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Towards European Union ‘sea power’?

On 24 June 2014 the General Affairs Council of the European Union approved the ‘European Union Maritime Security Strategy’ (EUMSS). The EUMSS follows a decade-long, incremental policy process at the EU level, and comes at a time of considerable transformations in the world’s maritime outlook, writes Andrea Frontini.


While European societies and economies are well-immersed in a largely sea-based system of global interdependence, the seas’ contribution to Europe’s welfare is affected by a fragile maritime security context, marked by a combination of often interrelated threats. Recent episodes like the Lampedusa tragedy off the Italian coasts, the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea or the face-off between Chinese and Vietnamese ships in the South China Sea provide just a few examples of such diverse challenges.

Concretely, the Strategy starts by setting some ‘polar stars’ for its practical deliverables. It first spells out the EU’s interests, namely territorial security, international maritime cooperation and peace, protection of critical maritime infrastructure, freedom of navigation, protection of economic interests at sea, common situational awareness, effective management of EU’s maritime areas and external borders, and environmental security. The EUMSS then provides a catalogue of major maritime threats, including: use of force and external aggression against Member State rights, jurisdictions, citizens and interests; cross-border and organised crime such as pirates and smugglers of migrants, arms and drugs; sea-connected terrorism and other asymmetric challenges like cyber-crimes; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; threats to free navigation like obstruction of sea lanes; environmental risks, disasters, extreme events and climate change; and illegal archaeological activities at sea.

Furthermore, the Strategy defines four guiding principles to address maritime security challenges: a cross-sectoral approach linking national civilian and military players to EU bodies and the industry; functional integrity via a ‘bureaucracy-free’ approach capitalising on existing European structures, regulations and funding; respect for rules and principles of sea governance, with a strong emphasis on the dispute-settlement provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); and maritime multilateralism as the guiding principle of EU’s international engagement.

The EUMSS ambitiously aims to ‘strategise’ the assumption of ‘maritime interdependence’ via concrete actions in five main areas of implementation. On external action, the EUMSS commits to a coordinated, comprehensive and visible EU approach, increasing coherence between European instruments and actors, mainstreaming maritime security in EU foreign policy, promoting UNCLOS worldwide and carrying out capacity-building in maritime governance, rule of law, transport security, border management and fight against illegal fishing. The Strategy also tackles maritime awareness, surveillance and information sharing by attempting to break a dangerous ‘silo approach’ among around 400 civilian and military surveillance authorities in Europe. These include through: cross-sectoral coordination and interoperability; cross-border surveillance cooperation and information exchange; consistency between the EU’s internal approach and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations; and development of the Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE), a Commission-supported programme for cost-saving European interoperability. In capability development, the EUMSS insists on promoting ‘pooling and sharing’ exercises, identifying and developing dual-use and multi-purpose capabilities for future missions based on stronger civilian-military synergies and EU-NATO coordination, and promoting greater dialogue among Europe’s sectoral fora.

Further recommendations are also made by the Strategy on risk management, protection of critical infrastructure and crisis response, with the accent being on developing EU-wide common risk analysis and cooperation-based adaptive actions, as well as on research, innovation, education and training, where the EUMSS calls inter alia for common Maritime Training Modules, a clearer vision for the future European civil-military research agenda, and private-public partnerships.

Overall, the EUMSS represents an encouraging development in EU’s stagnating security debate. Admittedly, the Strategy remains diplomatically discreet on sensitive issues such as the unsolved maritime disputes in Eastern Mediterranean, the geographic prioritisation of the EU’s maritime external borders, or the EU’s autonomous military ambitions at sea. Nevertheless, it strikes a delicate balance between short-term and long-term priorities, combining the interests of coastal and non-coastal, as well as NATO and non-NATO Member States, bringing together the internal and external dimensions, as well as the civilian and military components of European maritime security. This makes the Strategy an ideal ‘litmus test’ for the very idea of EU’s ‘policy comprehensiveness’ permeating the Lisbon Treaty, but it also entails that its conceivable impacts will require (at least) one decade to be fully assessed.

Albeit being perhaps too specific to provide a proper ‘building block’ for the expected ‘strategic debate’ among EU leaders on global challenges and opportunities in late 2015, the EUMSS still provides a useful ‘prism’ through which Europeans can reflect together on several sea-related, yet wider foreign policy issues, such as: the level of ambition of EU relations with maritime neighbours or Asia’s naval powers; political dialogue and operational coordination with NATO; intra-European cohesion in key multilateral fora such as the UN; and cooperation with emerging regional organisations involved in maritime security, like ASEAN and the African Union.

Sailing the uncharted waters conducive to European ‘sea power’, promoting maritime governance through internal integration and external cooperation, will nonetheless demand sound ambitions and tangible endeavours, despite the Strategy’s ‘austerity mood’. The EUMSS’ Action Plan, to be delivered by the end of this year under the Italian EU Presidency, ought to provide the next ‘port of call’ of a much longer journey. 

Andrea Frontini is a Junior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC). A longer version of this article is available here 


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