How the Migrant Crisis Is Testing Europe's Security Strategy

06/23/2015 05:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016
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COPENHAGEN -- Which battles should Europe pick? At least since the euro crisis, the quest for Europe's survival has been mostly associated with monetary rather than military matters. But at the end of this week, European leaders will take the question more literally, as they convene for another summit, this time dedicated to security.

The meeting is in fact the sequel of one that took place in late 2013, when EU government chiefs convened for a first thematic debate on what is arguably the chimera of European integration: defense policy. Eighteen months must appear like a different era, as Europeans feel simultaneously attacked on all flanks of their homeland.

At this week's summit, leaders will call for a review of the European security strategy. The EU produced such a document only once before 12 years ago, after European countries dramatically split over the U.S.-led war in Iraq. But after the creation of the single currency and just before the historic expansion towards Eastern Europe, this was easily the most optimistic phase in modern European history. "Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free," opens the 2003 strategy.

That premise hardly applies today. In the East, the Ukraine conflict and Russia's annexation of Crimea have vividly brought back the spectre of warfare and land grabs, which Europeans thought consigned to the dustbin of their 20th century history. Chronically unequipped to talk Moscow's language of geopolitics, the EU had placed all its bets in the gradual expansion of Europe's economic reach. But an approach that once seemed irresistible now appears utterly irrelevant.

"That the pursuit of security is increasingly at odds with that of integration is an ominous sign."

In the southern Mediterranean, the Islamic State has made such dangerous inroads, as to justify, last week, a U.S. air strike in Libya. Europeans, however, feel more threatened by tens of thousands of destitute migrants, reaching the continent by the boatload. As is often the case, the issue has become primarily an internal European one, with capitals bickering over quotas of migrants that they should receive. Yet, the security implications are never too far behind, as testified by the EU proposal to launch a military mission to intercept and destroy migrant boats.

Meanwhile, the political case for a common defense policy has gotten even weaker in the years following the sovereign-debt crisis. What brings European capitals together is an unwillingness to pay for the kind of technologically advanced defense that would prevent the creeping de-militarization of Europe. As a result, policy making has remained stuck to a litany of lofty statements and imaginary battle groups.

Inevitably, European leaders will be left to choose a handful of priorities, which are small enough to handle. Proposals to be tabled at the summit include military pooling and sharing as a way to cut costs, harmonizing the European defense industry and building common capabilities, such as air-to-air refueling, surveillance drones, satellite communications and cyber defense.

This kind of pragmatism may point the way in the right direction, but prioritization should also mean avoiding picking the wrong battles. The proposed mission against migrant boats aims at cracking down the syndicate of traffickers much in the same way as it happened with pirates off the coast of Somalia. Yet, execution will be much more perilous in the Mediterranean, as a military operation might endanger the lives of migrants and refugees who are already in the hands of smugglers. Any such venture would also require a United Nations mandate, which Europeans will probably see torpedoed by Russia. Above all, it's hard to dispel the suspicion that any such measure is at least partly a reflection of the populist undertones plaguing the public debate in several European countries.

"A new European security strategy must make the case that the nexus of security and integration still amount to the formula of European peace."

This leads to what is arguably the most consequential item on this week's agenda: the linkage of internal and external security policies. Issues such as illegal migration and terrorism are inextricably linked to instability in Europe's immediate neighborhood. Europe's ability to tackle both resides in an ever tighter collaboration among countries, as well as with EU institutions. Yet the overlapping crises in Europe's backyard are leading to national responses directly challenging European integration and solidarity.

Pragmatic voices counsel against addressing this conundrum by means of an ambitious grand strategy. Closer cooperation among smaller groups of like-minded European states can deliver a more effective division of labor than what today often amounts to a cacophony of dissenting voices. Similarly, the reorganization of the new European Commission in thematic project teams points towards a networked way of operating. Delivering results is what will turn the union into a more credible security actor, no matter how they come about.

Even so, that the pursuit of security is increasingly at odds with that of integration is an ominous sign. Hungary, for one, has just announced that it will build a 175 km-long fence to seal its border with Serbia; the Berlin Wall was only slightly shorter.

The most revolutionary idea of modern Europe has been to purse the safety of its citizens by opening borders, not erecting barriers. A new European security strategy must make the case that the nexus of security and integration still amount to the formula of European peace. That is a battle that Europe cannot afford to lose.

Fabrizio Tassinari is head of foreign policy studies and Christine Nissen is a PhD candidate, both at the Danish Institute for International Studies, which has just released the report: European Defence Cooperation After the Lisbon Treaty: The road is paved for increased momentum.

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