EU Referendum

UK and the EU: Global role and defence

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Stats and Facts

At a time of Europe-wide introspection, brought on by the twin challenges of the eurozone and migration crises, the European Union's external affairs tend to be overlooked.

But decades have been spent devising and refining the EU's approach to the outside world. Despite representing a shrinking proportion of the world's population (down from 13.4% in 1960 to 7.1% in 2013, according to Eurostat), a group of mostly wealthy countries which together make up the largest economy in the world ought, logically, to wield significant diplomatic clout.

The idea of collective defence predates the EU. But it wasn't until the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that the EU's external policies were set out, in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Along with a parallel Common Security and Defence Policy, it represents the architecture of Europe's global reach.

EU defence


troops in each of the EU’s 18 battlegroups

  • Two battlegroups ready for deployment at all times

  • 30 peace missions and operations launched by EU since 2003

  • Six military missions currently under way

  • 139 EU delegations around the world

What does the EU do?

At the end of 2015, the EU was engaged in 17 missions. Some were mandated by the UN, others were the result of host country agreements.

They ranged from a long-running peace enforcement operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to an anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast and efforts to help reform Ukraine's police and judicial system.

The emphasis is mostly on "soft power": of the 17 missions, 11 are civilian and just six military.

Coordinating CFSP and overseeing the EU's 5,000 member External Action Service (in effect, the EU's foreign ministry) is the job of the High Representative, currently the former Italian foreign minister, Federica Mogherini.

Under Ms Mogherini and her predecessor, Baroness Ashton, the EU played a crucial role in forging the recent deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Perhaps the high water mark of CFSP to date, it demonstrated the impact of collective diplomatic will, backed up by significant European sanctions.

…and what doesn't it do?

There is no European army as such. There are 18 "battlegroups", based on contributions from member states and designed to respond within days to a developing crisis.

While sometimes described by critics as a "standing army", they're constantly rotating, with only two ready for deployment at any one time. They have yet to see any military action and Britain has opposed a French proposal for a permanent EU fund to finance armed operations.

The EU's inability to mount a convincing response to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, in the early 1990s, led to a concerted effort to establish a stronger foreign policy identity.

But the need for consensus has inevitable consequences. Five members of the EU still do not recognise the independence of Kosovo, and back in 2003, members were deeply divided over the 2003 Iraq war.

And then there's money. The reluctance of most EU members to commit 2% of their GDP to defence (actually a Nato target, dating back to 2006) has contributed to a shortage of ships and aircraft needed for military transport, as well as a lack of forces deployable on expeditionary operations.

The EU and Nato have never quite been able to figure out how and where to cooperate.

Does the UK have any opt outs?

No. CFSP decisions are taken in the Council of Ministers and, with a few small exceptions, require unanimity. Decisions are subject to national parliamentary scrutiny. Only Denmark has a full CSDP opt out.

The argument for leaving the EU

The EU has consistently punched below its weight when it comes to foreign policy. We're better off concentrating on Nato, which does all the hard work anyway.

The argument for staying in the EU

Europe carries more weight when it speaks with one voice and acts together. The role of soft power, in a world dominated by American and Russian hard power, should not be underestimated.