Europe’s Stillborn Security Strategy

If a strategy is announced and nobody is listening, does it make a sound? The European Union will find out the answer this June, when Federica Mogherini, its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, presents a long overdue foreign and security strategy for Europe – just when all eyes will be on the United Kingdom’s referendum on EU membership.

The EU is adrift and desperately in need of a catalyst to renew its sense of purpose and dynamism. The global strategy could serve that purpose, but not if it is issued at a time when attention is squarely focused on another challenge, especially one that could bring about fundamental change for the EU. Given this, the strategy’s launch should be put on hold until after the referendum.

In the United States, the president is legally required to issue a national security strategy annually. Though the requirement is adhered to only loosely – President Barack Obama has released just two strategies in the last seven years – the intent is clear: to establish a set of concrete national security priorities informed by the administration in office and the country’s changing circumstances.

In Europe, the approach is broader. When the first – and only – strategy was launched in 2003, it was meant as a long-term guide, to endure through multiple European Commissions. But it has lasted for too long, and is now well out of date – a reality that is apparent from its opening line: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free.”

Last June, the European Council recognized the need for an updated strategy, and called on Mogherini to prepare a new foreign and security policy, to be submitted within a year. To maximize their chances of success, Mogherini and the European External Action Service have kept the expert-led development process discreet, intentionally avoiding broad public debate.

Meanwhile, numerous difficult challenges – most notably, the ongoing refugee crisis – have buffeted Europe. This has not only sustained the lack of public awareness of the foreign and security strategy development process, but has also altered the environment in which the strategy is to be introduced. A process that was intended to enable Europe to respond better to external changes now must be rethought to reflect the recognition that it is the EU which is now set to undergo a fundamental transformation.

Such change will occur regardless of whether British voters choose to exit the EU. If the UK leaves – taking its diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural prowess with it – the hit to the EU, in terms of its capacity to influence its external environment, is obvious. If the UK stays, it will require the formalization of a looser conception of the EU – one that will raise core questions about the future of European integration.

Seen in this light, the UK’s upcoming referendum is more momentous even than the failed referenda on an EU constitution in 2005. Releasing a new foreign and security strategy at the same moment will not just doom the plan to irrelevance; it will reinforce the perception that the EU institutions are out of touch with the real world, exacerbating the Union’s already-acute existential crisis.

Prolonging the plan’s development process would have the opposite effect, by helping to spur a broad – and attentive – discussion on what the new Europe, with or without the UK, should look like. Beyond producing a relevant and useful foreign and security strategy, such a discussion can give the EU a new narrative, thereby invigorating public support for the European project.

To understand the need for such a narrative, one need look no further than the debate in the UK over its EU membership, which is focused almost exclusively on practical considerations and cost/benefit analyses. Principles, solidarity, and vision are nowhere to be found.

Timing is everything in politics. Last June, Europe’s leaders made the right call. If the strategy had been ready for release at that time, it might have served as a pole around which a discussion on Europe’s purpose in the world could have coalesced. But events, both internal and external, have overtaken the process. It is time to adjust.

Releasing a new strategy that does not reflect Europe’s new reality would amount to an enormous missed opportunity – a tragedy, in fact, given how desperately the EU needs direction. The European Council and Commission should bear this in mind as the June 2016 deadline to submit the strategy approaches. Sometimes patience truly is the companion of wisdom.