A European Peace Facility to Bolster European Foreign Policy?

Over the past decade, the European Union has taken steps to expand its defense and security footprint. In this context, a paradoxical situation has emerged in the European Union’s peace and stabilization efforts abroad. While the bloc is the largest provider of humanitarian and development aid worldwide and a major provider of military training missions abroad (with currently three missions mobilizing more than 1,000 personnel), it has lacked the means to provide military aid and equipment directly to partners so they can provide for their own security.

Europeans were, for example, taken by surprise in January 2018 when Russia started to deliver light weapons to the government of the Central African Republic (CAR). Despite considerable European effort to support the country’s reconstruction and stabilization, including through its EU Military Training Mission in Central African Republic (EUTM-RCA), Moscow was able to gain substantial influence over the CAR government with limited resources.

This gap could soon be filled by the newly adopted European Peace Facility (EPF), on which EU member states reached an agreement in the final days of 2020. Initially proposed by former high representative Federica Mogherini in 2018, the facility aims to expand the toolbox of European foreign policy by allowing the European Union to supply military equipment or infrastructure to partners indirectly. Although many roadblocks still lie ahead— including over its practical implementation—this instrument provides both more options for EU external action and new venues for transatlantic cooperation in response to crises of common interest.

Completing the European Union’s Crisis Management Arsenal

The European Union has always promoted and implemented an integrated approach to addressing crisis situations through the development-security nexus. However, this has been hampered by the bloc’s inability to supply defense-related equipment to its partners. Although it has deployed thousands of personnel in military training missions (EUTM) in Mali, CAR, and Somalia, the European Union has lacked the authority and resources to effectively equip the armed forces trained through these missions (or train them on proper equipment), creating a security vacuum often filled by other, less benevolent actors such as Russia.

This was partly due to a legal limitation stemming from article 41(2) of the Treaty on European Union, which prohibits the Union’s budget from funding “expenditure arising from operations having military or defense implications.” This treaty provision was reinforced by a restrictive interpretation from the European Commission, reflecting political reservations concerning EU involvement in defense-related matters, in addition to reservations among some member states.

Nevertheless, Europeans were motivated to overcome these legal and political hurdles when they realized they had to respond to a rapidly deteriorating security environment and put real funding behind their ambitions. In June 2018, then-high representative Federica Mogherini proposed the creation of EPF that would enable the European Union to take on more responsibility as a “ security provider in our region and beyond.” The facility is built on three pillars drawing upon existing instruments. First, it will cover the common costs of EU military missions and operations, encompassing and widening the scope of the existing Athena mechanism. Such operations include EUTM Mali, EUTM Central African Republic, or Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. Second, the EPF will financially support military peacekeeping operations led by local partners around the world, replacing and expanding to a global scale the African Peace Facility. Third, and most importantly, the EPF will be an “off-budget” instrument not subject to EU rules. This will allow the European Union to finance the provision of military equipment from member states and third parties, infrastructure, or training to partner countries’ armed forces, therefore expanding the EU external action toolbox.

EPF’s Success Will Require Focus and Strong Oversight

Defense and security issues remain politically sensitive among EU member states, and negotiations leading up to the creation of the EPF proved difficult. Even though an agreement has been reached, the implementation of this new instrument will require special attention, primarily over the definition of its priorities as well as the oversight of its assistance measures.

Given the widened scope of the instrument, member states will need to define clear priorities and focus on the most pressing crises where the European Union is already engaged in advisory and training activities—notably in the Sahel—while preserving enough margin to address unexpected situations. Although seemingly technical, the EPF is a strategic tool that will require a proper political strategy to reach its fullest potential.

In terms of ambition level, the high representative initially proposed a budget of €10.5 billion ($12.7 billion) over seven years (2021-2027 budget), but member states ultimately allocated €5 billion ($6 billion) for the facility. Even though the total amount was downscaled from initial requests, it still represents an increase of €2 billion ($2.4 billion) over previous instruments (African Peace Facility and Athena mechanism). Europeans could therefore dedicate up to €300 million ($362 million) per year to capacity-building measures worldwide, though there is no ceiling and this allocation could fluctuate based on the other pillars’ needs. In comparison, the United States spent $465 million in 2019 on security assistance to Sub-Saharan African countries alone. This reinforces the potential value of the EPF in supplementing U.S. security assistance efforts—provided EU efforts are well focused—and the need for a coherent strategy in which the EPF fits.

The other implementation challenge will be to ensure robust monitoring of the facility’s defense-related assistance measures. This issue was at the core of the disagreements among member states, with several “neutral” countries, such as Ireland, refusing to fund the provision of military equipment. In addition to the reservations from some member states, numerous civil society organizations also strongly opposed the delivery of lethal weapons through the EPF, fearing that the European Union could fuel conflicts and human rights abuses.

Sympathetic to these legitimate concerns, member states introduced safeguards to ensure compliance with international standards, notably through risk assessments, traceability measures, and post-shipment controls. Respecting these safeguards will be key to building trust in the EPF from member states and civil society. A compromise was also reached over “neutral” countries’ concerns: an exemption mechanism allows member states unwilling to fund such military equipment to abstain while increasing their contributions to other non-military assistance measures so as to preserve a form of financial solidarity.

The Need for Transatlantic Cooperation

It is no secret that many in Washington have doubts about European defense, “strategic autonomy,” and their potential for duplication of and decoupling from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As some transatlantic experts have put it, “U.S. leaders have long viewed the EU as just another complicated, multilateral bureaucracy.” Some EU member states themselves have raised concerns regarding duplication and decoupling.

However, the EPF could both benefit from and support greater transatlantic cooperation. More streamlined and expanded European military and peacekeeping efforts abroad could complement and ultimately amplify U.S. security assistance efforts, provided that Europe and the United States consult each other and coordinate their approaches toward crises of mutual interest. Early action could also prevent a security situation from deteriorating to a point where the United States would have to intervene militarily or provide heavier support to European partners.

This is promising in regions such as the Sahel, where the EPF could more easily support and finance the G5 Sahel Joint Force and where capacity building of local forces could bolster training efforts that had, until then, not always been able to train security forces on appropriate equipment. Such improvements in training capacity could also be useful from a U.S. perspective in Iraq, to support existing NATO and EU missions there, in the Gulf of Guinea where local navies are under-equipped to address rising acts of piracy, or in CAR, to reduce reliance on Russian military equipment.

Transatlantic dialogue over the EPF could also ensure a high level of accountability and respect for human rights. Indeed, the United States could share with the European Union its longstanding best practices on provision of military assistance and arms transfer—serial numbers on weapons, approval process for partners, among others—so that the EPF is implemented as carefully as possible. Conversely, some experts have argued that U.S. security assistance has focused too heavily on the provision of military equipment and training. As the European Union tends to tackle governance issues first and military build-up later, transatlantic dialogue over the EPF could help find the right balance to use such tools.


The EPF holds promise to plug the gaps in the European Union’s foreign and security policy toolkit and support its ambitions on the global stage beyond economic power. However, expectations should be right-sized: the funding allocated for the next seven years remains limited, and, importantly, there will be bumps along the implementation road in these early years, requiring political will from both EU institutions and the member states.

EU counterparts will need to explain clearly what the facility is—and what it is not—to ensure buy-in from U.S. policymakers. This will require clear examples of the gaps the EPF is aiming to fill and how these new tools support transatlantic security priorities. Working together, Europe and the United States can identify concrete areas where the EPF and U.S. security assistance tools could be mutually reinforcing. Here again, right-sizing ambitions and a strong transatlantic dialogue will be crucial.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

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Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Pierre Morcos