Connecting all the dots to create a security ecosystem. Are we witnessing a new approach to European security?

22 August, 2020

The European Union is operating under the Coronavirus Crisis framework, with most of the public discourse focusing on tackling the effects of the recent health crisis. In this context, the European Commission was able to pull a white rabbit from its hat: a 2020-2025 Security Union Strategy.

The Security Union Strategy 2020-2025 replaces the former security strategy (2015-2020),  with the context in which both security strategies have emerged being rather distinctive. In 2015, the European security framework (2015-2020) was centered around the collective fight against terrorism. The extensive preoccupation with combating terrorism is understandable when looked at through the lens of the devastating aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Over and above that, 2015 was the year with the highest number of terrorist attacks throughout Europe. This context was calling for a strategy to combat terrorism and protect the European environment from falling victim to the increasing targeted attacks claimed by various terrorist groups.

Comparatively, the design of the new Security Union Strategy (2020-2025) enables a wider range of priorities.The former security strategy had policymakers expect an issue-sensitive triggered direction of the security agenda. Following that rationale, many expected the new Security Union Strategy be reactive and to focus on overcoming the crisis. Nevertheless, the Security Union Strategy was able to surpass the expectations by not shapeshifting in an unidimensional crisis response. Instead of focusing solely on the COVID-19 crisis and letting it dictate the security policy agenda for the next 5 years, there is a full landscape of measures that aim to assure a climate of security for the European context.

Owning the narrative

The COVID-19 crisis produced a series of unwanted consequences, with the climax being an anticipated economic recession affecting the eurozone the most. Naturally, the Security Union Strategy was expected to reflect an urgency to patch the scratches and to follow the direction of the Recovery Plan. Instead of surrendering to this pessimistic prognosis, the Security Union Strategy came out forcefully and used the frail context to build a strong security direction for the next 5 years.

Before making the new pillars official, the Commission created a strong narrative and took ownership of the determinants of the new security direction.. The inherent detriments of globalization and digital transition were no longer hidden under the carpet but used as a rampage to improve the European security toolkit. The intensified flow of information and people is now seen as a possible capital that can be seized by terrorism, organized crime, the drug trade, and human trafficking. As the threats have become more complex, the European Union has matured in its preparation of overcoming the linked, transborder multiplex attacks to the European citizens‘ way of life. Another constituent of the overarching narrative of the new Security Union Strategy is the existence of multiple sources of insecurity. Even more present than in previous years is the idea that events, threats, and foes that are outside of the EU can leave a mark and can penetrate the security within the EU. This framing is extremely relevant for how we view security inside the borders of the EU, as the Union seems to be more alert to the vast hybrid range of threats that can be deployed by both state and non-state actors. In contrast with The European Agenda on Security 2015-2020, there is a more external-aware character of the new security strategy, a visible shift from the internal character of the former security strategy.

Building on this narrative, the Commission has tried to shed light on the stance of the Security Union Strategy beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Instead of focusing all its efforts on overcoming the pandemic-related threats to European citizens, the security strategy concentrates on what is to be done from this point onwards in numerous other areas. While accepting that the coronavirus pandemic has shaped and molded our perception of safety, threats, and afferent policies, it goes even further. One of the most valuable messages channeled through the security strategy is that the Union is constantly improving its tools to prevent vulnerabilities that came to surface during the coronavirus crisis.

In addition to simply becoming more aware of the shortcomings of the current system, the strategy calls for resilience and further adaptive character. In building this new security web of policies and measures, the strategy is based on four pillars:

  •  A future-proof security environment
  • Tackling evolving threats
  • Protecting Europeans from terrorism and organized crime
  • A strong European security ecosystem
The Old, the New and the Improved Toolkit

The idea of protecting European citizens from terrorism and organized crime is not, by any means, new. In the former security strategy and the European Agenda on Security (2015-2020), the urgency of tackling terrorism and preventing radicalization (including online), and disrupting organized crime was the hot potato. What is new with the Security Union Strategy (2020-2025) is the reassuring manner in which the topic of terrorism is addressed. There is a mutual understanding that terrorist attacks are on a descending trend in Europe. What seems to be worrisome is the rise of racism-inspired attacks, as well as the threat of growing right-wing extremism that may cause violent outbursts. What is deemed as new and dangerous is the access of organized crime groups to new technologies such as 3D printing or Artificial Intelligence, that further increase the threats. The improved tools that may reduce the affiliated risks of the new technologies stipulated in the Security Union Strategy are building capabilities for rapid response, prevention, and early detection, in sector-specific initiatives. The sectorial concern is a sign of the EU realizing that threats hurt different groups and subgroups differently and a holistic, one-size-fits-all approach would not only be ineffective but it would slow down the crisis response.

Another particularity of the desired future-proof security environment is the protection and resilience of critical infrastructure. The old framework for the protection and resilience of critical infrastructure seems to be outdated in the face of evolving risks. As individuals enjoy the benefit of relying on essential services (healthcare, transport, energy, democratic rights), they paradoxically become more at risk if something were to happen to these services. With surgical accuracy, the new security strategy highlights the need for protecting the European infrastructure’s interconnectedness in the face of adverse events. Another new cause for concern is the fragmentation in the implementation of the existing legislation, a fact that could cause problems in cross-border coordination in case of an attack or collapse of the system. An additional layer of vulnerability is the transition to digital governance. Although it is responsible for making the life of the European citizens so much easier, it could represent a starting point for collapse if targeted. In response to that, the new security strategy seeks to implement new frameworks. Both physical and digital infrastructure is to be strengthened through sector-specific initiatives that may tackle specific risks that may be faced by crucial infrastructures.

The above-mentioned cybersecurity concerns were relevant in the 2015-2020 cycle. However, with the new strategy the ambition is to improve and hone the already existing Cybersecurity Act. What is added in the security toolkit is the need for a Joint Cyber Unit and an international partnership to help coordinate operational cooperation between member states and beyond. As such, although digital criminality is not a new concern, it is considered an evolving threat and analyzed much closer by the new Security Union strategy.

A somewhat different concern is posed by hybrid threats. The old 2016 Joint Framework and the 2018 Joint Communication seemed to have reached their limits. What‘s new on the table is the urge to include hybrid considerations into policymaking, as an additional instrument in the face of dynamic and blooming hybrid threats. To create the vital European security ecosystem, the Security Union must cross the bridge of effective information exchange between the member states, the law enforcement agencies, and other EU instruments supporting law enforcement. That was exactly one of the final innovations of the Security Union Strategy. Acting as a bridge for the already existing ties within Europol and new developments of Eurojust (an initiative that seeks to achieve synergy between law enforcement and judicial cooperation), the security strategy is stepping up its game.

Are we witnessing a new approach to European security?

Answering that question is not as straightforward as desired. A lot of the ambitions in the Security Union Strategies are not new. The fight against terrorism and organized crime have occupied a lot of space in the European realm for a while now. Cybersecurity and the paradox of digitalization is not a new concern either. The fact that intersectoral fragmentation and legislative implementation gaps between member states are a danger to the cohesiveness and effectiveness of keeping a secure environment is something that has been thrown around for a while now. But this is not the full story of how security is viewed in Europe.

The Security Union Strategy is a mature product of the EU. In a lot of ways, it was able to foreshadow the development of the challenges it faces, and to create a policy portfolio that has a huge power of anticipating threats and rising vulnerabilities. Especially being on the verge of an economic recession, the risk of having far-right extremist movements and violence is no longer a hypothetical scenario. The need for a more cohesive strategy and uniform implementation of the security directives is loud and visible. This strategy is not the answer to all of the problems but it most definitely does not lack force nor perspective, being well fitted in the puzzle of international security.

In an unstable setting, the fact that the Security Union Strategy reassures the multilateral cooperation with international partners such as the United Nations, NATO, or the G7 proves that every cloud has a silver lining. Crossing the threshold of viewing security threats as coming from outside of the European sphere and being more invested and active in putting an end to the external crisis to achieve internal stability and security, is a noteworthy shift in how we view security in the European Union. One thing stands clear: European security concerns are shifting, adapting, and improving.

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