Post-Cold War securitization in the European Union


24 | 09 | 2021


The classic definition of security along the 20th century has been based on the pillars of military defense, sovereignty and territoriality in dealing with external threats. However, this idea of security is very limited as it is an excessively statocentric conception whose definition becomes more challenging when we suppress the military realm and want to talk about other types of spheres. This is why, from the 1960s and along the Cold War, many theorists began to try to give another point of view to the concept of security. It is in this context that the Critical School of Security and the concept of “securitization” first appeared. Indeed, the concept of security suffered a major change in the early 21st century, as new threats, challenges, and even new actors emerged across the international arena. The aim of this article is to examine how the European Union changed the framework of its security objectives from the post-Cold War era until 2003. To this end, the article will analyze relevant strategic documents as well as various historical phenomena.

The theory of securitization was developed in the Copenhagen School of Critical Security Studies. For this school, the perception of security comes from our perspective of the world and of politics. It is our vision of reality what securitizes threats and the object that needs to be protected. Issues are “securitized,” treated as menaces, through these “speech acts” that do not only describe an objective security situation, but they also reach it to be a security situation by backing it up as such1 . So, it could be said that it treats security as the result of a specific process, and as an objective term, and that politicians or decision-makers are the ones who design and securitize national policies.

As mentioned above, the end of the Cold War was a turnaround in the concept of international security, as two different approaches emerged. On the one hand, that of those who advocated state security and focused on analyzing the political and military stability between the USA and the USSR. On the other hand, that of the more open-minded and dissatisfied ones, which included other types of threats outside the military sphere, which affected the population or society more than the military props.

Wæver, professor of International Relations in the University of Copenhagen, for one, posited that securitization theory was built to contain politics against the disproportionate power of the state by being the audience the one in charge of judging the success and failure of securitization2. In the end, it is the audience or society that decides on the securitization of a phenomenon through public opinion. The three faces of securitization are: the referent object, the object of securitization; the securitizing actor: politicians, media etc.; and the existing functional actors: those whose activities have significant effects on security making. This construct will be used in this article to analyze some issues the European Union has securitized along the last decades.

Historical and legal background

Post-Cold War Europe, as the rest of the world, needed to adapt its security and defense strategies; the world was no longer divided into the communist and the capitalist blocs. The process of globalization was beginning and therefore each country was starting to look after its own interests and objectives. Europe longed for strategic independence from the two great world powers and therefore needed to adapt its defense and security policy to counter the threats of the new era.

Understanding that no country can deal with security challenges on its own, between 1990 and 2003, what was to become the European Union designed certain mechanisms to help it counter new threats in the changing environment of the new Europe. The first of these was the Petersberg Declaration. The origin of this mechanism lies in the willingness of the member states to initiate a plan to develop adequate tools of cooperation in foreign and defense policy. The Council of Ministers therefore agreed to extend the duties of what was then the Western European Union, a military organization between 1995 and 2011 which gradually transferred its tasks to the European Union, to include the planning and execution of a range of peace-related operations. These operations were integrated into the Amsterdam Treaty (1997).

The Petersberg framework meant a first efficient step toward securitization, as it was the first time that peace-related missions in a European level were included in a legal security document of the future European Union, and because, for the first time, they were considered part of the EU's security strategy. Before it, such missions had not posed a regional threat, neither politically nor militarily. The first operation under this umbrella which will be discussed later, and which is still active today as a successful peacekeeping operation, took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In conclusion, the Petersberg missions meant a major step forward in Brussels' new foreign policy and would serve in the future as a means to gain credibility in the international arena, promoting the values of the institution, and to gain strategic partners.

Some years later, in 1999, the European Council met in Helsinki to develop the Helsinki Headline Goals. The goals were created to support the peacekeeping missions set out in the Petersberg Declaration and consisted of EU members being able to deploy 60,000 troops in 60 days and for one year starting in 2003. They stipulated that this kind of troop deployments would only extend for as long as the humanitarian crisis lasted, and that the member states would decide whether, how and when to join with their troops. In 2003, the European Union launched its first civilian crisis management operation in Sarajevo (The European Union Police Mission) in collaboration with the United Nations International Police Task Force and its first peacekeeping mission (Operation “Concordia”) in Macedonia; both successful.

Finally, the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS) was adopted by the European Council in December 2003. As a novelty, it set out the pillars and objectives for the EU's security interests. It agreed on a joint menace appraisal and set objectives for clarifying and progressing its security interests3

For the first time, the EU could conduct a joint threat assessment and set common objectives to promote its security interests based on its core values. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Security Strategy is that it should have arrived earlier. The 2003 Iraq crisis witnessed the US in disagreement with some of its Western allies. It also made clear a lack of cooperation among the EU states, something they had successfully based in ambiguity so far4. The Bush administration took advantage of this to show that the real power in Europe was the US, not the EU.

This strategic tool, the EUGS, was a guide used to complete an agenda. It expressed the objectives of the EU, the main security duties of the institution. However, it was more of an inspirational sketch than a strategy since it did not describe what means could have been used and the conditions to achieve these specific objectives. In fact, it did not even offer a guide to establish in which situations the Union's troops can operate. The only important terms in this document were strategic culture, failed states, preventive engagement, and effective multilateralism. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take into account the circumstances in which it was drafted. The complexities of that post-Cold War international moment and the new dynamics of the threats that Europe encountered made impossible a traditional strategy document. The short period of time in which it was drafted must also be taken into account. It could be said that, although it is true that it had significant gaps, it was effective as it reinforced the North Atlantic alliance and helped with EU´s autonomy committed to a UN-centered multilateralism.

Most importantly, the publication of a common EU security strategy marked the entry of the EU into the 21st century and an gave it an impulse toward securitization. After the Second World War, the only securitized threat for Europe was the communism of the USSR, but “non-traditional” ones emerged and began to be securitized and seen as challenging, as it will be discussed later. 

The analysis of the mechanisms considered in this essay (Petersberg Declaration, Helsinki Headline Goals, and EU Global Strategy) shows how securitization of a growing number of issues has progressively taken place in the European Union. Peacekeeping was, as already mentioned, the first of them, chronologically considered.

The debate over the securitization of peace keeping missions and humanitarian aid policies which started in the EU with the documents mentioned above (Petersberg and Helsinki Headline Goals) also emerged on Western countries at the end of the last century in official speeches and political documents related to the issue of foreign humanitarian aid. According to the Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000, foreign aid is about developed and developing countries joining forces to try to reduce poverty and inequality by working to improve the impact of their efforts. This development assistance has become part of the architecture of global governance and is considered part of a broad and modern foreign policy that is not only limited to the promotion of national interests, but also wants to be part of the design of the international arena. The West identified at that time that the reason for civil wars or the fragility of some states was related to inadequate socio-economic development and weak governments or governance systems. The EU´s successful enrolment in the Yugoslav War (1991) with both military and humanitarian cooperation, helped ending the war and showed the importance of assistance in these cases to avoid a regional conflict and displaced refugees. It also portrayed the EU as a benchmark for peace, guarantor of human rights and a credible and strong partner in the fight for democracy and the rule of law. Several NGOs based on humanitarian-related aid emerged in this period, acting as functional actors. From this moment on, and its securitization, what we know today as "Human Security" began to be incorporated into the security policies of all the countries of the European Union. 

Leaving aside this relevant issue, securitization becomes further evident with the incorporation of other issues into the Security Strategy, which equals to labeling them as a “security concern”, precisely the point of securitization.

Securitised issues between the last 1990s and early 2000s

Terrorism is probably the most salient among these issues. As mentioned in the EUGS, as set out by Javier Solana, the former High Representative of the European Union for Common Foreign and Security Policy, religious terrorism is an important menace. The attacks suffered in the western world and carried out by Al-Qaeda or its affiliates turned terrorism into the main priority on the security agendas of both the EU and its members states from 2000 onwards and was consequently securitized. 

Religious terrorism meant a threat, not just to the security of the state, but also to that of civilians in Western Europe, so the securitization of the response to it affected the societal, military and political sectors, what raised concerns across the region because, as it is known, one of the characteristics of securitized issues is that there is a risk that non-democratic actions feel legitimized to curtail civil rights for the sake of “urgency”, something the securitizing actors use to suspend the democratic framework to manipulate the people.

Drawing from the Securitization Theory framework described earlier, we may find that, in this case, the referent object would be the terrorist threat and the consequent protection of the Western frontiers to avoid more Al-Qaeda attacks. The security actors would be all the governments of European countries (specially France, the UK and Spain), the EU institutions and the US, and their alarming discourses. And finally, the functional actors in this case would be the Armed Forces and Intelligence Services of those countries, and Western societies which influenced in the securitization of the new era of terrorism but also in the securitization of Arab culture and population which supposed the promotion of racism and excessive control on the movements of foreign individuals. The threat meant a menace for the EU as it was a new way of terrorism, globalized, fundamentalist, better planned and with a strong financial support from Middle East countries and the aim of destroying the Western world. It also left behind “traditional” terrorism based on nationalist sentiments, as was the case of the IRA in Ireland or ETA in Spain.

Energy security also changed the rules of the game in this era. During the Cold War the concern for energy security was opaque or even non-existent. It started to be securitized since the scarcity of energy resources had been seen as an existential problem that required emergency measures within the framework of a securitization process. The issue was largely politicized at the beginning of the 21st century. Perhaps this securitization process was only implicitly raised with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to the extent that the intervention may have been inspired by the need to overthrow a regime that had prevented the US and the EU access to the oil resources of Iraq and other Gulf countries5

The dependence of the Eastern half of Europe on Russian gas also posed a danger to the Union. Here the referent objects were the independence of Europe in terms of energy and a secure supply to its members. Using again the same theoretical framework, we may say that, in this case, the security actor was specially the EU as the policies have been implemented by it and the functional actors were all of the renewable energy companies that had emerged as a result of this and the trend of environmental and renewable energy awareness among society which was materialized in social groups that have become increasingly influential in state policies such as UNESA (Asociación Española de la Industria Eléctrica).

Immigration has also been a worry for the European Union for years. Between the 1950s and 1960s, immigrants were welcome in most Western European countries because both the economic and market situation required cheap and flexible human capital that was not available in the domestic markets. During this time, immigration was not a major concern for the European communities; the free movement of workers from non-member countries was marginal and irrelevant. It was not until the early 1990s that it began to become securitized and politicized because illegal immigration, the lack of jobs and the creation of ghettos in the main European cities and a kind of latent racism in the society not yet accustomed to multiculturalism began. As a result, debates began to emerge around terms such as asylum and illegal immigration. The first step towards securitization and regulation of this issue was the inclusion of the third pillar on Justice and Home Affairs in the Treaty on European Union (1992), which explicitly made migration a matter for intergovernmental regulation. However, dissatisfaction with this inter-state collaboration soon emerged. Finally, in the Treaty of Amsterdam, immigration, asylum, and refugee matters were ceded to the Union.

Although this kind of issues are human rights issues, in the 1990s immigration began to be identified with multiculturalism and, consequently, with social disintegration and danger to the “home culture”. This social phenomenon was blamed by both politicians and part of the population as one of the reasons for the weakening of national traditions and homogeneous societies, especially so in the context of a Europe that was beginning to grow after the Nazi invasion and the Jewish genocide.

The key moment for immigration concerns was March 7, 1991, when 27,000 Albanians landed in the cost of Italy in what was the first mass arrival of immigrants in the Union. The discourse used to securitize immigration was based on the political myth that at one time there was a homogeneous Western society that could be recovered at the beginning of the current millennium through the exclusion of those migrants who were identified as “aliens” or cultural invaders. In this case, the actors were the state governments and the EU with its transnational policy networks, and the functional ones were the press and the media as well as the most conservative sectors of population.

This time also witnessed the development of the Global Warming Security Theory. The Kyoto Protocol was a formal commitment by the signatory countries on December 11, 1997, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% over the period 2008-2012 compared to 1990 levels6. These emissions could lead to a global climate crisis with broad implications, ranged from the rise of seas to climate-led migration. The protocol was the ultimate exponent of securitization as it obliged the signatory countries to include policies such as research, promotion, development and increased use of new and renewable forms of energy; or the progressive reduction or phasing out of market failures, tax incentives, tax exemptions and subsidies which are contrary to the objective of the Convention, and as it was the first time that  public opinion was beginning to become aware of this issue, which had never been addressed before. 

The European Union began to securitize this issue to ensure public health and prevent the deterioration of its natural resources. The first steps taken were shortly after the release of the first summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990, climate change was first discussed by the European Council in the same year in preparation of the upcoming negotiations on the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). EU leaders agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions of the European Community at 1990 levels by 2000.

The functional actor here was the UN but also the creation of civil associations such as Greenpeace or influential people like the activist Jane Goodall who was named in 2002 Messenger of Peace at the United Nations by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, helped educating society.

As the analysis has shown, the EU has progressively proceeded to incorporate many issues of a non-military nature as security issues, enshrining them as such in official EU documents. To provide a rapid response to the new threats but, above all, to build the pillars of the new Europe in practice, which means, a Europe more and more prepared and aware of real problems and, consequently, of real solutions to them.


In conclusion, after the Cold War, Europe truly found itself in a totally different and novel panorama that coincided with the beginning of the new century. As has been pointed out throughout this essay, the Union's aim not only with the official documents mentioned but also with policies, strategies and laws that it has been developing until today, some more effective than others, have been to provide a rapid response to the new threats but, above all, to build the pillars of the new Europe in practice; as mentioned above, a Europe committed to human rights, to the security of its citizens and to being autonomous in every sense.

The reason for the “securitization” of these threats at that time is not because of their novelty, but because after two World Wars and the constant threat of the USSR, the region had more important problems to securitize and worry about at that moment due to Moscow’s ambition to take over the European continent and the intention to rebuild socially and economically a Europe devastated by the two World Wars. The end of the Cold War meant for Europe, as mentioned above, Europe's entry into the new century as a united Europe, with common values and objectives which, in turn, meant translating them into policies that benefited all equally and that favored the member countries. It also meant, of course, the EU’s irruption in the international arena as a reinforced and united player, which meant that it had to analyze the challenges it had to face in this new era to carve out a niche for itself in international relations. Now, it will only be a matter of time before the EU continues to address new security threats in the future. But what is clear is that Brussels needs a plan to shape it and to maintain its position as an important actor in the international arena.

1 (Williams 2003) E-International Relations.

2 (Eroukhmanoff 2018) Securitisation Theory: An Introduction.

3 Council of the European Union, 2009 Secretaría General del Consejo de la Unión Europea. «Estrategia Europea de Seguridad .» Bruselas.

4 (Toje 2005) «The 2003 EUSS: A Critical Appraisal.» Kluwer Law International 117-133.

(Mancera 2016) «Seguridad Energética de Estados Unidos a inicios del siglo XXI.» Universidad del Rosario

6 (Nations 1997) Protocolo de Kyoto de la convencion marco de las naciones unidas sobre el cambio climatico. Kyoto.