The symbolism of the Capitoline Hill, where the Treaty of Rome was signed over sixty years ago, cannot have been lost on the original signatories of the treaty. As the former location of temples to the gods Saturn and his son Jupiter, the Capitoline Hill embodied wealth, renewal and liberation. Far from just mythology, however, European leaders back in 1957 laid the foundations for an economic and political union designed to avert future war and generate prosperity in Europe. These aims, just like the city of Rome itself, are eternal. Sixty years after the signing of the treaty, however, Europe finds itself at an inflection point. As the EU Global Strategy warns, ‘we live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the EU. Our Union is under threat’. This word threat has not been used haphazardly, as security and defence is playing an increasingly integral role in protecting Europeans and ensuring European unity.

New level of ambition endorsed in 2016

Whether it is through reassurance measures in Eastern Europe or missions in the Mediterranean and Levant, European governments are rising to the mounting security challenges facing Europe. EU institutions and member states have also recently developed a range of initiatives that are designed to enhance European defence. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, in 2016, the European Council endorsed a new level of ambition for European defence including a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, which is designed to lead to greater synchronisation of defence planning; a European Defence Fund, which will result in investments in defence research (a first for the EU) and joint capability development; and a permanent Military Planning and Conduct Capability to be used to streamline command and control for certain EU military missions. Rapid reaction, innovative capabilities and a stronger industrial base are the chief objectives of these measures. It is, however, worth reflecting on how the EU reached this point.

Few windows of opportunity

Historically, closer European defence cooperation has emerged at distinct points in time. While European defence has been both responsive to and a product of internal political dynamics (i.e. what European governments want) and external factors (i.e. what European governments react to), history has only afforded a few ‘windows of opportunity’ through which to make progress. Followers of the Roman god Saturn would have been familiar with this. Saturn was known, among many other things, as the god of patience. His followers prayed to him every December at Saturnalia to ensure that the next harvest would come. Followers of European defence, looking with reverence and hope to each December European Council meeting, have certainly had to be patient as well. Progress on European defence has not always resembled the annual cycle of harvests consistently expected by farmers.

The failed European Defence Community (EDC)

The first window of opportunity for European defence emerged after the Second World War with Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom signing the Treaty of Brussels in 1948 for collective defence. In the face of Soviet aggression, a second window of opportunity opened up in the 1950s when the idea for a European Defence Community (EDC) – known also as the ‘Pleven Plan’ – was put forward. The EDC strove to fully integrate the forces of Western European states into a ‘European army’. However, a mixture of concerns about rearmament and supranational control of forces – plus the fact that NATO had been established in 1949 – contributed to the EDC’s demise only four years later in 1954.

Today, the EDC is often held up as an example of the ‘does’ and don’ts’ of European defence cooperation. It is certainly true that there are some striking similarities between the 1950s and the present day. Then, the Soviet Union pushed against an iron curtain that tore through Europe; now, Russia has rattled security in Eastern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean. Then, the United Kingdom was formally outside of the European Steal and Coal Community and the EDC; now, it is leaving the EU. Then, the Korean War showed Western Europeans that communism could be advanced militarily and this forced them to prepare for a potential Soviet invasion; now, North Korea is but one example of (in this case nuclear) international crisis that afflicts global and European security.

Yet the old adage is surely right: history never repeats itself but it does rhyme. There are important differences between the 1950s and the present day. For example, successive US presidents since the 1950s have bought into American support for European security. Think of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and support for European integration and one gets a flavour of how invested in European security successive US administrations have been. In rhetorical terms at least, the incumbent holder of the presidential office has referred to institutions of European security as either ‘obsolete’ or past their sell-by date. In the 5th century the Vandals plundered the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill causing sacrilege to the Roman virtues of wealth, renewal and liberation. Today, the American president is calling into question the fundamental basis for European and transatlantic security 60 years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome.

The hour of Europe?

Yet European defence cooperation has always been reactive to external and internal events. Take, for example, the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The fall of communism gave way to an immediate sense of euphoria – after all, Germany was reunited and Eastern Europe was freed from the shackles of the Soviet Union – but it also presented Europe with the challenge of ending conflict in the Balkans. Back in 1991, the tensions in the Balkans led one former foreign minister to gallantly proclaim that this was ‘the hour of Europe… not of the Americans’. This was not to be the case, of course. Yet Europe’s experiences in the Balkans did lead to a renewed desire to enhance European defence cooperation. European inaction in the Balkans gave rise to frustration and another window of opportunity opened.

  • Celebration of 60 years of the Treaty of Rome

  • France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, signing the Common Market Treaties in Rome in 1957

  • Signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam - working to develop a common foreign and security policy

  • In 2004, a specialised agency for defence – the European Defence Agency – would be put to work on capability programmes and defence industrial policy

From Maastricht to Lisbon

To this end, the then members of the Western European Union agreed to the so-called ‘Petersberg Tasks’ in 1992. These tasks denoted a range of military operations that European countries should be prepared to undertake autonomously, if so required. In 1997, the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam not only reaffirmed commitment to the Petersberg Tasks, but it also established the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the position of High Representative for EU foreign policy. A year later, France and the United Kingdom organised a summit at St Malo on 3-4 December 1998 to specifically call for the EU to ‘have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so’. This objective was echoed by member states at the Cologne European Council in 1999, which saw the establishment of a range of defence-relevant institutions such as the Political and Security Committee, the EU Military Committee and the EU Military Staff (plus a Satellite Centre and EU Institute for Security Studies) all designed to enhance the EU’s ability to act autonomously on defence. In the same year, the Helsinki European Council agreed to a set of capability targets (called the ‘Helsinki Headline Goals’) designed to specify in greater detail what military capabilities the EU would require as a defence actor.  

The momentum created by efforts during the 1990s would bleed into the perhaps aptly named noughties. In 2003, the EU was developing a ‘European constitution’ and it was preparing for the largest single enlargement of the Union in history. The United States would also intervene in Iraq. The rift in Europe caused by this war may easily be forgotten, but at the time several European governments wanted to push European defence much further. 2003 was a year in which the first European Security Strategy was published. This document not only sought to emphasise the common challenges faced by the EU and the US, but it also made a case for the importance of multilateralism and the liberal international order. In this same year, the EU would deploy its first – admittedly civilian – common mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This would be the first of 34 missions that would be deployed by the EU (16 of which are still ongoing today). In 2004, a specialised agency for defence – the European Defence Agency – would be put to work on capability programmes and defence industrial policy. This particular window of opportunity in history was seized upon by European governments.

“Progressive framing of a common Union defence policy”

In 2007, with the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, European governments jumped on another moment of opportunity. This treaty would reform the original Treaties of Rome by double-hatting the post of the High Representative with a Vice-Presidency of the European Commission and creating a European External Action Service. More specifically for defence, the Treaty of Lisbon introduced a range of interesting mechanisms including mutual assistance (article 42.7) in case of terrorist attacks on EU territory and permanent structured cooperation (PeSCo) for those member states wishing to make more binding commitments to one another on defence (article 46). The treaty also called for the ‘progressive framing of a common Union defence policy’. In the context of a financial crisis that began in 2008, ministers met in Ghent in 2010 to explore the possibility of launching PeSCo and to enhance the pooling and sharing of defence capabilities.

Palpable desire to seize today’s window of opportunity

Sixty years on from the signing of the Treaties of Rome, therefore, the EU has come some way in developing its common defence. The EU Global Strategy published in the summer of 2016 gave way to a much needed – albeit short – reflection on European defence and the year ended with two plans outlining some ambitious proposals. The Palazzo dei Conservatori – where the Treaties of Rome were signed and where European leaders met on 25 March 2017 – and its predecessor the Temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus were places routinely accustomed to the sound of the rustling of paper. The former edifice once housed Rome’s urban administrators and magistrates and the latter structure at some point served as a Roman archive. European leaders and institutions are increasingly aware that the EU needs more than documents and paper if it is to meet the security challenges Europeans face. On the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, the steps taken by the EU to enhance European defence show a desire to seize on this latest window of opportunity.