The EU as a Security Actor: The State of the Play

The security policy of the states and the multilateral management of international security have gone through a remarkable process of transformation in the contemporary world system. The usual means for providing security to the state like a well-trained army, advanced armaments, and military pacts have been combined with new instruments of security management like security partnership networks, multilateral peace operations, and arms control arrangements. Differently from the traditional means of international security, these instruments incorporate principles and mechanisms of cooperative and comprehensive security to manage in-security conditions.

In the past forty years, all the EU countries engaged in the European regional security partnership, in peace operations, and in arms control agreements, and adapted their security policy to these instruments. At the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw bloc, the choice of the new security instruments facilitated the building of the EU security and defence policy (ESDP). It was like getting into the flow and sailing smoothly and swiftly. In the last decade, the flowing tide gradually ended and almost inverted the course. Together, the new Common security and defence policy (CSDP), after its brilliant and promising start in the first decade of the present century, which is illustrated by the good number of military, civil, and mixed operations dispatched to the rest of the world to control conflicts and manage crises, reduced and almost lost its grip on the multilateral management of international security. The withering of the CSDP operations in the last five years is an indicator of the trouble and stasis condition in which the common security policy is today. Practitioners and experts debate about reforming rules and practice the CSDP. The High Representative for the foreign and security policy makes proposals. The heads of governments gather in large and small meetings to review the existing proposals and look for the way forward. Yet, the revitalization of the CSDP appears as an uncertain and problematic step in the present critical stage of the European integration process.

To understand such a state of the EU security policy, one has to bear in mind that the security policies and practices of the states are driven by domestic interests, aspirations, and conditions, and also pay a lot to the current phase of the world politics and are influenced by the competition among the states that want to play the leading role in the world political structure (Attinà, 2011). In such a perspective, to appraise today’s EU security policy, the analyst has to look at the boundary conditions of the major world policies, the security policy included. Therefore, the present article examines the past security policy of the European countries and the present stage of the global political competition to understand why the EU governments are doubtful about consolidating the CSDP and moving from the present stage towards more ambitious goals.

The collective management of security in Europe

Form the 1970s to 1990s, all the European governments negotiated and shared a set of mechanisms, procedures, and institutions apt to co-manage security threats and risks. They engaged in building a security partnership at the region level that was appreciated as the best model of regional security partnership (Adler & Barnett, 1998; Attinà, 2016). Today, the security partnership of Europe is in bare standstill conditions, to say the least. In reality, it is backsliding. The mechanisms and means that were employed twenty years ago to contain the violent disintegration of former Yugoslavia and helped to bring peace to the Balkans, have been employed very much marginally, and with no results in the violent conflict that is troubling Europe and plaguing Ukraine.[1] In particular, the contrast of the fruitful co-management of the Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis in the 1990s with the almost lack of collective management in the Ukraine crisis case demonstrates that the EU and the member states are powerless in keeping the European security partnership working against the current circumstances of the global political competition, namely against the current stage of the competition between the United States, Russia, and China.

The European security partnership was formed in a long period of time, from the 1970s to the 1990s, thanks to the direct dialogue of the United States and Soviet Union and to the pressure of the European states, especially the Western ones, which played a proactive role and succeeded in pushing the process forward. The EU governments have been unable to guard the regional security partnership against the effects of the choice of the American President Barack Obama for the so-called pivot on Asia, and have been unable to avoid the negative effects of the simultaneous choice of the Russian president Vladimir Putin for an assertive foreign policy towards Europe. In particular, at the time of the re-orientation of the foreign policy of the United States and the relocation of the country’s best energies and major resources in Asia, the European governments and the EU institutions have been unable to master the situation created by the clash between the tense Russia-Ukraine relations and the transition of Ukraine to democracy and aspiration of the Kiev government to tighten relations with the EU. Consequently, they adapted their response to the soft policy of the American government that restrained from pushing the Russian president towards negotiating the crisis within the regional security management scheme.

Today, the American-Russian relations appear to turn towards “good weather” should the American President, Donald Trump, and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, go on with their expected entente, which looks very much inspired by the goal of restraining the ascending role of China in world politics.

The EU actorship in global politics

Consider the European Union as a political and security actor capable of designing and running initiatives in distant areas is common in EU politics studies. Generally speaking, a political actor is the unit (person, group, and organization) that has the capability of choosing and accomplishing actions to foster its own interest by influencing the subjects, institutions, and events of a political system. Accordingly, a union of states like the EU is a real actor in international politics and security on two conditions. First, the member states share a set of values and interests to guide their common actions in international politics and interstate relations. Second, the member states mandate the union institutions and offices to act in the international system following the decisions that are made according to the institutionalized decision-making procedures they have agreed on. These conditions hold true for the European Union, but they are framed within the traditional intergovernmental scheme. The EU member states agree to make decisions and common actions in the world system because they consent to a cluster of international values, share important international interests, and pursue common external goals. They have created policy-making offices and operational mechanisms in the area of international politics and security and are generally favorable to expand the international action capabilities of the common institutions to achieve the better results out of their common actions in world politics. But this job is carried out following the traditional intergovernmental way.

The adhesion of the EU member states to an important set of international values and goals is stated in the Treaty of the European Union. It depicts the world as a pluralist and communitarian system, and the EU as an actor engaged in defending values related to this image of the world. In the pluralist world, individuals, peoples, and nongovernmental organizations and associations are legitimate primary actors as much as the states. In such a world, communitarian solidarity and the mutual respect of all the subjects must be promoted. States, in particular, are called to respect the communitarian principle of mutual recognition by all the subjects and therefore rigorously adhere and contribute to the development of international law and the principles of the United Nations Charter. In harmony with this pluralist and communitarian view, the European governments see the EU as a legitimate international actor that wants to defend values such as peace and security, sustainable development, free and just trade, elimination of poverty, and the defense of all human rights.

The Treaty of European Union states also that the promotion and defense of the European identity, territorial integrity, and Europe-specific values and interests are the goals of the European international action. It also claims that all the means at disposal will be employed to achieve the international goals of the Union. In respect to this, the 2003 European Security Strategy, A Secure Europe in a Better World and the recent Implementation Plan on Security and Defence have stated a preference for multilateralism as the fundamental instrument of any international action aimed at fostering the development of a stronger international society, the efficient operation of the international institutions, and an international order based on international law.

However, the European governments have not dismantled the foreign and security policy-making organization of the member states. They want to promote and defend their own national interests also autonomously from the common interest that is defined by the EU institutions. Consequently, many analysts warn about the complexity of building the common foreign and security policy but concede that the EU has international capacity. The less enthusiastic analysts doubt about the possibility of building a European, i.e. a single, foreign and security policy in the near future because the existing national differences of traditions and standards, which are recognized as legitimate by the Treaty, make it impossible to achieve such a goal. To other analysts, since the success of any international actor today depends on the economic strength, the EU performance in international politics and security depends on the economic resources of the EU. Last, some analysts claim that Europe’s attempt to be an actor of international politics and security has been linked to the EU’s ability to perform as a civilian power in the diffusion of values such as environmentalism, cultural pluralism, and human rights. These analysts warn the European leaders about exerting normative power as the best way to be an influential international actor.

With respect to security and defense affairs, in particular, the process of integration that sustained the development of the EU over the past sixty years and the pan-European cooperation process known as the Helsinki Process, lasting for about thirty years, from 1971 to the end of the past century, are the seminal experience that created a European preference for the so-called global approach to the solution of the security problems that emerge at the regional and region-to-region levels. In the past fifty years, the European countries recognized that peaceful relations and cooperation among neighboring countries result from the balanced and multidimensional management of political, economic, and social interactions. On this premise, the European governments followed the principle that any cooperative program must be comprehensive and global—that is, it must encompass the political and security dimension, the economic and financial dimension, and the social, cultural, and human dimension.

The myth of the European civil and normative power—articulated by academics and encouraged by the EU institutions and officers—is at the roots of the vision of what European foreign and security policy values are and what drives the EU’s role as an international actor. Indeed, the global approach lies at the core of the EU grand strategy as an international actor. The European Neighbourhood Policy and the region-to-region cooperation programs, such as the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) and the EU-Gulf Cooperation Council relations, are all examples of this style of international behaviour. Although the results of this strategy are meagre, Europe continues to present itself as a new kind of actor with a strong preference for multilateral agreements and the global approach to manage security cooperation programs with other countries.

To conclude, while the EU likes to keep playing the role of the broker of the multilateral security institutions and mechanisms, the main question is whether there is room for playing such a role in the current phase of the global political competition in which Russia, China, and the Donald Trump’s United States engage themselves in a trilateral strategic dialogue.


Fulvio Attinà is Professor of Political Science and International Relations, and Jean Monnet Chair /Ad Personam/ at the University of Catania. Former Chair of the Italian Association of Political Science (SISP), he served in the governing bodies of ECPR, ISA and Italian ECSA. Visiting professor at universities in the US, Asia and Europe, he is the author of The Global Political System (Palgrave, 2011), also available in Italian, Spanish, and Russian. He is editor of The politics and policies of relief, aid and reconstruction: Contrasting approaches to disasters and emergencies (Palgrave, 2012) and co-editor of Multilateral Security and ESDP Operations (Ashgate, 2010). He is presently researching the European Union’s role in multilateral security, systemic crises, and humanitarian and emergency actions. His most recent research work and publications are in the field of migration and the EU’s management of the immigration crisis.

Photo: European union flag against parliament in Brussels, Belgium, artjazz | Shutterstock



Adler Emanuel and Barnett Michael, eds. (1998), Security communities, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Attinà Fulvio (2011), The global political system, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan.

Attinà Fulvio (2016), Traditional security issues, in Wang Janwei and Song Weiqing, eds., China, The European Union, and the International Politics of Global Governance, Houndmills, Palgrave MacMillan, 175-194.

[1] Just a very minor instrument of security co-management like the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the OSCE has been mandated to report-making about developments on the ground throughout Ukraine. To this, the European Union has added the Advisory Mission (EUAM) that assists the government of Kiev to reform the civilian security sector.



Published on September 6, 2017.


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