How European security is changing


Migration policy, economic and trade policy, health policy, technology policy, and climate policy are increasingly being thought of in terms of “security”. But different things may be taking place in each of these policy areas – from the application of military tools to a shift away from a liberal paradigm to a more defensive approach, to the invocation of security to push for extraordinary measures that bypass democratic decision-making processes.


What security is is changing. Since the end of the Cold War, debates about security among both academics and policymakers have shifted away from traditional military or state security towards a broader conception of what security is – including, for example, ideas like ‘human security’. More recently, there has been a widespread perception of a ‘return of great power competition’ and even renewed fears about great power war – in other words, a resurgence of traditional security debates that many hoped and believed were a thing of the past. At the same time, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the concept of ‘security’ has also been increasingly applied to other areas like economic and health policies.

These complex and parallel developments raise a number of difficult questions. First, does the changing way in which the concept of ‘security’ is used – and in particular the way we now increasingly speak of ‘economic security’ and ‘health security’ – reflect a changing reality or rather simply a changing perception of reality? Second, are these changes in the way we think about security helpful or not? In other words, is the redefinition of security that seems to be taking place leading to good policy responses and making citizens more secure, or is it rather unhelpfully ‘securitizing’ policy areas and possibly undermining democracy in the process?

Part of the reason that these questions are difficult to answer is that there are different developments taking place in different policy areas. In this article, we briefly analyse developments in five policy areas: migration policy, economic and trade policy, health policy, technology policy, and climate policy. We argue that there are at least three separate developments taking place, though it is often quite difficult to disentangle them – and more than one development may be taking place in each policy area. The analysis focuses on developments in Europe (defined broadly as including countries like the UK that are outside the European Union), which may be different from those taking place elsewhere.

Five policy areas, three trends

In migration policy, the clearest development that is taking place, in particular since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, is the militarisation of borders in Europe – in particular, the militarisation of the EU’s external border. The removal of borders within Europe was once seen by some as a step towards a borderless world, but since 2015 the EU seems to have concluded that the internal removal of borders requires a much harder external border than was previously the case. In particular, since the ‘refugee crisis’, the EU has massively invested in Frontex, its border agency, which describes itself as ‘Europe’s first uniformed service’ that ‘helps guarantee free movement without internal borders checks that many of us take for granted’. In short, we are seeing an application to migration policy of military tools, including armed border guards.

Something different seems to be taking place in economic policy. For the last three or four decades since the end of the Cold War, economic policy has been dominated by (neo-)liberal assumptions. But these are now increasingly being challenged and a shift may be taking place away from this macroeconomic paradigm. The reasons for this are complex – in part, a domestic backlash against this paradigm, particularly from the ‘losers’ or ‘left behind’ (in other words those who have suffered from the distributional consequences of the economic and especially trade policies of the last 30-40 years going back to the ‘neoliberal turn’), and in part a sense among analysts and policymakers that a different set of more protectionist policies are required in order to compete with China as a ‘systemic rival’.

These two different drivers of an economic paradigm shift have become even more tightly connected since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. The pandemic led to both an increased demand for a new economic paradigm and a sense of intensified competition with China (and in the EU, to a lesser extent, with the United States). However, because the set of rules governing economic and in particular trade policy was set during the earlier period of (neo-)liberal hegemony, they restricted the ability of states to pursue what were seen as protectionist policies in order to redistribute and created exceptions only for security reasons. This has created a structural pressure on nation states to present economic policies in terms of security.

Here, however, the EU may be an outlier. During the last few decades, the EU has gone even further than the rest of the world has in creating rules around economic policy – at least internally. In particular, the EU’s fiscal rules may prevent its Member States from borrowing to invest and its state aid rules may prevent them from experimenting with new kinds of industrial policy. Therefore, the EU may be structurally constrained from making the kind of paradigm shift in economic policy that many now think is necessary. In particular, despite the rhetoric about a more ‘geopolitical’ EU, it may be limited in the extent to which it can think of economic policy in terms of security – sometimes to the regret of security establishments, as is the case for debates around 5G for example.

In health policy, something similar may be happening as in economic policy. During the last three or four decades, health policy has been approached in a rather liberal way. Across Europe, though to different degrees and in different ways, market principles have been introduced into health systems. In many cases such as the UK, this has involved privatizing what were previously state functions in health care. But since the pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on renationalising (or in the case of the EU ‘re-regionalising’) supply chains, in particular for personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines, which is presented in terms of ‘health security’. COVID-19 has also reinforced the need to better include pandemic preparedness in national security planning.

A very similar trend seems to be taking place in technology policy, which like health policy is now increasingly viewed in a defensive, protectionist way rather than the liberal way it was previously seen. For example, the production of semiconductors was previously viewed in economic liberal terms – in other words, they should be produced wherever they can be produced most efficiently. But analysts and policymakers increasingly see technology as central to the competition between China and the United States – or even more broadly between authoritarian states and democracies. As in health policy, there is an increasing focus on a shared approach among allies and on the ‘resilience’ of supply chains for technology. A similar shift is taking place on the management of data flows and the need to think harder – and maybe, be less naive – about the security impact of our online life.

Finally, in climate policy, something different seems to be taking place. Here, there is neither an attempt to apply military tools (notwithstanding the fact that some national European militaries, as well as NATO, are increasingly interested in climate security, for instance regarding the ability to train and fight in altered weather conditions, notably extreme heat)  nor a paradigm shift away from liberalism (though some, especially on the left, do question whether it is possible to prevent catastrophic climate change unless we abandon economic liberalism and much of the debate about green investment is closely connected to debates about an economic paradigm shift). Rather, what is striking is the increasing talk of a ‘climate emergency’ – with its implication of the need to suspend normal democratic decision-making – and of the need to take extraordinary measures to prevent catastrophic climate change. However, for the time being, such rhetoric on climate change is not matched by relevant extraordinary emergency measures. 

Across these five policy areas, in other words, there seem to be at least three developments taking place that are reshaping how we think about security in Europe. The difficult question is whether each of these developments is a ‘good’ thing or not, i.e. whether they actually make European citizens more secure in an appropriate way. In other words, is it a good idea to militarize the EU’s borders, to shift away from the earlier liberal paradigm in economic, health and technology policy and frame the shift in terms of ‘security’, or to invoke an emergency in order to be able to take more drastic measures to prevent climate change?

The limits of securitization theory

One way of thinking about these issues is what academics call ‘securitization’ – the situation when something is identified in rhetoric as an existential threat to some object, specifying a point of no return, that legitimizes the use of extraordinary measures and pushes the issue higher on the political and policy agenda. The response to COVID-19 can be seen as an example of securitization – the existential threat to human beings but also healthcare systems was used to legitimize lockdowns and social distancing requirements.

However, securitization theory – in particular, the work of the Copenhagen School around Ole Wæver – does not on its own help us to answer when it is right to ‘securitize’ and, even, when there is a duty to ‘securitize’ (as could be the case for climate change). It is an analytical rather than a normative theory, which therefore also limits its usefulness to policymakers, who are faced with a difficult balancing act between a diversification of threats and limited resources. What we therefore need is an understanding of when framing policy in terms of ‘security’ is helpful, legitimate and necessary and when it is not – or, to put it differently, a theory and toolbox of ‘just securitization’.


This article is based on a workshop organised by Chatham House and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in November 2021, which brough together participants from all over Europe from the five policy areas as well as defence experts.