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Military Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?

Military Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?

(Carnegie Europe)

On September 16, 27 European Heads of States came together in Bratislava for a first- ever-informal meeting to discuss the future of the Union. As they geared to overcome the latest European crisis, the theme of security figured prominently among the five central objectives of the resulting Bratislava Roadmap. “In a challenging geopolitical environment,” states the document, “EU cooperation on external security and defense” needs to be strengthened.  For the upcoming European Council meeting in December 2016, the Roadmap announces that a “concrete implementation plan on security and defense” will be presented.

These and other statements issued during the one-day summit in the Slovak capital suggest that defense policy has emerged as a discursive vehicle to reunite the ailing Union and to regain the citizens’ trust in their governments. As Donald Tusk put it in an open letter to his colleagues, “someone must give back to Europeans their sense of security.”

At first, this bellicose demeanor seems at odds with the Union’s collective identity of a norm-based pacifist community, one that has left behind a Hobbesian state of nature and has instead ventured into a Kantian world of cooperative supra-nationalism. Building upon this foundational myth, Europe’s role in the international system has become that of a normative power (Manners 2002); its foreign policy has relied on soft power tools such as the appeal of its institutional set-up and wide-ranging economic and social freedoms.

However, when European leaders engaged in a security-driven narrative at the Bratislava Summit, they openly challenged this vision, suggesting a more proactive role for Europe as a global military power.

What seems paradoxical at first makes a lot more sense if one considers the nature and centrality of identity-shaping narratives in the realm of international politics. Although identities—as mechanisms to give meaning to the self and the other—are considered to be rather stable, they are not static objects. Instead they are “constituted by collective meanings that are always in process” (Wendt 1992, 407) thus allowing change to occur.

Identities are subject to change, as are the narratives that constitute them. These constituent narratives are central to the creation and preservation of any form of social organization. They are the backbones that allow us to distinguish ourselves by giving specific meanings to a political community and providing “a reason for being” (Della Sala 2010, 1). These identity-shaping narratives, however, are intersubjectively created, that is through interaction with others.  Consequently, their success depends not only on the emitter of the narrative but also on the recipients.

The EU’s traditional narratives, developed around the promotion of peace and the creation of prosperity, have reached a standstill. For many European citizens, domestic peace no longer suffices to justify the existence of the Union, and economic prosperity in a globalized Europe is becoming increasingly illusory. The recurrence of ever more complex political and economic crises over the past decade has undermined Europe’s very identity and its foundational myth, which “no longer seems enough to sustain a ‘permissive consensus’” (Della Sala 2010, 3).

Seen from this perspective, the Bratislava Summit captures European leaders in search of a new narrative; a narrative that can re-unite Europeans and keep them united in the future.

The Bratislava statement followed a joint declaration by the French and German defense ministers earlier in September. Through a joint declaration on the future of Europe’s defense policy, Paris and Berlin wanted to convince both European and international audiences that post-Brexit Europe “isn’t going to be just fine, but even more prosperous and closely united than ever before.” To do so, they relied on no other than the oldest and most persistent motive of state creation: security.

This is not the first time in Europe’s history that a security narrative has entered the public discourse in times of turbulence. After the end of the Cold War and with the disappearance of bipolarity as a stable ordering principle, the Treaty of the European Union in 1992 “signaled the intent of the Member States of the Union to move beyond a civilian power Europe and to develop a defense dimension to the international identity of the Union” (Whitman 1998, 135-6). Yet Europe’s failure to put an end to the ensuing decade of wars on the territory of former Yugoslavia seemed to bolster critics’ beliefs that Europe would never emerge as a military power on the international scene.

Notwithstanding the creation of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) (renamed the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) in 2009), post 9/11 Europe distinguished itself mainly through its dividedness in light of the second Iraq War and its failure to deploy its newly created Battlegroups.

While France, posed to be the EU’s top military power after Britain’s departure, has been campaigning for a military union for some time, true change seems to be occurring in Germany. In July 2016, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen presented a White Paper On German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr. The document “defines Germany’s ambition to play an active and substantial role in security policy” and was largely seen as marking “a major shift for the country.”

The timing seems favorable for the introduction of a new European security narrative capable of transforming the Union’s identity and role in the international arena. Germany’s attempts to enter hard power politics, France’s desire to Europeanize defense, Eastern Europe’s quest for more security, and Italy’s benevolence towards CFSP all constitute a fertile ground for change. Moreover, a Europe that takes on its responsibilities and contributes to a greater extent to the stability of the international system in place can be sure of Washington’s support.

Skeptics may point out that identities do not change easily, and rightly so. Many obstacles and setbacks must be overcome before we can see the emergence of a European defense policy worth its name. Yet, the so-called-age of global terror, Europe’s place in an increasingly multipolar world, and the Union’s dire need to reinvent itself both domestically and internationally have already initiated a process at the end of which European hard power and its projection abroad will emerge as “a sort of Gramascian ‘common sense’’ (Della Sala 2010, 9). European leaders’ practices and the reception of these practices by their audiences will decide if and when this narrative eventually becomes central to Europe’s new identity; at which point Europe will have left Venus and joined America on Mars.

† The title is adopted from Ian Manners’ article Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?


Della Sala, Vincent. 2010. “Political Myth, Mythology and the European Union” Journal of Common Market Studies 48 (1): 1-19.

Kagan, Robert. 2002. “Power and Weakness” Policy Review 113 (June/July).

Manners, Ian. 2002. “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?” Journal of Common Market Studies 40 (2): 235-258.

Whitman, R. 1998. From Civilian to Superpower? The International Identity of the European Union. Basingstoke: Macmillan.




Benedikt Erforth

Benedikt holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Trento (Italy). He currently works as a post-doctoral fellow in the Euro-American Program at SciencesPo (France), where he teaches courses in IR, Foreign Policy Analysis, Political Science, and Comparative Constitutional Law.