Comparative European Politics

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 860–884 | Cite as

The EU’s maritime operations and the future of European Security: learning from operations Atalanta and Sophia

  • Peter Dombrowski
  • Simon ReichEmail author
Original Article


The study of maritime operations has generally been neglected in a European Security and Defense Policy debate that often focuses on political will, bureaucratic incoherence, and military interoperability. Nonetheless, maritime operations have played an increasingly important role in the last decade and deserve deeper analysis. First, they provide a valuable optic for identifying a dynamic change in policy priorities over time. Second, they suggest the conditions under which the EU can and cannot fulfill the Brussels leadership’s avowed role as a “global player.” Finally, they also illustrate the EU’s presiding tensions when it comes to external challenges: between rhetoric and behavior, institutionally with NATO, and of the shifting political priorities among national governments. In this article, we compare the EU’s two major maritime operations. The first, Atalanta, is a counter-piracy multilateral operation in cooperation with NATO and non-EU states off the Somali coast. The second, Sophia, has evolved from search and rescue to thwarting migrant flows in the Mediterranean. Among several conclusions, we suggest that the evolution of maritime operations demonstrates an increasing gap—between the EU’s rhetoric of having a global strategy and its regional operational security focus.


European Union Maritime operations Global strategy Regional strategy Counter-piracy Operation Atalanta Immigration and refugee asylum Operation Sophia Common Security and Foreign Policy European Security and Defense Policy 



The authors wish to thank NATO and European Union officials who consented to anonymous interviews, Marianne Peron-Doise, and the editors of and reviewers for Comparative European Studies who provided suggestions. Simon Reich wrote this paper while a visiting fellow at IRSEM in Paris, generously funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Naval War CollegeNewportUSA
  2. 2.Rutgers NewarkNewarkUSA

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