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Over troubled waters: The EU’s Maritime Security Strategy

The European Union Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS) of 2014, published more than a decade after the 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS), reflected a step-change in the mindset of many European navies. As the preceding ten years had been a period of relative calm following the end of the Cold War, many fleets began reducing their number of surface combatants as priorities changed and cuts to defence spending were made.

Yet this benign strategic context did not last long, and as state-based competition has returned to the seas, European navies and the European defence industry have found it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of the geopolitical environment. Indeed, as seen by the current Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian exports, the European Union (EU) is unable to provide a strong and timely response to protect its maritime interests at sea, especially its maritime commerce, and it will not have it without a serious naval expansion effort.

Although the EUMSS’s 2023 update improves the document, it did not go far enough in equipping the EU with an appropriate strategy for the current geopolitical context. In light of this, it is worth investigating how the EUMSS has evolved from 2014 to 2023, and what any future updates should address.

Evolution of the EUMSS

In its opening pages, the EUMSS declared that its purpose is ‘to secure the maritime security interests of the EU and its Member States against a plethora of risks and threats in the global maritime domain.’ It established four guiding principles (a cross-sectoral approach, functional integrity, respect for rules and principles, and maritime multilateralism) for European action at sea. In the document, the EU places priority on protecting itself against maritime security risks and threats, preserving freedom of navigation, and managing the bloc’s external maritime borders effectively.

In general, the updated document is a positive step leading the EU towards a more cohesive approach in securing its maritime environment. Furthermore, it is useful in providing a snapshot of the main threats to and strategic objectives of the EU. But the approach of ‘experimental governance’, providing considerable flexibility to establish cooperation where possible, resulted indirectly in a document drafted ‘à la carte’; it is based largely on the particular demands put forward by each member state and omitted aspects in which there was disagreement.

Even if the Royal Navy is no longer an EU navy, the EU should strengthen cooperation with London at least in Atlantic, Baltic and Black Sea waters, where the Royal Navy has upheld a strong naval presence. 

The 2023 update builds on the original by describing how the EU’s strategic environment has evolved (to now a much less cooperative one), and what threats and challenges the EU sees currently as the most pressing. In a departure from 2014, the update pays increased attention to critical maritime infrastructure, which is now considered a key priority. It also sets out to achieve ‘surface superiority, to project power at sea, to enable underwater control and to contribute to air defence’, and pushes for an annual EU-wide naval exercise and the implementation of ‘Coordinated Maritime Presence’, a concept first proposed in 2021. In another departure from 2014, the update acknowledges the Arctic as a region of primary interest in declaring that the EU will aspire to enhance maritime domain awareness and cooperation with Arctic coastal states.

However, the return of war on European soil has shown how Europe’s defence industry is largely inadequate to support all the initiatives put forward in the document, and the current state of some EU navies further indicates this will not be an easy task. Back in 2014, the Royal Navy was the main pillar of EU naval power, occupying a position akin to the United States (US) within NATO, although at a smaller scale. Now the Royal Navy is out of the picture, the rest of the EU’s navies find themselves needing to step up their shipbuilding efforts in order to fill the gap.

Towards a maritime strategy?

The 2023 update shares several of its predecessor’s shortcomings. What follows are three ways in which future updates can be improved. 

  1. State clearly the specific objectives wanting to be achieved and set out the proper means to do so

Neither the 2014 EUMSS nor its 2023 update can be called a strategy in the traditional sense. The 2023 update defines itself as ‘a framework for the EU to take further action’, and the 2014 EUMSS was more ‘a set of operating principles, without defining clear objectives.’ This, in part, stems from the fact that the decision-making process in the EU, including for Common Security and Defence Policy matters, requires unanimity among all 27 member states. Consequently, there are numerous areas in which agreement is not easy to find, with each member state bringing its own security concerns to the table.

The 2023 update pushes EU countries to ‘develop a full spectrum of maritime capabilities, making full use of the scope for cooperation under related EU initiatives’, which encompasses the above-mentioned objective of ‘surface superiority’. Although compelling, the document does not consider the different needs each individual EU navy has according to its own strategic environment, thus failing to provide clear objectives. Furthermore, the lack of reference to the EU defence industrial base neglects a vital pillar for the fulfilment of EU maritime ambitions. This is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s (UK) 2023 Defence Command Paper, which strives for a ‘new alliance’ with industry.

A successful EU maritime strategy should set out clearly the ends it sets to achieve, while making the entire spectrum of EU navies and maritime industry work in a united fashion to do so.

  1. Following this, future updates should include an adequate strategic picture of all bodies of water surrounding the EU

The continent is surrounded by several bodies of water, each with its own geopolitical context. Considering this, addressing each of them specifically seems sensible. An approach setting out the strategic environment of each region, followed by the assignment of regional roles for the navies based in them, could help strengthen the EUMSS, as well as popular opinion for navies themselves. Governments are much more inclined to favour defence spending increases if they believe the public is on their side. 

The ongoing crisis in the Black Sea and the naval blockade imposed by Russia on Ukrainian commercial vessels could have been addressed more effectively if the EUMSS provided set guidelines to act in the region. Such guidelines would be less effective in, for example, the Western Mediterranean, where EU concerns are focused on fighting terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking, but they could work for the Black Sea, a region of great commercial and geopolitical importance with just a single entrance. 

  1. Lastly, explore a clear division of labour between NATO and the EU in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security

This is perhaps one of the most prominent shortfalls of the update, but also one of the biggest challenges facing the EU. There needs to be a clear division of labour between NATO and the EU, given the different capabilities and strategic interests of the two. Both in 2014 and 2023, the EUMSS stressed how ‘the Union’s capacity to cooperate with the UN [and] NATO…has a direct impact on its ability to safeguard its interests and to strengthen regional and international maritime security.’ But it fails to go any deeper than this. 

If the EU wishes to become an influential maritime power able to protect its territorial waters, it will need to coordinate better with NATO (and especially the UK) in maintaining the security of the Euro-Atlantic region; defining exactly who does what will maximise results and avoid duplicity of efforts. Even if the Royal Navy is no longer an EU navy, the EU should strengthen cooperation with London at least in Atlantic, Baltic and Black Sea waters, where the Royal Navy has upheld a strong naval presence

Additionally, the EU should also look for ways to cooperate with the Turkish Navy, which holds the keys to the Black Sea, and especially with NATO. For the latter, a possible option could be for the alliance to focus more on deterrence and collective defence missions, while the EU deals with more small-scale operations such as enforcing maritime governance. Carrying all these out, however, will not be simple, especially in light of the need for unanimous agreement amongst all member states.


The 2014 EUMSS and its 2023 update demonstrate the growing awareness of EU countries of the need to defend their interests at sea. After decades of low defence spending and shrinking fleets, renewed geopolitical competition demands that EU countries enhance their maritime forces. Although neither of the two documents can be considered a true maritime strategy, both describe current threats and challenges to EU interests, provide a framework for the EU to build on in the future, and most importantly, demonstrate the bloc’s willingness to increase its naval strength to protect its interests.

Yet, as stated by Jim Holmes, Chair of Maritime Strategy at the US Naval War College, ‘the contender that knows what it wants, conceives a clear strategy to get it, and prosecutes that strategy with zeal enjoys an advantage over a rudderless opponent.’ In other words, the EUMSS should not just cater to the lowest common denominator of political agreement amongst the bloc’s 27 member states, but aim to comprehensively use each aspect these differing navies bring to the table, something which would advance the EU’s goal of achieving ‘surface priority’ and ultimately, protecting its maritime interests.

Gonzalo Vazquez holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Navarre. He will be working as an Intern at the Crisis Management and Disaster Response Centre of Excellence in Sofia, Bulgaria, until March 2024.

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