This article is a part of research activities of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group

Due to Europe’s deteriorating security situation, there is a pressing need to do more in terms of cooperation and coordination among the EU member states. The need to establish a robust European Defence Action Plan goes hand in hand with the need to achieve deeper European integration and reinforce the role of the EU as a global actor.

European defence resources are currently not being used to their fullest potential. Traditionally, European countries have dealt with defence matters at the national level: this has led to persistent fragmentation, creating unnecessary duplication and, therefore, a misuse of national budgets. Through cooperation, Europe’s defence potential could be significantly improved. Especially in times of economic downturn crisis, it is vital for European countries to make the best use of their defence budgets.

To make the best use of European countries’ resources and in order to accomplish a more competitive defence industry in the long term, more coordination in the development of innovative capabilities and technologies is required. Therefore, increased cooperation is fundamental to acquire expertise in key areas.

Consequently, the purpose of this article will be first to inform readers about the background of Europe’s attempts and the steps taken to cooperate in defence matters. It will then go on to shortly describe the recently published European Defence Action Plan. Finally, some conclusions will be drawn as to the purposes and the importance of cooperating and achieving further defence capabilities.


The European Union’s intention of creating a common defence policy is long overdue. The process began in the early 1950s, after the French Prime Minister René Pleven proposed the creation of an integrated European Defence Force. This force would have been established by the treaty that would have simultaneously instituted the European Defence Community. Ironically, it was the French Parliament which voted against its own Prime Minister’s proposal, and the first attempt of creating a unified European Defence Force fell through.

After a series of failures, like the one that led to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians perpetrated by the Serbian forces, the EU realised that it had to assume a more active role in crisis management and conflict prevention. To that end, the EU organised a Summit Meeting at Saint-Malo that took place from the 3rd to the 4th of December 1998. This Summit gave birth to a Declaration that would later come to be the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Through the Declaration, the EU members agreed to set up military forces that would be autonomous and would be ready to be deployed as soon as the EU needed in order to respond to any immediate international crisis.

Furthermore, the meeting held in Helsinki from the 10th to the 11th of December 1999 established another major step, the Helsinki Headline Goal, which permitted the European Council to formulate the parameters that would shape the EU’s Rapid Reaction Force. The parameters were as follows: by 2003, on the basis of voluntary cooperation, Member States who would be able to do so, should be able to deploy within 60 days and sustain, for at least one year, forces composed of approximately 50-60.000 persons who are able to fulfil the Petersberg tasks (Neuhold, 2010). Additionally, during the development of this meeting, the European Council seized the opportunity to create a Political and Security Committee (PSC), a Military Committee and a Military Staff, thus completing the institutional framework necessary to support the newly created ESDP.

The creation of the European ESDP forged certain tensions with NATO allies. The tensions rose from the fact that the European Union wanted to create its own capacity for autonomous action. This capacity would be constructed under European institutional framework and not within that of NATO, as its American allies would have preferred. However, the ‘Berlin Plus’ arrangement in early 2003 permitted the EU and NATO to increase their collaboration and, since then, the relationship between the two regional organizations has taken another course. This arrangement was of particular importance because it has allowed the EU to access NATO’s military assets and planning capabilities and it assured the avoidance of unnecessary duplication.

Towards the end of that same year another milestone was accomplished: the adoption of the new European Security Strategy, ‘A Secure Europe in a Better World’. The European Council and other relevant actors that worked towards the development of this document decided the European Strategy should be based on a comprehensive approach and effective multilateralism. Five years later, in December 2008, the concept envisaged in 2003 was translated into concrete action through the creation of an implementation report entitled ‘Providing Security in a Changing World’.

The way forward

On June 2016, the High Representative of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Federica Mogherini, launched the ‘Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy’. Due to certain developments in foreign affairs worldwide, the document has been considered as a correction to the strategy proposed in 2003. The document reflects lessons learned throughout the previous years, presenting a more ambitious European strategy but with a down-to-earth perspective.

The new European Defence Action Plan results from a new strategy for Europe’s foreign policy, and it complements Mogherini’s Global Strategy identifying which actions must be pursued promptly in the defence domain. The current steps are also derived from the talks that took place at Bratislava’s Summit in September 2016, which were later solidified in the Commission’s proposal of 30th November and set as a priority by the Heads of State and Government in the Council’s meeting of 15th of December.

Among the multiple reasons to establish a new European strategy for defence, it is important to highlight the European Union’s need to reformulate its role as a global actor. For this reason, it is believed that achieving European cooperation in the development of military capabilities would not only lead to cost effective results, it would further promote the EU’s autonomy. By taking into account current developments, it is of vital importance for the European Union to diminish the significant dependency it has on its Western ally, the United States of America, and on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Therefore, establishing new parameters and developing new capabilities is of preponderant relevance to accomplish the necessary autonomy and reinforce Europe’s role as a global actor.

The plan, as proposed by the European Commission, will be based on three main points. First of all, the most important and pressing step will be to establish a European Defence Fund. The Fund would allow EU Member States to profit from their investment in in-depth research, leading to innovative approaches. The Fund would guide the Union in the establishment of capabilities through the generation of new defence equipment and technologies.

Secondly, the next step will be to support the European defence industry by ensuring that the manufacturers have the right skills and that the production is focused on the generation of new, innovative technology. Therefore, in order to achieve this goal, the Union must foster investments in SMEs and other relevant actors inside the supply chain of the defence industry.

Third, in the interest of building a competitive defence market, two Directives will be formulated with the objective of strengthening the Single Market for defence. Achieving economies of scale, benefiting from cooperation and accomplishing cost-effective measures will depend on how well the Union will help companies’ cross-border capabilities.

Analysis of the purpose and the importance of establishing the European Defence Action Plan

In a challenging geopolitical environment with a delicate status quo due to the change in the US administration and an unpredictable Russia, the EU now more than ever needs to be united. Foremost, taking into account the increasing uncertainty regarding the forthcoming global affairs and Europe’s fragility, the EU must imperatively strengthen itself through a deeper integration and through the development of a real European defence strategy.

Nevertheless, the purpose of having an efficient European defence industry is chiefly to protect European citizens. By emphasizing the focus on Europe’s own security, i.e. protecting its citizens, territory and borders, the EU Defence Action Plan will receive greater public acceptance and, as a result, will improve Europe’s credibility at a time when terrorist attacks, the rise of nationalism and the untimely influx of refugees have weakened Europe’s own resilience.

It is pressing to raise awareness – particularly among all those citizens advocating against war – about the importance of cooperating in defence matters. Approving a new Defence Action Plan, contrary to what people may believe, does not mean that a European army is going to be created. It is relevant to make sceptics understand that state responsibility to protect constitutes one of the principal obligations of countries. Consequently, the need for European cooperation comes from individual state’s responsibility to protect its’ citizens homes and the need to ensure stability abroad.

Furthermore, taking into account the current slow economic growth of many European countries, it would make sense to establish more efficient spending in defence capabilities through greater cooperation, by obtaining better knowledge through targeted research, sharing lessons learned and, especially, avoiding duplication. The savings generated through the aforementioned activities could then be used for future European capability projects.

It must be recalled that the Lisbon Treaty, in Articles 42(6) and 46 of the TEU, provides for the possibility of cooperation in a permanent structured cooperation. As President Junker wrote in the 2014 Political Guidelines for the European Commission, “Member States who wish to can pool their defence capabilities in the form of a permanent structured cooperation […] In times of scarce resources, we need to match ambitious with resources to avoid duplication of programmes” (Juncker, 2014). Thus, pooling and sharing could unquestionably make European defence efforts more cost-effective and could additionally lead to greater integration. Above all, the development of capabilities should be focused on allowing the European Union to develop the means needed to allow it to act autonomously.

Among Europe’s short-term foreign policy intentions it is to apply what the EU Global Strategy now calls “principled pragmatism”. This envisaged pragmatism entails a new method of coping with foreign affairs in a more realistic way. Europe’s eagerness to help its neighbourhood and other foreign countries to democratize has diminished. Through its new strategy, it has set new goals that are limited to support functions. It is expected that from now on Europe will only focus on pursuing a targeted engagement with the aim of fighting poverty and inequality in order to empower people, so that over time they as civil society build their own successful grassroots movement, bring change and autonomously lead their country in a positive direction.

However, in order to efficiently provide external assistance, the European Union must first achieve its own autonomy. To that end, the Director of the Europe in the World programme at Egmont Institute, Sven Biscop, was absolutely right when he said: “The operational dimension of strategic autonomy comes down to the ability to act without the US” (Biscop, 2015). Until now, Europe could count with their transatlantic partners knowing that, if needed, they would support them; however, with the change in US administration, the recent comments of Trump demanding Europe to step up its contribution in NATO and the future’s uncertainty, Europe must unhesitatingly accelerate their journey to full autonomy.

Additionally, accomplishing full autonomy would allow Europe to serve as a complementary partner of NATO. An autonomous Europe could support its allies to a greater degree as well as the organization in its collective defence duties. What we need to determine now is what our goals are and what will we need to achieve them.  In conclusion, I will leave you with a line directly from the EU’s Global Strategy: “European security and defence efforts should enable the EU to act autonomously while also contributing to and undertaking actions in cooperation with NATO” (Mogherini, 2016).

Most importantly, if the main goal is to work for a united and successful European Union, the new generations must trust that Europe will resolutely resolve the challenges within and beyond the region. It is clear that achieving consensus in defence matters will not be an easy job. Decision-makers must realise that national solutions will soon no longer be enough: being strategic and obtaining successful results will definitively require huge efforts, which will be maximized with the greater integration of Europe in its defence efforts.

Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, Paula Mercado Gómez holds a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology from the Complutense University of Madrid. She also obtained a M.A. in Advanced International Studies from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Her master’s thesis addressed the empowerment of developing countries through the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization.


Paula was a trainee of the Permanent Mission of Spain to the United Nations in Vienna. In the Delegation she worked as the assistant of the Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Currently, Paula is a trainee in the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations in Vienna. Her areas of interest include: the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies, regional and international trade agreements, and transnational organized crime, money laundering and corruption.



Biscop S. (2015), Peace without Money, War without Americans. Can European Strategy Cope?

European Council (2003), A Secure Europe in a Better World. Available at: https://europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/european-security-strategy-secure-europe-better-world

European Council (2008), Providing Security in a Changing World. Available at: https://europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/report-implementation-european-security-strategy-providing-security-changing-world

European Union: European Commission (2016), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, The European Council, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: European Defence Action Plan, 30 November 2016, COM (2016) 950 final. Available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/com_2016_950_f1_communication_from_commission_to_inst_en_v5_p1_869631.pdf

  1. Junker, A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change – Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission, (2014: 11). Available at: http://www.eesc.europa.eu/resources/docs/jean-claude-juncker—political-guidelines.pdf

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Mogherini F. European External Action Service, Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, (2016: 20). Available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/top_stories/pdf/eugs_review_web.pdf

Neuhold H. The European Union as an International Actor: Responses to Post-Cold War Challenges, (2010: 33).



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