasks, without undermining the importance of NATO as the provider of territorial defence for most Member States. This paper, which explains the background to the development of the CSDP, is complementary to the Senior European Experts paper on the Common Foreign & Security Policy (CFSP) and to a number of short papers on EU military operations.

  The Strategic Compass for Security and Defence gives the  
European Union an ambitious plan of action for strengthening the EU's security and defence policy by 2030.

France and Germany have proposed creating a European Security Council to better enable Europe to think and act strategically. The jury is still out on whether such a council will be created.





European Peace Facility


Background CSDP

The Maastricht Treaty brought defence policy into the EU for the first time.  However the arrangements for giving it effect (through the Western European Union) came rapidly to be seen as ineffectual.  Recognising this and chastened by the weak European military showing in the Balkans in the 1990s, the United Kingdom and France went a stage further at a bilateral summit at St Malo in 1998.  Their joint initiative was adopted by the European Council in Cologne in 1999 (at the same time as the appointment of Javier Solana as High Representative for the Common Foreign & Security Policy) as the new European Security and Defence Policy (since renamed).  As the Cologne communiqué put it:

the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and the readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises without prejudice to actions by NATO".

CEPS briefing 'European Council, March 2024: Security and defence, enlargement and migration'
Details of the new approach were fleshed out at the Helsinki European Council in December 1999 and have been developed since.  They included ambitious force goals (a corps level - up to 60,000 troops - deployment capability by 2003, later postponed to 2010) and new command, control and politico-military structures (Military Committee, Military Staff, political control by the Political and Security Committee).  They also included ambitious capabilities on the civilian (civ-mil) side to promote preventive action to forestall war as well as to win the peace.  As with NATO, there is no standing army, only national units voluntarily assigned on each occasion for joint operations.  

It was agreed that the EU in CSDP could act “where NATO as a whole is not engaged and could either draw on NATO assets, including for operational planning, or act autonomously for small scale operations.  Tasks could range from humanitarian relief operations through peace-keeping to peace-making (the so-called Petersberg tasks developed in the 1990s and incorporated into the EU Treaty in 2000).  

The EU’s European Security Strategy provides the agreed framework for policy in this area.  The details of the strategy, originally adopted in 2003 and revised in the light of changing security circumstances in 2008, are summarised in a separate paper ‘The EU’s Security Strategy’.  The importance of the strategy was that it set out the potential threats to EU Member States and what the EU could do, by means of co-operation amongst its members, in response.  The five threats identified by the strategy are:

  • terrorism

    the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)

    regional conflicts

    state failure

  • and organised crime.

Territorial defence remains a matter for NATO for the majority of Member States - 22 of the 28 belong to NATO - and the Treaty explicitly states that the EU’s defence policy shall “respect the obligations of certain Member States, which see their common defence realised in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation”. (1)  

More recently the European Defence Agency was set up in 2004 (see below) and a concept of (mostly multi-national) battle groups developed, each consisting of some 1500 men.  Two (out of eighteen agreed) must be deployable at any one time in a six-monthly rotation, at very short notice, for urgent and short operations.  The British provided one of these battle groups in 2008 and a joint Anglo-Dutch battle group was on standby in 2010.

The Lisbon Treaty made no fundamental changes to EDSP except to provide an obligation on Member States to come to one another’s defence in the unlikely event of armed aggression against one of them - but this is an obligation on Member States and not on the EU.  The Treaty also renamed the EDSP the Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP).

A fully fledged defence union for 2025: European Security and Defence Union (ESDU) - EEAS has archieved the content

To sustain the European Security and Defence Policy: European Defence Agency


Structure & Decision-making

The rules and procedure for the EU’s defence policy are set out in the Treaty on European Union.  Article 42 says that the common security and defence policy shall be “an integral part” of the CFSP.  It shall, it continues, “provide the Union with an operational capacity drawing on civilian and military assets” which the EU can use “on missions outside the Union for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”.  The forces needed for this purpose would come from Member States; the EU has no standing “European Army”, nor the power to create one.  

Article 42 (2) refers to the EU framing a common defence policy, to be agreed unanimously by the European Council, but this is an aspiration and explicitly requires the approval of Member States “in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements”.  Given that four Member States (Austria, Finland *, Ireland and Sweden *) are explicitly neutral and two others (Cyprus and Malta) are also non-members of NATO, a common defence policy is likely to remain no more than aspiration. (* joined NATO because Russian aggression)

EU decisions on defence require unanimity in the Council of Ministers or the European Council, reflecting the highly sensitive nature of the subject.  Proposals for action in this area can be proposed by the High Representative or by a Member State.  A key feature of the Treaty provisions is the explicit statement that the Council can decide to entrust responsibility for implementing a defence decision to a group of Member States.  

The day-to-day supervision of EU defence policy lies with the Political and Security Committee, a meeting of representatives of the Member States working under the direction of their governments.  The EU Military Committee is composed of the Chiefs of Defence Staff of Member States or their permanent representatives.  A small EU Military Staff, made up of personnel seconded by Member States, works as part of the secretariat of the Council to support the Military Committee.

The EU has an agreement with NATO, referred to as the “Berlin Plus” arrangements, which enables it to call on NATO assistance for its operations.  This reflects the very limited capacity within the EU’s institutions to plan, implement and manage an operation because the EU does not have a military command structure like that of NATO.  

A key issue for the EU is the lack of co-ordination between the armed forces of its Member States in fields such as weapons procurement.  The European Defence Agency (EDA) was established to improve the capability of Member States in defence.  As the agency itself points out, its role is to act as a catalyst, promoting ideas that improve military capability and capacity in the EU but it is up to the Member States to implement them.

An important success for the EDA was the agreement by a number of Member States in 2009 to establish a European Air Transport Fleet.  The aim of the Fleet is to pool assets and capabilities in order to improve the inadequate military transport capacity of EU Member States.  The initial 12 countries have subsequently be joined by a further 7 members, including Norway, the only non-EU country involved.

Military Operations

A number of military or civilian-military operations have been carried out under CSDP, notably in Africa (Darfur), the Balkans (Macedonia and Bosnia), the Middle East (Rafah border crossing between Gaza/Egypt) and even South East Asia (Aceh).  The largest operation to date has been the establishment of the EUFOR mission in Bosnia (some 7000 military personnel originally but now down to 1,200), which took over from the NATO peacekeeping force there in 2005.

The largest operation currently under way is Operation Atalanta, the EU mission to deal with piracy off the Horn of Africa.  This operation is described in greater detail in the Senior Experts paper, ‘EU Peacekeeping and Somalia’.  It involves over 2,400 military personnel and has been running since 2008.

One of the key strengths of the EU is its ability to combine military and civilian elements in order to assist a country where there is or has been conflict to re-establish civil society.  Current civilian missions under the auspices of the EDSP include over 500 personnel providing police training in Afghanistan as part of the wider international effort to enhance the capability of that country’s security forces so that they can takeover from international forces.  

Nearly 400 unarmed civilian monitors have been working on the tense borders within Georgia since the ceasefire in 2008 that ended the brief conflict between Georgia and Russia.  Their role is to defuse tensions along the administrative boundaries between South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the rest of the country.

Future Developments

While the CSDP is still work in progress, the EU through CSDP is making a low-key, but increasing and real contribution to international peace and security.  There have been a number of operations which show that the CSDP is a working policy and not mere declarations of intent.

Initial American doubts were not easy to overcome, with some Washington critics seeing CSDP as either a threat to their and NATO interests or too feeble to be effective (although it is hard to see how it could be both).  It is however now better understood in Washington, was supported by the Bush administration and now by Obama.  The US recognises that the EU is able to make a contribution which NATO and the US cannot make, or cannot make so well.  

Issues of political leadership and of effectiveness remain.  The divisions over military action to protect Libyan civilians demonstrated that the EU does not find it easy to reach agreement on actions involving the use of force.  In that instance the British and French stepped into the gap left by the US desire that Europe should lead the military operation with the EU providing other forms of support where there was agreement, such as for humanitarian aid and for sanctions against the Gaddafi regime.  The question of the effectiveness of Europe’s military forces remains a major issue.  The defence cuts as a result of austerity measures are making the need for greater European co-operation more urgent.  The 27 Member States of the EU have half a million more personnel in uniform than the US but can only deploy overseas a fraction of what the US is able to deploy in expeditionary forces.  Furthermore, the EU 27 spend one-third per soldier of what US spends on equipment and training. (2) This situation partly reflects the absence of economies of scale because there are 27 national military command structures.  Nonetheless, the EU Member States have got to work together to increase capabilities and to make more use of those they have.  The Anglo-Dutch joint battle-group and the larger plans for Anglo-French co-operation are successful examples of this approach.  The latter, in particular, linking as it does the two EU countries with the greatest military capabilities, has the potential to lead to a strengthened CSDP.

May 2012

2] Cited in Surviving austerity: the case for a new approach to EU military collaboration, Thomas Valasek, Centre for European Reform, April 2011, p.1.