Securitization and European Democracy Policy

Summary:
Current geopolitical trends are pushing the EU to increasingly prioritize security in its international action and outreach, including on democracy policy. The EU should ensure that this democracy-security nexus develops around a pervasive democratic security culture.

Current geopolitical trends have pushed the EU toward an altered perspective on international politics, including its interests and place in the global disorder. This change comprises multiple elements that together denote a dynamic of securitization. We disaggregate this dynamic and consider one very specific implication of it: what securitization in EU foreign policy means for democracy and democracy-support policies. This article contends that European securitization is simultaneously problematic and galvanizing for democracy policy.

There is a long-running debate about whether the EU should prioritize democracy support as part of its security self-interest. This overarching debate over the democracy-security policy nexus is not our main concern here. Rather, we assume a strong securitization dynamic is— for good or bad—firmly established as a powerful driver of European politics, and we reflect on how democracy-related concerns might be incorporated into this trend. The article proposes steps to mitigate the growing risks to democracy support and to mold an era of more democratic securitization. It examines how EU security policy can be made more democracy-sensitive and how EU democracy support can be made more security-aware.

Unpacking Securitization

The securitization of European policy has proceeded incrementally since the early 2000s, through several major terrorist attacks, the financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, migration challenges, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. Across these very different crises and challenges, governments have increasingly applied the language that Europe is facing major existential crises and threats.

Securitization has several dimensions that pull in different policy directions. There has been much academic debate about different forms of securitization. Here we use the term as an umbrella descriptor for key policy developments in the last several years. As the different dimensions of security have led to distinct EU policy shifts, the concept of securitization is tighter and more useful analytically than that of geopolitics, which has deviated from its original or classical meaning as governments and analysts constantly talk about a “return of geopolitics.” Securitization can thus be understood as a distinct, core pillar of the more amorphous category of geopolitics.

A framework for understanding what securitization in its multiple forms comprises helps better ascertain its implications for democracy. Below we identify five main dimensions of securitization in European policy.

Military Turn

From a historic low in 2014, EU member states’ military spending increased by 40 percent in real terms through 2021. Defense spending by the member states was about €270 billion in 2023 and is set to rise further in 2024. The EU has launched a €175 million Defence Equity Facility for military innovation and a European Defence Industrial Strategy, and it is debating the creation of a €100 billion EU defense fund. The EU also held its first live military exercise in 2023, with a second due in 2024. Few other policy areas have seen such a large number of major new initiatives as defense has in the past several years. Beyond a standard defense buildup, these changes reflect a wider dynamic of securitized existential urgency.

Security Missions

The EU has committed itself to upgrading Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and to creating a Rapid Deployment Capacity to quickly send up to 5,000 troops into crisis environments. It has promised to strengthen its Military Planning and Conduct Capability, increased the ceiling for the European Peace Facility to €17 billion, and launched a Crisis Response Centre and a new Civilian CSDP Compact. New tasks like protecting critical infrastructure are being included in CSDP remits as these become infused with a new securitized logic. In February 2024, the EU launched a new maritime mission in the Red Sea and the Gulf. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has launched nine military and civilian missions since the start of his mandate in 2019.

Hard Borders

Migration concerns have prompted a priority focus on securitizing Europe’s borders. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has gained more power and resources. CSDP missions and operations have increasingly been given mandates that involve border management. European Commission funds are now used to fund border control, and more external EU funding goes to third countries to curtail migration to Europe. The EU has committed itself to creating a 10,000-strong standby corps by 2027 to deal with border-control tasks at and beyond its borders, while the 2024 New Pact on Migration and Asylum also brings tighter admission rules. Migration policy has been increasingly subject to a system of “security governance.”

Security Partnerships

The EU’s external agreements have in the last several years become notably more oriented toward security issues—whether, for example, with countries like India and Japan or with regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The EU held its first regional security dialogue with the GCC in 2024 and it has offered Egypt a Strategic and Comprehensive Partnership. A greater share of EU aid goes to security-related projects in developing states; if previously such third-country agreements had a predominantly trade and development ethos, today they are strikingly securitized. Partnerships under the Global Gateway for infrastructure funding are now expressly framed as being aimed at strategic objectives.

Economic Security

The EU has committed itself to securitizing its external economic policies. The 2023 Economic Security Strategy asserts that economic strategy is now to be deployed for security aims and that economic-policy decisions are to be made with this in mind. The development of and control over science and technology has been given a securitized logic under this rubric. In January 2024, the European Commission published a new package of measures aimed at aligning investment screening and export controls with security interests. A security-oriented de-risking has displaced cooperative globalism as the EU’s guiding political-economy motif.

These five principal securitization dynamics cover an extensive range of issues and debates. Some represent an expansion of classical security policy, others a widening of what issues are defined as relevant to security. Borrell has suggested that security dynamics are so preeminent now that they seep into areas far beyond strictly military matters. These trends unfolding alongside each other are driven by an increasing ethos of survival.

Democracy-Security Quandaries

For many years, policymakers and analysts have debated whether supporting democracy is crucial to advancing strategic interests or something to be traded off for them. Some have long argued that more robust defense is needed to protect democracy. Here we suggest that the links between security and democracy have become more important and propose a tightly operational way of approaching the relationship between the two.

The ongoing securitization dynamic has diametrically contrasting effects on democracy policies, leaving the EU, national governments, and security organizations with an increasingly split personality.

On the one hand, securitization is pushing the EU to cooperate more extensively than before with authoritarian regimes, including on security issues. The EU has recently struck up new strategic partnerships with many authoritarian or hybrid regimes. The new European Political Community includes Azerbaijan and Türkiye. In Africa, the EU has deepened its cooperation with Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia on migration, border control, and security while also deepening strategic partnerships with nondemocratic states in the African Great Lakes region. Many Global Gateway projects have been agreed with nondemocratic or hybrid regimes.

Even if there is not a zero-sum trade-off between security and democracy, the distribution of funds suggests a rebalancing of priorities. The increase in the EU budget for 2024 has been oriented mainly to security, migration, and Ukraine’s defense. The European Investment Bank is also diverting funds into a new €8 billion security package. The amount that governments allocate to democracy projects is a tiny and decreasing fraction of their military spending.

The developing policy culture of securitization in some respects sits uneasily with the values of democratic pluralism. Beyond a certain point it risks clashing with the values of reflective criticism and openness, which are essential for good-quality democracy. There is a growing tendency to justify exceptional measures that circumvent standard democratic checks and balances.

The framing of challenges as existential security threats leads to decisionmaking that is more dominated by the executive. For example, the European Commission is taking an important role in the EU’s defense technological and industrial complex, together with private actors, with little input from the bodies responsible for democratic accountability. Additionally, disinformation has been securitized, as a means not only of protecting democracy but also of empowering executive efforts to bound democratic debate on existential security grounds.

The growing culture of securitization is driven by what Borrell has termed a “crisis mode.” This generates an increasingly all-embracing practice of security that redefines threats and security interests. Security actors have an influential role to play in this process, and so what counts as security is likely to shift in accordance with their perspectives. The practice of security tends to securitize issues not simply out of objective necessity. While the sources of insecurity are real and rising, security actors sometimes also accentuate the sense of crisis to justify their empowerment. As securitization deepens, actors that may have little sensitization to democracy issues also gain prominence. The growing number of experts, consultants, and EU security professionals and agencies in various fields and formats raises the specter of self-serving and self-generated securitization from actors not subject to full democratic scrutiny.

In sum, the dynamic of securitization contains much that is bad news for democracy policy.

On the other hand, there are signs that securitization dynamics have to some extent revived what was a rather moribund democracy agenda prior to 2022. While the EU has for many years insisted that supporting democracy internally is its best form of security, in practice its actions have never given the impression that member-state governments believed this to be the case, at least not in relation to their most immediate security concerns. The EU’s stated preference for a more democratic world has been a passive aspiration more than the aim of a proactive security strategy. But in the last two years, member-state governments have infused the goal of supporting democracy with a more securitized tone.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has dragged European leaders out of their passivity and made them promise stronger commitments to defend democracy. In Ukraine, the EU and member-state governments present the securitized defense of sovereignty and the defense of democracy as a single agenda. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has insisted the war is best understood as a battle between authoritarianism and democracy, and she has demanded an investment “in the power of democracies,” which “begins with the core group of our like-minded partners: our friends in every single democratic nation on this globe.” Nearly all EU leaders have frequently made similar statements. Many member states have introduced new security strategies that include democracy support as a high priority, even if implementation then falls short of linking it to “hard foreign policy.”

The EU’s narrative is increasingly centered on the notion of “like-mindedness,” suggesting a tilt toward security support for democracies. The EU has launched a €13.4 million CSDP Partnership Mission in Moldova to tackle hybrid threats, cybersecurity, and foreign interference and information manipulation. The 2023 Defence of Democracy package is pitched against “covert foreign interference.” The new European Media Freedom Act promises “safeguards against political interference in editorial decisions and protection against surveillance.” Many other initiatives could be listed (and are detailed in our annual reviews of European democracy support).

These developments chime with notions of securitization that tie democracy to security. A concept of “democratic realism” suggests that the war in Ukraine is about different political-regime preferences more than pure interests or security calculations. The different concept of “preemptive security” suggests that liberty and security are mutually constitutive and that securitization can also anticipate threats in a way that involves support for political change. The tradition of more skeptical, precautionary liberalism might also be interpreted in this way for the current security-concerned era. Some developments in EU policy could be opening the way to a more serious application of prodemocracy understandings of security. Some see security matters becoming part of “normal” democratic politics rather than entirely subject to exceptional process outside the political sphere.

Toward Democratic Securitization?

These mixed dynamics and the EU’s split personality on democracy support will not disappear. EU policy will sometimes back and sometimes sacrifice democracy in the name of strategic advantage. This is not new and probably not surprising. Many might see this as justified, with securitization entailing firmer and more committed support for democracy where this is directly beneficial, while pursuing more realpolitik in other cases. While this will lead to accusations of double standards, many policymakers will shrug this off as the price of a hardheaded focus on security where necessary.

This reality likely precludes democracy ever being given untrammeled priority in EU policy. Nonetheless, the EU institutions and member-state governments could ensure that democracy is not shunted to the side in securitization by building democratic principles into their security decisions and initiatives. They should consider what kind of guardrails can prevent the current era of securitization from becoming even more Hobbesian—the term Borrell regularly uses to describe the context for EU foreign policy today—and inimical to democracy.

The EU should ensure that the democracy-security nexus develops around a pervasive democratic security culture. The five principles below can help make securitization more of a positive factor for democracy internally and externally.

Inclusive Security Culture

Even if one agrees that the EU spending more on defense is in a very general sense a way of supporting democracy, this needs to be subject to open democratic debate. The growing European security field should be made more inclusive, accountable, and transparent. The EU should open new security debates to the full range of democratic actors in as participative a fashion as possible, as it has done increasingly for those on climate change and other issues, in contrast to the closed-doors ethos of security policy making. As part of this, it could push for the greater representation of women and underrepresented groups and regions in this field and open up participation to nonsecurity actors.

Institutions like the European Parliament could exert tighter scrutiny over the CSDP as well as over companies and consultancies in the security field. Given that the securitization turn empowers member-state governments, the role of national democratic bodies and parliaments is important for furthering democratic governance of the field.

Democracy Sensitization

The EU should undertake a program of sensitization across the security policy communities, which are not generally exposed to issues related to democracy. EU security practitioners and policymakers often assert that all other policy areas need to see the implications of their decisions on security, but the reverse is equally true. Security actors, especially as they become more empowered, need to see the democracy implications of their actions. As accusations of human rights abuses have been frequent in this field, the alignment of security actors with democratic standards would represent significant progress.

The EU could set up and run an annual security dialogue on democratic values, bringing together security actors and other policymakers and experts. The Schuman Security and Defence Forum that was launched in 2023 should also include more democracy practitioners to deepen synergies and cooperation. Bodies such as the European Security and Defence College should offer a cluster of courses on democracy: its curricula currently covers a wide range of issues like gender, climate change, and hybrid threats but not democracy as such. The growing and empowered European Defence Agency could also embrace democratic sensitization.

CSDP Democratic Stress Test

The pending upgrade to CSDP missions and operations should include a rigorous checklist and impact evaluations to ensure that EU security interventions help democracy rather than hinder it. Recent experiences show that providing security capacity and training to nondemocratic bodies can backfire against EU interests as well as democratic values. For example, the EU funded a counterterrorism unit in Senegal that brutally put down prodemocracy protests. To reverse the trend toward more striking political agnosticism in security operations, CSDP missions and operations need stronger democracy strands, including through local and civic actors having more control over security operations. The CSDP’s governance structure needs to include a wider range of actors with backgrounds on democracy issues and to be more balanced between the multiple agencies, mechanisms, and units involved. CSDP missions and operations could also be given more resources for any democracy elements in their mandates.

Two-Way Pragmatism

The EU will not stop building strategic partnerships with nondemocratic regimes, but it can do more to leverage the democracy elements of these partnerships. A two-way pragmatism is needed with securitization and democracy dynamics making room for each other in EU flagship external initiatives and partnerships. Each security partnership could be subject to a “democracy audit” carried out by independent actors. Most partnerships in the future are likely to be with “frenemies” rather than with fully like-minded or hostile states and hence should carefully balance the security and democracy aspects. As the EU is unlikely to decouple from autocracies when it comes to “hard” security, it will need to pursue democracy policy within a delicate web of securitized interdependencies.

Democracy and the Institutions of International Order

The EU could do more to use democracy initiatives as a leading component in shoring up the international order rather than something easily set aside from the aim of effective multilateralism. It should push for security organizations to have more of a democracy focus. The new EU-NATO cooperation in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine should include democracy support efforts. In its quest for strategic autonomy, the EU could develop a distinct agenda to coordinate democracy issues within regional organizations with security mandates, which so far it has declined to do (for example, in the case of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

Conclusion

The ideas above can weave elements of democracy support into the EU’s securitization agenda, even if they do not fully solve the growing tensions between security and democracy priorities or fully offset values-free realpolitik. The increase in defense spending by the EU and its member states has dominated much debate, but the deeper political dynamics underpinning and flowing from this spending need closer and more critical attention. The trend of securitization should be the catalyst for a profound debate on how core democratic principles should be supported by security actions that are taken ostensibly in their name.

There is an opportunity for a senior EU leader to head the charge on democracy in a way that none has so far attempted. Since the mid-2010s, the high representatives for foreign affairs and security policy have acted as “Hobbesians-in-chief,” pushing the EU toward realpolitik and hard security while engaging little on democracy. The new prominence of securitization may be justified but should not be reduced to knee-jerk militarization and expedient realpolitik at the expense of security approaches to “positive peace” that are more attuned to democracy goals. In the current era of securitization, the EU and its member states have scope to take steps toward more democracy-informed security and more security-informed democracy support. In tangible ways, the security policy community needs to take on board democracy concerns and the democracy community needs to do more to take on security concerns.

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