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AUKUS and the European Union as a security community

The new Australia-UK-US strategic partnership is likely to galvanise the EU’s desire to become a security community, writes international security expert Dr Isaac Kfir.

The new Australia-UK-US strategic partnership is likely to galvanise the EU’s desire to become a security community, writes international security expert Dr Isaac Kfir.

The concept of security communities has evolved since it was formulated by social and political scientist Karl Deutsch in 1957 to refer to a form of security governance where states appreciate that security is a rare commodity and that it would be in their mutual benefit to co-operate on defence and security matters. States form this community to gain protection as there is strength in numbers. A security community is therefore a regional association based on shared interests and norms and less on the need for a balance of power approach to international relations, which many have come to see as anachronistic and ill-suited for the modern world. The establishment of a security community takes place on three levels: the level of interconnectedness between actors; the degree to which a common repertoire is advanced; and, the level of engagement, referring to the promotion of a common enterprise. Linked with these options are other possibilities such as the pooling of sovereignty, interdependence, and liberal internationalism. Ultimately, a security community is shaped by its members and their commitment to each other. 

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Seeing the EU as a security community is not always clear because security, defence, and foreign relations largely exist within the remit of the nation-state. Notably, national policymakers go to great lengths to ensure that these are not transferred to the EU, particularly at a time of heightened populism. Nevertheless, it is increasingly apparent that European states do look to co-operate and develop common practices in defence and security as seen with the Counter-Terrorism Register, the European Counter Terrorism Centre, or with a commitment to counter irregular migration through such initiatives as Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling. There is also harmonisation in border security with FRONTEX, an integrated political crisis response arrangement, and a mechanism for civil protection (UMCP).

Changes in global politics, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Brexit, and differences over China and Russia, let alone how to respond to these revisionist states, have encouraged European national policymakers to advocate for more support for a Europeanised defence mechanism, which EU policymakers have seized upon as they look to further European integration.

Soon after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Annegret Kramer-Karrenbauer, the German Defence Minister, had stated that the EU should become “a strategic player to be reckoned with”. Ursula von der Leyne, the European Commission President, and herself a former German defence minister, has called for a European military, arguing that the EU needs such a force to address global crises and defend its interest. Emanuel Macron has long been a supporter of some form of a European defence force.

Analysts critical of European efforts to consolidate defence and security would point out that Europeans have long discussed establishing a European defence force. They would correctly note that in the 1990s the EU formed a rapid-reaction force that later metastasised into the failed EU Battlegroup as examples that attempts to form a joint European military are doomed to fail, as national policy always gets in the way. However, several things have changed in the last few years that have made the prospects of a European defence force are a real possibility.

Firstly, Brexit. For decades, successive British governments stood firmly against the idea of a European military, arguing that such a force would weaken NATO, draw resources from NATO, and duplicate NATO. London was adamant that the EU was not created to support defence and security, but rather promote economic engagement and when the Union veers away from the economy to defence, it undermines the European project.

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Secondly, Donald Trump. To say that the MAGA president soured relations with his European counterparts would be an understatement. Trump’s cankerous and transactional foreign policy placed enormous tensions on US-European relations. It frustrated Americanophiles such as Chancellor Merkel, leading her to not only publicly reject Trump’s claim that Europeans were ‘free riders’ but to declare that Europe can no longer rely on the United States for its defence. Her foreign minister Heiko Maas was to reiterate this position by calling for a new European partnership with the United States. These statements were part of a growing trend by European leaders arguing that Europe needs to become self-reliant in defence, leading former Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to state in 2016, “If Europe does not take care of its security, nobody else will do it for now.” He also added, “A strong, competitive and innovative defence industrial base is what will give us strategic autonomy.” It was unsurprising that under Juncker, the EU established the European Defence Fund, an initiative aimed at pooling defence procurement, and complementing the EU Global Strategy. 

Thirdly, EU norms. Europeans like to believe that they are currently the only actors that look to maintain the post-WWII liberal international order. Europeans have shared experiences shaped by centuries of war, leading them to construct a European identity they claim to places human rights, human dignity, multilateralism, good governance, democracy. It is therefore unsurprising that the EU, as a product of its members, has placed specific norms and ideals at its core. Documents as ‘A Secure Europe in a Better World’ and the ‘European Security Strategy’ and decisions to adopt such instruments as the European Convention on Human Rights and creation of the European Economic Commission laud the triumph of liberal internationalism and underlie a rejection of a Realist, power politics-driven world order. 

The release of ‘The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ in April 2021 underlines Brussels’ response to the intensification of the great power competition between the US and China. It also shows that the EU is responding to the interest of its key members, as over the last few years France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all issued policy papers on the Indo-Pacific, which called for greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific, as the centre of gravity shifts increasingly eastward.

Evidently, Brussels wants and intends to work with China, but at the same time there is a willingness to challenge China on human rights and other norm violations. Through such an approach, the EU is hoping to show its ‘strategic autonomy’ a key feature of President Macron’s agenda for Europe, and which appeared in President von der Leyne’s State of the European Union speech in September. Speaking before the European Parliament, and hours after President Biden announced the establishment of AUKUS, she declared “Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own … What we need is the European Defense Union,"

AUKUS therefore represents an opportunity for Europhiles to further the European project by turning the EU into a security community under the guise of promoting EU norms. AUKUS serves as a reminder to Paris, Berlin, and Brussels that if they want to influence global political affairs, they must cooperate and consolidate particularly because individually their defence and security capabilities are limited. There will be an assumption that had the submarine project been a European as opposed to a French one, Australia would not have cancelled the project, and certainly not in the manner that it did, as the member states are recognising that in an era of intense great power rivalries, size does matter.

AUKUS and the European Union as a security community
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