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Date: 4 February 2021

Author: Clodagh Quain

2021 presented two significant changes for Europe – a new US administration and the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In this context, Nathalie Loiseau, MEP and Chair of the Sub-committee on Security and Defence (SEDE) at the European Parliament, addressed the IIEA on 18 January to discuss the reconfiguration of European security and defence arrangements.

This analysis provides an overview of the key themes arising from the address and discussion with Nathalie Loiseau, with additional reflections.

A Fragile Peace  

Across its neighbourhood, Europe’s long record of peace is increasingly threatened, Nathalie Loiseau argued. Looking east, instability persists in Nagorno Karabakh and the Western Balkans as a result of long-standing conflicts. In the Middle East, the Syrian conflict entered its tenth year for which the EU has not (jointly) found a political solution. Further south, the consequences of the global pandemic exacerbated an already deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, despite additional EU political and financial efforts.

Beyond geography, Ms. Loiseau cautioned that European security also faces a structural issue. Frameworks for arms control have either collapsed or are at risk, namely the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA -Iran nuclear deal). Withdrawals by the US (under former-President Trump) and Russia presented a hazard for global security with fewer opportunities for capitals to meet and clarify intention. US President Biden’s proposal for a five-year extension of the New START treaty, and Russia’s subsequent agreement in January 2021, provides an opportunity to correct that course.

She warned of borderless, non-kinetic risks, including  online disinformation and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. An example of this is the cyberattack on the EU Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam in December 2020 which included correspondence relating to evaluation processes for COVID-19 vaccines.[1] Ms. Loiseau’s comments also confirmed a warning by the EU Agency for cybersecurity, ENISA, that the cyberattacks of 2020 were “more sophisticated, targeted, widespread and undetected”.[2] In response, the French MEP warned that Europe had ‘to get more organised’ to face unconventional conflict.

Lastly, Europe’s competitor states were jointly weakening the West and the loss of US leadership created a vacuum of power, Ms. Loiseau argued. She gave the example of the eastern Mediterranean conflict, presenting a hard security perspective based on France’s approach towards Turkey. In 2020, France joined Italy, Greece and Cyprus in military exercises in the dispute with Ankara over natural gas reserves and maritime boundaries. Germany’s  approach, favouring mediation and dialogue, by contrast emphasised the EU as a facilitator.

The divergence demonstrated the lack of consensus within the Union and resulted in a further militarisation in the eastern Mediterranean. Some observers have argued that a more holistic solution including multilateralism, maritime delimitation, energy and economic cooperation, could bring real peace and prosperity to the region.[3] An effort by the Chair of the European Council President, Charles Michel, to propose such a discussion with a Conference on the Mediterranean region, however, was unsuccessful with a lack of political will among regional state players.

A US Security Umbrella?  

There are reasons to be optimistic, Ms. Loiseau asserted, despite the loss of US leadership globally. In her view, the commitment of the new Biden administration to the WHO, the Paris Climate Agreement and the JCPOA, provide the means by which leadership might be restored. Ms. Loiseau’s ambiguity on the US commitment towards Europe – whether as an equal or convenient partner – reflects in part the French priority for a more autonomous Europe. Most recently in an interview in November 2020, President Macron noted the progress made on achieving ‘autonomy’ for Europe while conceding that the problem was still ‘far from solved’.[4] The US withdrawal from the JCPOA, President Macron argued, had illustrated the precise barriers and fears of sanctions that Europe faces, if operating alone.

Although it is argued that the US pivot to Asia would result in inattention to Europe and the Middle East, the persistent instability in Europe’s neighbourhood, as noted above, provides ample reason for President Biden to focus his foreign policy with the EU as a like-minded partner. The US and Europe have shared a strong commitment to effective multilateralism and their combined weight on priority policies could still be influential in a global context.

The EU-US agenda for global change proposed by the European Commission and High Representative, Josep Borrell, on 2 December 2020, provides a good starting point. This provides a roadmap for green leadership, the COVID-19 response, global health, trade, technology, and global action and security. Yet the ambition for significant transatlantic cooperation, Ms. Loiseau broadly cautioned, could also be curtailed by domestic issues in the US, where socio-economic and political divisions deepened under the former Trump  administration.


Closer to home, the first of January 2021 marked the implementation of the UK Withdrawal Agreement from the EU. Still, the framework for UK-EU security and defence cooperation is absent in large part. Ms. Loiseau acknowledged that the UK had not contributed significantly to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)  efforts when it was a former Member State, in terms of military staff and participation in initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF). Progress on European common defence and the toolbox of CSDP initiatives, she argued, was likely propelled by the departure of the UK.

Still, Nathalie Loiseau admitted the decision by the British Government not to include foreign policy and defence in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement of 24 December 2020[5], was regrettable. Furthermore, the decision was in considerable contrast to the objective of the Political Declaration of 2019, which called for an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible” partnership with security and defence, among other issues, at the core.[6] Yet a poll by the ECFR surveying British policy experts in 2019, illustrated the UK’s differing policy priorities and outlook even before the departure. Within this survey, defence ranked 11th of the 20 policy high-priority areas for the UK to cooperate closely with the EU27.[7]

In the interim, the UK will continue to work with EU Member States in the NATO Alliance and other existing bilateral and multilateral alliances with EU Member States. Such new formats include President Macron’s European Intervention Initiative (EI2), a framework outside of the EU but which engages with willing European states, such as the UK, on defence matters.

It will be of interest to observe how the UK could later engage with the EU, dependent on the further development of CSDP post-COVID-19. The Strategic Compass, a flagship EU security and defence initiative to be adopted in 2022, aims to develop a comprehensive overview of the threats and challenges faced by Europe in the next 5-10 years. At the outset, the process and outcome is promising in developing a common outlook and threat analysis for Member States. This considered, the Strategic Compass still will have to prove its worth by providing real strategic value – that is targets in terms of capabilities but also clear priorities, to become a valued reference document.

Defence à la française

Nathalie Loiseau conceded that Europe should not be too influenced by the French approach to security and defence cooperation. This pragmatic view reflects in part the concerns of neutral and non-aligned states, like Ireland. A report by Hélène Conway -Mouret, former-Vice President of the French Senate also presented the evidence of differing views of EU Member States and partners towards the French perspective on security and defence.[8]

The reference to the “specific character” of Ireland’s security and defence posture and its constructive abstention on certain CSDP initiatives have allowed European security and defence arrangements to progress. This pragmatic approach reflects also the necessary flexibility of the EU to secure the support of third states, namely the UK, Norway and the US, to strengthen Europe’s security and defence arrangements.

With France now positioned as Ireland’s “closest neighbour”[9] post Brexit, there will be a deepening of the relationship though the scope of this is yet unclear. Nathalie Loiseau remarked that Ireland would be an “important bridge” with the UK and US for the EU as Ireland is a valued partner of both.

Lessons from the Pandemic 

In security and defence, there were a number of lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. In her discussion with the IIEA, Nathalie Loiseau acknowledged the importance of the military within the EU and the military mobility between Member States for logistical purposes.

Despite this, she identified a marked gap between the level of awareness on CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) defence in policy research and the lack of preparedness in practice. The pandemic, Ms. Loiseau contended, had underscored the weakness in cross-border cooperation, cross-border forces and the lack of competences in health in the European Union.

This is a view that is shared among EU officials. In the initial phase of the pandemic in May 2020, the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had made health a security issue. While this view is not readily or broadly shared within the Union as health policy remains a guarded competence of Member States, there are examples of cooperative efforts in this context. The European External Action Service (EEAS), for example, has established a task force to facilitate information exchange among Member State armed forces. In cooperation with the EU Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), the task force provides a repatriation of EU citizens abroad as well as the delivery of medical equipment and patients for treatment between states. While only temporary in nature, the initiative provides an opportunity to enhance preparedness and resilience within the Union.


Even with a considerable acceleration of EU defence efforts, the level of ambition for EU Defence is impacted by the departure of the UK, which is both a member of the Five Eyes Alliance and a UN Permanent Security Council Member. In addition, the nature of the EU’s relationship and level of cooperation with the new US administration is yet to be defined.

Ireland, in turn, will have to review its position in terms of the EU’s Global Strategy and in the absence of the UK as an EU Member State. Irrespective of Ireland’s geographical positioning, the effects of a crisis and unstable neighbourhood, and the persistence of borderless threats will remain on the horizon.

[1] EMA News, Cyberattack on EMA’ – Update 5, News, 15 January 2021,  

[2] ENISA Threat Landscape 2020: Cyber Attacks Becoming More Sophisticated, Targeted, Widespread and Undetected’, Press Release, 20 October 2020, 

[3] How the EU should deal with the Eastern Mediterranean, Commentary by George Tzogopoulos, European Council on Foreign Relations, 25 September 2020 

[4] Interview with President Macron by Le Grand Continent, 12 November 2020, 

[5]  EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement: protecting European interests, ensuring fair competition, and continued cooperation in areas of mutual interest’, Press release, 24 December 2020, 

[6] Revised text of the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom as agreed at negotiators’ level on 17 October 2019,  

[7] How Britain and the EU could cooperate on defence after Brexit’, Commentary by Ulrike Esther Franke, ECFR, 21 December 2020, 

[8] European Defence: The Challenge of Strategic Autonomy’, No. 626, French Senate, Extraordinary Session of 2018-2019 by Senators Ronan Le Gleut and Hélène Conway-Mouret 

[9] Op-ed –“France, your closest EU neighbour”, Jean Yves Le Drian, 2 January 2021,