Navigating Through Threat Perceptions in Europe
Navigating Through Threat Perceptions in Europe

By Marcin Terlikowski

What are the primary conclusions of the EU's Evolving Concept of Security (EvoCS) project? Two of the more prominent ones are that 1) notions of security continue to drift from state-centric to citizen-based models, and 2) state and regional conceptions of security are intimately linked to perceptions of state-stability.

How exactly do Europeans differ in their threat perceptions? What are the causes of these differences and how are they evolving? Can they be negotiated to find a common denominator? These questions were at the centre of the project “The Evolving Concept of Security: A Critical Evaluation Across Four Dimensions (EvoCS)”, funded under the 7th Framework Programme (Grant Agreement No. 605142). The project lasted 18 months and concluded on 30 November 2015. Intensive work of a consortium consisting of nine research institutions from across the EU, including PISM, provided valuable insight into the divergences in threat perceptions of individual member states and regions of the EU.

The EvoCS project deployed a robust methodology to map and quantify security discourse in selected EU member states and candidate countries. Designed exclusively for EvoCS, the methodological framework was used to analyse a set of primary sources that were deemed the most representative in influencing national security discourse: government policy documents; parliamentary publications; academic publications; newspaper articles; private sector publications; and NGO publications. Over 3,000 documents were screened according to main dimensions of security: core values to be protected from threats (these were: physical safety and security, territorial integrity and security, environmental and ecological security, social stability and security, cultural identity and security, political stability and security, economic prosperity and security, and information and cyber security); the threats themselves; the hierarchy of actors that are seen as the most capable of addressing them; and the relations between security and human rights. The results shed light on the landscape of threat perceptions within the EU.

First, the concept of security in the EU is clearly undergoing a shift from a state-centric model to one focused on the citizen. In the majority of the analysed countries and regions, the most salient core values were directly linked to the safety of individuals rather than the security of the state, understood as its structures. Under the core value “physical safety and security”, which topped – though it did not clearly dominate – security discourse in all regions but the Eastern EU border, very divergent threats were indicated as security challenges. Among them were: corruption, natural hazards, cyber crime, road accidents, terrorism, both organised and petty crime, energy and food supply, and illegal migration. While some of these issues indeed relate to the individual security of citizens (for instance road accidents or petty crime), the others, like terrorism or disruptions in energy supply, have been traditionally seen as a threat to the state. Now they seem to be discussed mostly through the perspective of their respective effects on the functioning of individual citizens, not the state. This suggests that in popular perception, the state is seen as relatively secure and impenetrable, while it is individuals who are perceived as being the most affected by security threats . Consequently, one may argue that the security concept in the EU is increasingly aligning to the theoretical paradigm of human security, which – broadly speaking – puts the individual rather than the state or the international system at the centre of security (citizens become the “referent object” of security). What further confirms this assumption is the endurance of core values – and threats – linked to economic growth and political stability. According to the EvoCS results, one the biggest security concerns of all Europeans is economic downturn resulting in unemployment and failure of state-provided welfare and social services.

Second, the results of EvoCS suggest that differences in security concepts between individual member states and regions of the EU are linked to society’s perception of state stability . The best illustration of this argument comes from the comparison of the eastern EU border with the northwestern EU regions. In the case of the latter, the emphasis in security discourse is put on terrorism, cybersecurity and natural hazards; these are the most important threats to a whole set of core values, that which represent the physical and economic safety of citizens. The Eastern European member states concentrate their security discourse on the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s provocative policy towards the former communist bloc; both are seen as threats to survival, independence and territorial integrity of the state, understood as an organisation. In the eastern countries, terrorism, cybercrime and natural hazards are barely present in the regional debate. Consequently, the main difference seems to be in the fact that in the border region of the EU, the state is seen by citizens as largely weak, prone to external coercion and consequently insecure. Meanwhile, in Europe’s west, states are perceived as relatively strong and resilient to existential threats.

This divergence can be explained not only by the obvious differences in geopolitical position but also by also the turbulent history of Central and Eastern Europe countries, and – even more importantly – by the still-unfinished economic and political transformation. Over the 20th century, these states have experienced dramatic border changes, suffered under communist regimes and, most recently, have been through the difficult process of building a market economy, democratic government and civil society. Each of these is well advanced but far from finished. While these EU member states have lain the cornerstones of liberal democracy, but the institutions, regulations and political culture are underdeveloped and prone to various abuses.

Finally, the EvoCS results prove that citizens across Europe expect the state, rather than the European Union, to address security threats . In all analysed regions, security discourse designated the national government as the most proper level of action to fight threats, improve resilience or recover from damages. They rarely address the European Union as an actor. In other words, security is perceived across Europe exclusively through a national lens. Even if threats are properly defined as transnational (like terrorism, natural hazards, organised crime, etc.), participants of the security discourse rarely see a role for the EU, or other international organszations for that matter, in fighting them. This may come as a surprise given that today’s international security policy could not exist without organisations like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Alliance, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union. Digging deeper into the results of EvoCS one may find, however, that expert-level sources (e.g., academic analyses, governmental documents) do address the EU in their discourse about security threats. This suggests that the genuine problem is not the lack of relevancy, but limited visibility of the EU’s efforts aimed at increasing security, for instance, regarding cooperation to fight terrorism or assistance in cases of natural disasters.

The above-described findings of EvoCS pertain to policies of the EU. To begin with, the EU should address the increasing focus of security discourse on the individual safety of its citizens rather than the state. If security is mostly seen in today’s Europe through the perspective of an individual person, including physical safety and economic wellbeing, the EU should rethink its policies according to that phenomenon. Already the EU is guided by the focus on increasing integration benefits to the average citizen. The currency union, Schengen zone, competitiveness regulations, and customer protection laws are designed in a way to bring tangible fruits for all EU citizens. Meanwhile, Euroscepticism is rising across the EU and the organisation itself is not popularly recognised as an actor that can adequately respond to security threats – a fact also found by the EvoCS project. This situation calls for rethinking both the goals of some policies and, maybe more importantly, the way they are presented to the wider public. The public, it seems, benefits from the European project every day without really acknowledging that fact.

Regarding differences in threat perceptions, the EU has no other choice than to acknowledge them and accommodate all sensitivities and concerns of its member states. Over the years, the EU has developed robust mechanisms to help fight terrorism, deal with the effects of natural hazards and combat organised crime (though the visibility problem is strong, as suggested above). Now, with the rise of the migration issue and the growing fear of the return of Russian imperialism among the Eastern EU member states, the EU cannot remain silent. Concerning the latter issues, the argument that defence is the role of NATO is not valid. If Russia is to repeat a hybrid war scenario against any of the EU members, the Union will not only have the political weight and legal obligation (Art 42.7 TEU) but also non-military tools to react and assist the victim. It requires, however, breaking the strategic taboo and admitting that the EU is able to deal with a full spectrum of security threats featured in the security discourse of its member states.

The results of the EvoCS project are publically available at the official website of EvoCS:

Available at

Helmsman Ruler: China's Pragmatic Version of Plato's Ideal Political Succession System in the Republic

Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe

The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs