European Union

The European Union in a changing global environment

The European Union in a changing global environment

Since the 2003 Security Strategy, the EU’s strategic environment has changed radically. While much has been achieved over the last decade, today an arc of instability surrounds the Union. Further afield, we see conflicts in Africa and security tensions in Asia, while climate change and scarce natural resources harbour the risk of more conflict. At the same time, global growth, interdependence and technological progress enable ever more people to escape poverty and live longer, healthier and freer lives. The EU must confront both the challenges and the opportunities that come with its changed environment. We have a responsibility to protect our citizens while promoting our interests and universal values. The very nature of our Union – a construct of intertwined polities – gives us a unique advantage to steer the way in a more complex, more connected, but also more contested world.

The EU needs to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities which the global environment presents. An effective response depends on the Union’s ability to make choices and prioritise areas where it is willing and able to make a difference. It also depends on whether the EU’s external action instruments are fit for purpose. Five key issues need to be addressed in this context:


In recent years the EU has started updating the direction of its external engagement: in several areas, however, adaptations are necessary. In the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EU has lost salience and momentum in a few areas – for instance, the ‘strategic partnerships’. In disarmament and arms control, the EU’s approach, conceived in a post-Cold War environment, needs to respond to 21st century realities. Similarly, in the Common Security and Defence Policy, although the December 2013 European Council

underlined that ‘defence matters’, the current level of ambition and capability targets are not tailored to the degraded strategic environment. Humanitarian assistance also needs to adapt to humanitarian crises becoming the ‘new normal’, with ever growing needs. Enlargement is a policy whose sense of direction is openly contested. At the same time, there is no credible alternative to EU enlargement in the Balkans, and a fair accession process remains the most promising channel to support reforms in all candidate countries. In trade policy, the EU still needs to find effective ways to manage tensions that may arise between trade and non-trade objectives. And cyber and counter-terrorism policies need to find a sustainable balance between freedom and security, while remaining committed to both.


As the largest global combined donor, the EU is a leader in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. But insufficient flexibility reduces the effectiveness of aid on the ground. Likewise, in counter-terrorism, implementation is hampered by heavy procedural requirements.


In trade and development policy, the EU potentially wields significant power. Yet, the EU’s declining economic dynamism, the high demands it makes on its trading partners, and what it is willing to offer may be hampering its leverage. Likewise, sanctions hinge on economic strength and the extent to which the EU can embed its efforts within a wider multilateral framework. Leverage is a challenge also within the European Neighbourhood Policy, particularly when it comes to neighbours that have little interest in endorsing EU standards.


In diplomacy, a number of initiatives by various groups of Member States have complemented efforts made within CFSP: if well-coordinated, these can make our collective action more effective. In development policy, greater coordination with Member States’ own policies will increase impact, but in this as well as other policy areas better implementation requires overcoming the fragmentation of financial instruments both across Commission services and between the EU and the Member States. In the cyber domain, Member State buy-into a common EU approach is still limited, and coordination both among EU institutions and across the public-private divide is insufficient. Unlike in climate policy, in external energy policy the EU is too often unable to speak and act with one voice, thus facilitating divide-and-rule efforts by some supplier countries.


In the field of migration, mobility partnerships and visa facilitation remain underexploited. In light of mounting migration challenges, the EU’s capabilities need to be strengthened by assigning additional resources to its Agencies and by integrating the external and internal dimensions of migration management, as well as by tackling the root causes of the phenomenon in the long-term. In security and defence, CSDP has developed from scratch since 2000 and its modus operandi in partnership with international and regional organisations works well. Yet it still faces difficulties in force generation and access to early and common financing, enablers, intelligence and logistics. The Battle Groups have never been deployed and the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 44 has never been implemented. Defence budgets have been slashed in an uncoordinated and uneven manner, with spending on R&T taking the greatest toll. While the EU is not a military alliance, it cannot ignore the ‘D’ in its CSDP.

The case for joined up EU external action

CSDP pioneered the “comprehensive approach”, more relevant today than a decade ago. A joined-up approach is now needed not only in external conflicts and crises, but in all aspects of the EU’s role in the world. This puts a premium on various actors and instruments of EU external action coming together to work in synergy. Vertical and horizontal silos hamper the EU’s potential global role. And in a world of mounting challenges and opportunities this is a luxury we cannot afford. In a more connected, contested and complex world, we need a clear sense of direction. We need to agree on our priorities, our goals and the means required to achieve them. We need a common, comprehensive and consistent EU global strategy.

What's new