This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2016

Belgium – Brussels: The increasingly volatile neighbourhood means that the European Union has to step up its game and implement a comprehensive security policy.

In the ever more interconnected world the lines between defence and sectorial policies such as energy are blurring – and to remain an independent player in the region we need both.

2016 will mark the fifth year of the European Union governance under the Lisbon Treaty. In politics, five years makes a world of difference. EU should shed its growing pains and fully embrace its ambitious regional and global role – for the sake of Europeans and for our neighbours. All of us, whether in the East or the South, have learned the hard way that whenever EU is not there to take the lead, instability ensures.

In order to act according to its interests and principles the EU must reinforce its political independence. To do so, it would require a right strategy, a smart mix of hard and soft power instruments as well as the will to use them at its disposal.

The Juncker Comission undertook a strenuous effort to reinvigorate European economy. While it is the first step towards reinforcing EU’s global position, it is still not enough. A brief glance on our neighbourhood unveils a multitude of new challenges that require better coordination of external policies, notably in the realm of defence and energy.

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The new security challenges coming from Russia and the jihadi extremists put a spotlight on the military policy. During the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, the Alliance members, most of whom are also the EU Member States, reaffirmed their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. Yet several governments have a problem following through that pledge, utilising their economic woes as an excuse for this negligence.

A stronger effort, reinforcing the existing capabilities and filling in the gaps in crucial areas such as air transport or resilience against the hybrid warfare is needed.  It would be wise to analyse the possibility of European budgetary mechanisms that would support the efforts of those countries that carry out their share of burden.

A smart defence policy would narrow the gaps between the “Atlanticists” and proponents of a “Europe of defence”. If we forego the usual Brussels fixation on new institutions and instead concentrate the effort on the capabilities on the ground, a stronger, strategically independent EU should be very much welcomed by any American administration. The United States are tired of bearing the disproportionate burden within NATO and would like to see the Europeans to be capable of conducting stabilising efforts in the own neighbourhood.

If the EU wants to be a true global player it has to bring more to the table. The ability to conduct and sustain a stabilising mission in the region is not a vain instrument of power, but  a key element of a comprehensive foreign policy and a tool to secure European borders.

Yet a functioning military is but an instrument, requiring political will to be used. The increasingly, interconnected, hybrid nature of security renders any distinctions between high and low policy meaningless.

To retain necessary freedom of action the European Union and its Member States need security in crucial policy sectors: financial, alimentary or the energy. Out of all these, the latter is especially prone to geopolitical blackmail and manipulation, mainly due to the low flexibility of demand and the crucial role of undisrupted energy flows in modern industry. An energetically independent EU, relying on a mix of indigenous resources and diversified external supplies, would be able to conduct a more united foreign policy, free from fears of its Member states. Countries would be less tempted to pursue crony deals with the Kremlin or subdue to unlawful pressures of the monopolist provider Gazprom.

A stronger, more independent Europe would find it easier to speak with one voice on most crucial issues. A comprehensive security strategy could not only be limited to the twenty eight Member States but also become an instrument of the neighbourhood transformation.

Aiding the modernisation of the armed forces and border police, reinforcing civilian control and accountability of the military or revamping the energy sector  – these are potential areas of cooperation with the most advanced countries of the European Neighbourhood Policy such as Ukraine. Should the EU help stabilise the situation with its main partners, it would strengthen its own security.

It is chaos and the “might is right”” policy that threaten peace and prosperity in the region. European Union must be ready to tackle the root causes of these woes, not just to put a Band-Aid on the symptoms.

An ambitious, yet realistic security policy requires courage and the readiness to bear the short-term costs. It is a sign of political maturity.

If the European Union wants to be treated as a player and not only a payer on the global scene, it is high time for it to grow up and present a unified external front in all matters of defence, energy or neighbourhood policy. Otherwise, it invites others to exploit its own weakness and divisions.