Blog AnalysisEU Defense (Doctrine)

Threats: a sword of Damocles over the heads of Europeans

(B2) Over several years, various threats, real or perceived, have targeted several European countries in turn. No country really feels safer, targeted at least directly by one type of threat (primary) and indirectly by one or more others. This pressure leads to major developments in national thinking regarding European defense

(credit: Bundesheer Austria – Christian Debelak)

First, major external pressure


In three years, Europe has been hit by three successive, serious crises of external origin, which have not all been resolved:

1° the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and tensions in the East. They sound like a tragic resurgence of a dark period in European history. The Baltic and Eastern countries are particularly concerned (Poland, Czech/Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria)

2° the migrant/refugee crisis and tensions at the South East and South borders. A real trauma for a number of European countries that have so far rarely faced this type of crisis. The countries of the South (Italy, Greece, Bulgaria), known as first-line countries (dark blue), are mainly concerned, but also the Balkan countries (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, Germany) in the second line (royal blue). ) ; and countries further north (host or non-host countries): Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Czech/Slovakia in third line (light blue).

3° A new wave of terrorism which hits Western Europe. The countries in the west of the continent – ​​France then Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany – are more concerned, but also, more recently in the north – Finland, Sweden –.

The successive attacks in Paris, Copenhagen, Sousse (Tunisia), Bamako (Mali), Istanbul (Turkey), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)… show that terrorism is not an epiphenomenon (read file: No. 32. Europe facing a new wave of terrorism). They draw both from within societies and from outside. After the temptation of the ostrich (Read: Faced with terrorism, the European response too slow), each country has clearly understood that it cannot face and fight this phenomenon alone. When a Balkan weapon is deactivated in Slovakia, resold in the Czech Republic or Belgium to become a weapon available to terrorists, passing through several European countries, to commit their crime in Paris, we can clearly see that the problem is European.

Second: a belt of instability in the first and second line

Two major “border” civil conflicts are taking place on the edge of Europe: the Syrian (Iraqi) conflict which primarily concerns Cyprus and the Libyan conflict which mainly concerns Italy and Malta. And, further afield, three areas of African instability appear as threats: the Horn of Africa which concerns Italy more directly; the Sahel, which is of particular concern to France and Spain; Nigeria which concerns the United Kingdom.

This conjunction of events has a political effect. Whatever the crisis, no state today feels safe… or capable of facing it alone.

The triggering in November 2015, after the Bataclan attacks, by France of article 42.7 (mutual assistance clause) undoubtedly did not have the hoped-for effect of triggering a wave of short-term commitments (Read : The French demand for solidarity: a semi-flop). It was, on the other hand, undeniably a strong political signal. It marked the end of a certain inconstancy and forced us to reflect on the medium term.

Thirdly, all the means of defense that can be mobilized

Faced with such a diversity of crises, on different geographical and thematic horizons, all operational vectors are this time necessary to ensure a response:

  1. reconnaissance but also fighter aviation, without forgetting drones (for aerial surveillance in the Baltic and almost all of Europe as well as for reconnaissance or strikes in Iraq, Syria or the Sahel)
  2. transport aviation;
  3. maritime means (in the Baltic or the Mediterranean, even in the Black Sea) and submarines (for intelligence);
  4. land elements (with the resurgence of armor needed on European territory, such as to deal with IEDs);
  5. special forces (particularly in the Sahel);
  6. intelligence (against terrorism);
  7. satellites and radio-electronic surveillance;
  8. cyber (on which the future now depends), means of strategic communication. Etc.

A set of means which is no longer accessible today to a single State. Only two European countries (France and the United Kingdom) have the entire operational range, but not intensively. For significant, simultaneous mobilization over a period of more than 24 or 48 hours, they must seek assistance from their neighbors.

Fourth, political trauma and unstable neighbors

These crises would be quite 'manageable' if the Europeans did not have to face several political traumas, internal (see next §) and in the neighborhood, which are changing the strategic situation. Several of Europe's allies and/or neighbors now consider the European Union (EU) no longer as a friend, an ally or a 'sympathetic' neighbor, but as an adversary or competitor that must be minimized, or even fell.

1. the autocratic tendency Russian. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the European Union appears more dangerous than NATO with its democratic and liberal system, its sluggish dynamism, its association agreements with economic but also political aims. It turns out to be more dangerous in the end than a 'hard' adversary such as NATO, the good old enemy very useful for mobilizing at the national level. With the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the unrest in the Ukrainian dombass, he pursued a policy of establishing a no mans'land between Russia and Europe, having abandoned the project of a large security zone European. And the temptations to interfere in national electoral campaigns are increasing.

2. the bugle call American (2). The coming to power in 2016 of Donald Trump sounded the death knell of an era. The new president does not have the same consideration for the European Union as his predecessors, and shows this very clearly. Its temptation to break all the international agreements defended by Europe (climate, Iranian nuclear power, intermediate-range nuclear forces, status of Jerusalem), not to involve it in its various international discussions (Syria, North Korea) just like his latent contempt for Europeans predominates.

3. the turn Turkish. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, especially after the failed coup of 2016, considers that relations with Europe, and in particular membership of the European Union, are no longer a priority.

So many additional signals encouraging Europeans to now work a little more together. They no longer hesitate to shatter the few principles which until now have scleroticized all evolution.

Fifth, threats of internal implosion

To this rather gloomy picture, we can add four factors of internal implosion.

1. Dropout British with the Brexit is a significant trauma. This is the first time that the forward march of a Union which was constantly expanding its territory has been interrupted and gone in the other direction. Europe loses an important member of its Union (even if it was sometimes impertinent) and the United Kingdom loses its capacity for influence.

2. The conservative, nationalist temptation, of several Member States should be of concern. References to certain values ​​are no longer obvious today. They are even discussed openly. European solidarity is no longer natural today. It even becomes exceptional. This phenomenon is observed by three elements

  • The significant presence of populist or nationalist parties (+20%) in several countries: Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Rep. Czech.
  • The nationalist or populist inflection of national leaders: Poland, Hungary and, more recently, Italy.
  • The assassination of journalists in regimes where corruption weakens power: Malta, Slovakia (and Bulgaria).

3. The far right is progressing. Neo-Nazi movements are developing in broad daylight, including in Germany, a country believed to be vaccinated against such actions. We note thus:

  • the notable presence of the extreme right: Sweden, Germany, Hungary, France, Italy, Greece, Croatia.
  • the arrival of far-right movements in government*: Austria, Bulgaria, Slovakia.

4. The separatist temptation. Certain countries which appeared “solid” are seeing a separatist temptation developing within them. It can be described as a 'soft' trend, very different from that which they have known in the past, marked by movements with a paramilitary tendency such as the IRA in Ireland or the ETA in Spain. However, it appears very real in at least three countries: Belgium (Flanders), Spain (Catalonia), United Kingdom (Scotland).

This separatist temptation could reach other countries. Which will inevitably lead to questions about the organization of the European Union.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

A succession of crises which forces us to change the means

The crises hitting Europe are of a different nature but they all challenge the very notion of power, of state authority: Euro Zone, borders, security and defense. We find ourselves in the foundations of the 'power' State and no longer just in the 'welfare' State as during the period 1980-1990, Europe's 'dream' years.

It is therefore not only a European crisis, it is a crisis of the States which compose it, which are questioning their future and their capacity for action. If it is difficult for a single State to face all crises alone, everyone is often reluctant to make the necessary joint efforts. This explains the delay in adopting certain measures. A delay which acts like an infernal spiral. Not only does it aggravate and prolong the existing crisis (Euro Zone, Migrants, Security), but it contributes to weakening European power, and to leading to the following crisis, making a 'technical' crisis a deeper and political crisis.

Negative findings should not be overused. The picture is not completely black. If we think over a longer period of time, a few years after these procrastinations, Europe has often reacted (or is in the process of reacting), transforming the reality of the European political project, completing or consolidating it, without sometimes changing one iota of the basic treaties.

The Currency and the Budget

With the crisis in Greece, the Euro Zone and the European Commission have equipped themselves with federal-type resources which were not originally planned. Means of surveillance, contested, because they are not accompanied by the essential element of the exercise of constraint, a certain democratic legitimacy. Certainly, it is the governments – and their parliaments – which have consented to this shift in sovereignty. But a European representation of this legitimacy, a Euro Zone parliament, is missing.


The migrant and refugee crisis, which is becoming a border crisis, will force Europeans to adopt a common system not only in terms of asylum (distribution of refugees throughout European territory) or immigration, but also surveillance and control of external borders. This is the meaning of the proposal made by the European Commission in December 2015 (Read our file: No. 30. Guard the borders of Europe. Towards a European Coast Guard and Border Guard).


The threats at the gates of Europe should require identical thinking in terms of defense. Europe in terms of defense seems to be still a child who sucks his thumb and wants to stay in his stroller when he should be an adult. Faced with danger, Europeans are always reduced to calling on the nice 'uncle' from America to provide men and equipment - drones, strategic transport planes or reconnaissance assets, or even... repair an airport runway! (Read : The United States wants to quadruple its presence budget in Europe. Fault of Europeans). Resources remain very scattered, without real political coordination. France's invocation of the Article 42.7 clause was a political signal. The Europeans would do well to seize this and set up, within four or five years, a real defense capacity, and not just a few instruments (research funds, European peace facility, capability projects).


NB: These elements were developed during a presentation at the University of Grenoble in March 2018, taken up and completed more recently

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).