Press Releases “Europe in danger: what next for EU security and defence?”: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Bibliothèque Solvay

“Europe in danger: what next for EU security and defence?”: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Bibliothèque Solvay

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to split my remarks into three parts:

  1. Why I believe Europe is in danger;
  2. What we should do on the crisis around Russia/Ukraine; and
  3. How can we develop the EU as a real security actor?


1.  Europe in danger.

For decades, we have had a debate on Europe’s role in the world. Often people would describe the EU as an economic giant, but also a political dwarf and a military worm. I know that is a cliché. But, like many clichés, it had a basic element of truth in it.

So over the years, we had a long stream of plans and initiatives, full of acronyms. Going from the Pleven Plan and the European Defence Community; to European Political Cooperation and the start of the Common Foreign and Security Policy after Maastricht; to the wars in former Yugoslavia and the ‘hour of Europe’, to Saint Malo, the start of ESDP, then CSDP, the Helsinki Headline Goal, PESCO, the European Peace Facility etc etc.

This audience knows the ‘alphabet soup’. And the basic fact is that, even if we have come a long way, security and defence is probably the area in EU integration with the biggest gap between expectations and results. Between what we could be and what citizens demand – and what we actually achieve.

Ever since I started as High Representative, I have advocated a realistic approach. Europeans must look at the world as it is, not as we want it to be. I also think we need to use plain language, rather than the usual, polite but empty phrases. That is why, at my EP hearing, I argued that Europeans must learn ‘to speak the language of power’.

Tonight I will speak in that same spirit.

The core message is this: Europe is in danger. I wish it were different, but the last two years have seen a serious worsening of our strategic environment. To the extent that I am convinced that today we are living through the most dangerous moment of the post-Cold War period.

  • We face the risk of a major military conflict on our continent. Russia has amassed more than 100.000 troops and heavy equipment at the Ukrainian border. It is making open threats to use force unless its demands are met. At stake are the fate of Ukraine but also the wider principles of European security.


  • Besides Russia/Ukraine, we have an unprecedented number of conflicts brewing at or beyond our borders: Syria (not solved), Libya, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa etc.


  • In the wider world, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated underlying trends, acting like ‘contrast fluid’. We see clearly how our world is marked by aggressive competition among states, with US-China strategic competition as the main ‘structuring force’.


  • Military conflicts still exist, but most striking are the ‘invisible wars’ everywhere and the weaponisation of everything. Migrants, vaccines, energy, technology standards are all tools for political competition.


  • There is a geographic power shift, from West to East, from the Atlantic world to the Indo Pacific. And a functional one, away from governments. Our world is being transformed by financial markets, technology giants and media conglomerates – but also by crime syndicates and sleeper cells.


  • All this is happening when the capacity of ‘the multilateral system’ is at its weakest for 30 years. Because relations among the main actors are conflictual, international cooperation has ground to a halt. The UN, the G20, the OSCE: we need them like never before but all are weakened by distrust, vetoes and infighting.


In a nutshell, we have the coming together of the problems of the 19th century, i.e. the clash of empires; of the 20th century, i.e. the age of power politics and that of the 21st century, i.e. the weaponisation of inter-dependence.

This is a risky cocktail: more problems, which are more serious and more inter-related, but less capacity to cope.

That is why I say Europe and its security are in danger. We need answers on the crisis of the day – Ukraine/Russia and Europe’s security architecture – but also on the wider challenges we face.

For Europe, we have a choice to make. Either we seriously invest in our collective capacity to act. Or we accept being an object and not a subject in foreign policy – and then scale back the rhetoric of being a geopolitical actor.

The main missing ingredient is political will. I know that is a cliché. But as I said, most clichés contain a large element of truth.


2.  The Ukraine/Russia crisis

This crisis did not start last December. Russia has been undermining the European security order for years.

Its military build up comes after previous uses of force against Ukraine (in Crimea, Donbas) and Georgia. It is taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s aggressive use of disinformation and cyber attacks, in our neighbourhood and inside the EU itself. Not to mention its actions in Syria, Libya, the use of the Wagner group in Africa, etc.

My point is not to repeat, yet again, the litany of our differences. But to be realistic and acknowledge that we have profound disagreements with President Putin´s government.

This crisis is not just about Ukraine but the European security order. Russia is trying to turn back the clock and get us to accept spheres of influence. This we cannot do. It is not a concept that belongs to this century.

As tensions have risen, so too has the pace of international diplomacy. There has been a diplomatic ‘surge’ with an intense, multi-layered diplomatic effort, in Geneva, Brussels, Vienna.

In all this, the EU has two priorities: diplomacy and deterrence. We need both and each depends on the other for success. We discussed yesterday at the FAC, with Secretary Blinken joining us via VTC. You have seen the outcome so I will only summarise our main action tracks:

  • We must continue the search for de-escalation and contribute to all diplomatic efforts. We are coordinating with the US on the written response it will send this week in response to Russia’s proposals.


  • As a deterrent, we are preparing a set of strong sanctions in case Russia decides to take further military action against Ukraine. We must be ready for all scenarios. The nature of our response must match the nature of Russia’s choices.

The sanctions decision will probably be the most consequential leverage that the West has – and we will do this in cooperation with the US and others. It falls to me as High Representative to propose a sanctions package to the Council where member states will have to decide.


  • At the same time, we are expanding our support to Ukraine, so that it is better able to resist Russian pressure. Since 2014, we have supported Ukraine with 17 billion of euros, also to increase its resilience against hybrid challenges. Yesterday, the European Commission added a new macro financial assistance package of 1.2 billion euros.

We are supporting Ukraine’s security sector through an EU Advisory Mission. We have recently added 31 million euros from the European Peace Facility, to support the Ukrainian armed forces. And we are actively considering adding a military higher education component.


  • We all know that Russia has many means to undermine Ukraine and cyber is prominent among these, as shown by last week’s cyber attack. That is why we have signalled our readiness to assist Ukraine with cyber security experts.


  • Finally and longer-term, there is the energy dimension, where again the EU role is key. The truth is that Russia has made its economy more sanctions proof, but we have not done the same on energy. We must reduce the outsize role that energy considerations play in EU-Russia relations.


We have to reduce our overall reliance on oil and gas and imports, for the Green Deal but also for geo-politics. This means the development of renewables at home and greater diversification of routes and sources from abroad. This is about investing in the green transition but also in reducing our strategic dependencies.


3.  The Strategic Compass: facing our strategic responsibilities

The Ukraine/Russia crisis demonstrates that we face an increasingly competitive strategic environment. But the debate on European security and defence goes far beyond the Ukraine/Russia crisis.

We have security interests and stakes around the world, in the western Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and the Indo Pacific. These days, threats are coming from everywhere and manifest themselves in all strategic domains: cyber, maritime and space.

So we need to see the whole board and adopt a truly comprehensive approach to security. That is the philosophy of the Strategic Compass that I presented last November, in close cooperation with the European Commission.

More than the papers we usually produce in Brussels, the Strategic Compass proposes concrete ideas – with clear deadlines to measure progress. The Compass is a guide for action. There will be a robust follow-up process to ensure implementation. These are major differences with the 2003 EU Security Strategy and the 2016 Global Strategy.

There is a lot of detail in the Compass, which has developed into 35 pages, grouped under four work strands (ACT, SECURE, INVEST and PARTNER). Let me highlight just a few of the main ideas.

  • The European Union should be able to rescue citizens in a situation like we saw in Afghanistan last summer. Or intervene quickly in a crisis where violence is threatening the lives of civilians. That is why we propose to develop an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity to allow us to quickly deploy up to 5.000 troops for different types of crises;


  • We should increase our readiness through regular live exercises (never been done before); promote faster and more flexible decision-making and ensure greater financial solidarity, by enlarging the scope of common costs;


  • We also propose to create an EU Hybrid Toolbox and expand our capacity to tackle disinformation and foreign interference. The point here is to mobilise all our tools, including sanctions and response teams. Right now, a cyber-exercise organised by the French Presidency is ongoing. We need more of this. And not only in the cyber domain.


  • We must also deepen investment into the necessary strategic enablers and next-generation capabilities, such as high-end naval platforms, future combat air systems or capabilities for space-based earth observation;


At this point of the conversation, people tend to say: “that is very nice but what about NATO?”.

Let me stress that NATO remains at the heart of Europe’s territorial defence. No one is questioning that. But this should not prevent European countries from developing their capabilities and conducting operations in our neighbourhood and beyond.

Greater European strategic responsibility is the best way to reinforce transatlantic solidarity. It is not either EU or NATO: it is both/and.

Let me also add that hesitations to move ahead on this agenda “because of NATO” come from inside the EU, not the US. They have repeatedly said, and I quote that the US wants: “a stronger and more capable European defence that contributes to global and Transatlantic security”.

The US essentially says: “Don’t talk, act. Please get on with it and help us share the security burden.”

Naturally, we must remain faithful to Europe’s way of doing security. We know that purely military responses are inadequate. We have seen this time and again, in Afghanistan, the Sahel and elsewhere. There are a lot of ‘lessons to learn’. One thing is clear: we need a comprehensive understanding of security and locally-owned political settlements.

This is why the Compass puts a lot of emphasis on our ‘integrated’ approach, bringing civilian and military instruments together, investing in cooperative and multilateral solutions. That is our trademark and we must stick to wherever we operate around the world.


Conclusion: why now?

As I said at the beginning, the history of European integration is full of plans to strengthen the EU’s role on security and defence. Most have come and gone. So why, people ask, should it be different this time?

My answer lies in the speed at which the geo-political context is changing. This makes the case for action urgent and compelling.

All the threats we face are intensifying and the capacity of individual member states to cope is both insufficient and declining. The gap is growing and this cannot go on.

My job has been to sketch a way out. However, results do not depend on strategy papers but on actions. These belong to the member states: they hold the prerogatives and the assets.

I am glad that member states’ reactions have been very positive. They are fully engaged in the process and we are now building the consensus we need to adopt it in March. We will need to keep the level of ambition.

But the ultimate test will come after. The real question, also for today’s debate is this: will the Strategic Compass be yet another plan – or truly a new beginning?

Politically the choice is similar to when we launched the euro or the Recovery Plan. When the costs of ‘non-Europe’ became so high that people were ready to re-think their red lines and invest in truly European solutions.

We jumped together, so to speak. In both cases, the results are clear and positive. Let us make a similar jump forward on European security and defence, as our citizens expect.

Thank you and I look forward to the debate.

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