Written by Elena Lazarou and Eric Pichon, with contributions from Bruno Bilquin, Anna Caprile, Sebastian Clapp, Angelos Delivorias, Beatrix Immenkamp, Rosamund Shreeves and Branislav Stanicek.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has shattered assumptions and expectations about protracted peace in the wider European space. It has stimulated serious reflection about the instruments and tools available to restore peace in times of contestation between great powers and of weakened multilateral institutions, phenomena that have been observed consistently throughout the past decade.
At the same time, the promotion of global peace and security continues to be a fundamental goal and central pillar of European Union (EU) external action, following the model of its own peace project. Both within and beyond the EU, there is a widespread expectation among citizens that the Union will deliver results in this crucial area. Nevertheless, as the security environment poses what could be the most significant challenge to security in the post-Cold War period, the EU is urgently intensifying its work for peace and security in a number of key policy areas.
According to the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2023, the state of peace in the world again deteriorated in 2022, continuing a long-running trend. In addition, multilateralism, a core element of EU foreign policy and identity, and a cornerstone of its approach to peace and security, is under increasing pressure from alternative value systems and ideologies; a situation that has been dramatically exacerbated by the launch of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the subsequent geopolitical polarisation.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and the parallel weaponisation of energy, food supplies, migration and information, have inflamed and exploited pre-existing fractious trends evidenced by the coronavirus crisis, and signal the advent of a more ‘competitive and less secure international geopolitical environment. In response to these trends, the European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen, with the support of the European Parliament, committed to reinforcing the EU as an external actor, able to act more strategically and autonomously, while fully upholding the fundamental values stipulated in the founding Treaties, including the achievement of peace. To this day, the over-arching values and objectives of the EU guide all facets of its external action, including common foreign and security policy (CFSP); democracy support; development cooperation; economic, financial and technical cooperation; humanitarian aid; trade; and neighbourhood policy.
While the promotion of peace remains the objective of EU foreign policy, achieving it is also linked to understanding peace and its components. Thus, measuring peace and the threats that challenge it is becoming an increasingly relevant exercise. In that context, the Normandy Index attempts to measure threats to peace based on variables identified in the EU Global Strategy. The EU Member States, supported by the European External Action Service (EEAS), conducted a comprehensive threat analysis in 2020, as part of the development of the EU Strategic Compass, which was adopted by the Council and endorsed by the European Council in March 2022.
The EU’s contribution to countering threats to peace, security and democracy globally has grown significantly through legislation, financing and the creation of new structures and initiatives. A significant share of EU aid goes to fragile states and to issues related to securing peace. The EU’s ‘new consensus on development’ emphasises the role of development cooperation in preventing violent conflicts, mitigating their consequences and aiding recovery from them. On the ground, the EU has been able to strengthen the nexus between security, development and humanitarian aid through the implementation of comprehensive strategies, for example in the Horn of Africa and in the Sahel. Through its common security and defence policy (CSDP), the EU runs several missions and operations in third countries, making it one of the United Nations’ main partners in peacekeeping. To help partners withstand sometimes violent attacks on their democratic structures by domestic illiberal forces and external authoritarian powers, the EU has been strengthening its tools to support democracy all over the world.
In 2022, the EU continued to advance its work on countering new threats to peace, such as disinformation, cyber-attacks and climate change. New elements strengthening EU security and defence capabilities were implemented with the aim of boosting EU strategic autonomy, including its capacity to work for peace and security. These elements of ‘hard power’, together with the EU’s long-standing experience in the practice of soft power, form the backbone of its action for peace and security.
The EU also continues to be a staunch promoter of multilateralism at global and regional levels to counter global threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and global food and health crises. The EU’s immediate neighbourhood is a consistent focus in its work, with the aim of building resilience and upholding peace and democracy – both now seriously challenged at the EU’s eastern border by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Looking to the future, peace and security are increasing in complexity. Even in Europe, the war in Ukraine has shown that the assumption of sustained peace can no longer be taken for granted. The effects of the war on Ukraine reverberate around the world in the form of diminishing food and energy security, inflationary pressures, economic crises and global polarisation. New types of threats and destabilising factors such as pandemics, climate change, foreign interference in democracy, cyber-attacks and bio-terrorism, as well as various types of hybrid warfare, call for innovative thinking and new types of resources and solutions. While the EU has made significant progress in furthering its aim of strengthening its presence and efficiency in the area of peace and security, more remains to be done. The 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF), although focused on streamlining the EU’s programmes and instruments to allow for flexibility and on using innovative financial instruments to address unforeseen threats, is already at risk of being depleted by January 2024. This urgent budgetary constraint, largely caused by the pandemic and the Russian war of aggression, led the Commission to propose an urgent legislative budgetary and financial package on 20 June 2023.
While the EU’s quest for flexibility, efficiency and innovation in recent years has been underpinned by the strategic goal of empowering the EU in its global role as a promoter of peace and security, no event has made this challenge as urgent as Russia’s war on Ukraine. While adapting to the new realities of the international order and the rapid technological, environmental and societal changes of our times, the war has also precipitated bold and rapid change in the EU’s capacity to act for peace and security, such as unprecedented sanctions on Russia and support for substantial arms deliveries to Ukraine. Adapting to the rapidly transforming world has meant that the EU has to become a more autonomous, strategic and holistic actor for peace and security by bringing together elements of normative, soft and hard power with steadfastness and resilience.
Read this study on ‘Peace and Security in 2023: Overview of EU action and outlook for the future‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.