2. New European Security
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 21.09.2018
* Great power competition is increasingly shaping Europeans’ security environment, while other security threats are also on the rise, from terrorism and cyber attacks to climate change.
The EU now faces security threats from its east and south – and an uncertain ally in the West.
A divided union
The differences between EU countries’ threat perceptions form part of an oft-repeated narrative on European disharmony. For member states to create a coherent common defence and security policy, they need to define their fears and goals in a coherent way – perhaps borrowing (in style, if not in content) from the first NATO secretary-general’s famous claim that the alliance was founded “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.
- The conventional wisdom is that the EU’s internal divisions are particularly sharp on security and defence issues, with the east mainly concerned about Russia and the south predominantly worried about terrorism. But the results of ECFR’s survey suggest that the picture is more complex than this.
- Divergences in European threat perceptions are less apparent than the prevailing narrative would suggest, with terrorism and migration having to some extent made the southern neighbourhood a pan-EU preoccupation, and with cyber attacks and information warfare having increased concern about Russia in member states outside central and eastern Europe.
- Nonetheless, disagreements over how to address threats could become the most significant obstacle to the creation of independent European defence capabilities.
It is striking that, if we look at the EU average, most threats are seen as moderate or significant. The only outlier is the use of nuclear weapons against a European country, considered to be only a minor threat. Hence (on an aggregate EU level), no one threat eclipses the others. However, these aggregated numbers hide divisions.
Unsurprisingly, eastern and southern Europeans were particularly concerned about uncontrolled migration into their countries.
Indeed, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Malta, and Italy saw this as the most significant threat they face. Concern about international crime is a southern story, with Greece, Malta, Spain, and Portugal (but also Slovakia and Austria) considering it a high-priority threat. Fear of terrorism is particularly evident in larger countries and those that have recently experienced terrorist attacks (the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Belgium).
Concern about Russia is strongest in the east (Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Poland, and Finland), although Germany and the UK also perceive it as a major threat. Estonia and Lithuania are especially worried about Russian meddling in domestic politics.
These divisions initially appear to confirm the narrative on a divided EU. But there are few actual contradictions among Europeans even when their top priorities diverge: threats that are a top priority for some EU countries are generally a significant threat for the rest, while issues that many view as benign are at most “somehow a threat” for others. Such broad alignments will ease the search for common responses.
There are only two exceptions to this rule. The first is Turkey, which ten countries consider to be no threat but two others (Greece and Cyprus) see as their top threat. The most problematic division is in European states’ perceptions of Russia, which seven countries regard as the most important to their security and six others as a significant threat, but which five, predominantly southern, countries (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, and Cyprus) view as no threat at all.
- The differences in perceived vulnerability may be even more problematic. For instance, 15 countries feel “very resilient” or “rather resilient” to threats against their territory, while 11 others feel “rather vulnerable” or “very vulnerable” to such threats.
- These 11 countries might be more supportive of a Europe-wide military build-up while the others might judge it unnecessary. Equally, 16 countries feel vulnerable, while ten others feel resilient, to cyber attacks.
- There are also fundamental differences between countries: Finland, for instance, claims to be highly resilient against all threats, whereas Estonia, Belgium, or Portugal generally feel vulnerable. In this context, there is an interesting juxtaposition between France and Germany: the former’s perceived resilience to all threats contrasts with the latter’s overall sense of vulnerability.
ECFR’s survey thus shows that, over time, EU member states have not grown closer together on security and defence issues. While the disharmony narrative appears to exaggerate divisions between Europeans’ perceptions of threat (with the notable exception of the Russian threat), there are significant divergences between their perceived vulnerabilities. This, in turn, determines the urgency with which EU countries wish to counter threats, as well as their views on who should counter them and how they should do so.
Threatened by the new?
New threats have become a major concern. Three of the top perceived threats emerged relatively recently: cyber attacks, external meddling in domestic politics, and the collapse of the international institutional order. Europeans perceive these threats as having grown much more severe in the last ten years.
Cyber is the area in which, according to ECFR research, EU countries feel most vulnerable. This is followed by external meddling in their domestic politics and then the more traditional threat of attacks on their territory. Interestingly, across the EU as a whole, these are also among the threats against which member states feel most resilient (a further indication of the extent to which it is difficult to talk about security perceptions shared across the EU).
- Large and/or wealthy member states (such as Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) appear to be most concerned about cyber attacks – either in terms of their likelihood, impact, or manageability.
- This preoccupation must stem from an awareness of their societies’ reliance on digitised systems, since these countries are widely seen as “leaders” on cyber issues within the EU: France and Sweden have made significant progress in developing cyber strategies (and, indeed, France believes itself relatively resilient in this area); Denmark was the first member state to appoint a technology ambassador; the potential loss of UK cyber cooperation after Brexit is, according to ECFR research, a cause for worry among member states.
Who should protect Europeans?
EU member states broadly agree that NATO should remain the backbone of European security, and that the US should remain actively involved in Europe. But they differ on the role the EU should play in European defence.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu