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A time of existential threats

A time of existential threats

Rescuing Europe from horsemen of the apocalypse

by Richard Shirreff in London

Wed 6 Apr 2016

In the face of increasingly challenging and potentially existential threats to its defence and security, Europe depends on the two international institutions which have underpinned its security, stability and prosperity for over half a century – Nato and the EU.

On Nato’s eastern borders, a revanchist Russia under President Vladimir Putin, increasingly emboldened by his successful use of force in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, threatens the independence of the Baltic states with their significant Russian-speaking minorities. Meanwhile, throughout Europe’s periphery, from the civil war in Syria to Libya, itself increasingly a failing state on the southern shore of the Mediterranean and deep into the Maghreb, at least three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse are on the march.

These are multifaceted, hybrid threats, and they require hybrid responses. Take the threat posed by Russia. As we saw in Crimea and Ukraine, the Russian way of war is to undermine the state’s integrity from within through the use of special forces, cyber operations, manipulation of minorities backed up by psychological operations and propaganda. While conventional and indeed nuclear force plays a role as the ultimate guarantor of victory, it is the highly sophisticated, carefully planned asymmetric Russian maskirovka (deception) which presents, at least initially, the most complex challenge for the West.

Similarly, the security threat posed by Islamic jihadists, the migration crisis and the increasing instability around Europe’s periphery is multifaceted. Containing and preventing the threat from erupting on the streets of western capitals, as in Paris and Brussels, requires border security, intelligence and surveillance of the highest order. Ultimately though, it will require international and regional cooperation to stabilise the sources of instability – through comprehensive capacity-building for security forces and in law and order, governance, administration, anti-corruption initiatives, health and education.

Nato is the ultimate guarantor of defence for Europe and North America – hence the importance of strong, capable and credible defence forces to deter aggression. But Nato, while politically led, is at heart a military alliance, and the challenges Europe faces require more than military force. The EU has a key part to play in contributing to defence and security by its ability to apply soft power.

For example, the EU has a key role to play in supporting the Baltic states by reinforcing to their Russian-speaking minorities the advantages of remaining EU citizens, rather than becoming subjects of Tsar Putin. As for building security against the threats from Europe’s periphery, this depends on a strong and effective EU.

The EU has cast a stability, and therefore a security, blanket across previously hopelessly insecure regions. In the western Balkans, an important reason for better behaviour has been the EU’s strong line that Serbia and Kosovo cannot start down the road towards EU membership without the comprehensive normalisation agreement the EU’s Cathy Ashton brokered so effectively.

None of this would be possible without the UK remaining an EU member. However infuriatingly bureaucratic, complex and indecisive the EU is now, it would be immeasurably worse and even less able to deal with the threats it faces without British pragmatism and common sense within the council chambers of Brussels.

The EU needs Britain as a member to initiate necessary reforms to ensure it can meet the defence and security threats of the future, let alone the present. This is a two-way relationship. A strong, effective EU, in partnership with Nato, is essential to British defence and security. If Britain leaves the EU, it will be less well defended and less secure.

Sir Richard Shirreff is a Partner at Strategia Worldwide and was formerly Nato's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. This is No.26 in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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