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Smaller EU Member States and How They Navigate International Security Frameworks – the Case of Portugal and Estonia

Written by: Carmen Mitrea & Catarina Silva

Edited by: Jake Gasson

Supervised by: Syuzanna Kirakosyan

This paper delves deeper into the often-overlooked role of smaller member states within international and regional security and defence frameworks by exploring their experiences and strategic choices within the EU and NATO security and defence frameworks. It is essential to understand how smaller member states’ interests often differ significantly from those of larger members.

Despite their constrained power and relatively modest economic and military resources in comparison to larger neighbours, small states hold certain advantages that enhance their capacity to influence global affairs. While they may lack the military and economic might as larger nations, their persistence, determination, and steadfastness can yield significant outcomes. Effective policymaking can elevate a small state into an influential player on the international stage.

This paper will analyse two case studies: Portugal and Estonia. The Portuguese case highlights NATO’s crucial role in safeguarding its defence and at times contradictory stance on European strategic autonomy. Estonia serves as a compelling case study for understanding how smaller member states navigate and contribute to international security institutions, especially within NATO and the EU, given its strategic location and proactive defence efforts.

Through reviewing previous research, this analysis aims not only to contribute to the scholarly understanding of European security dynamics but also to offer practical implications for policymakers and smaller EU member states striving to optimise their impact within the broader framework of common security and defence initiatives.

This analysis will not discuss why small states join, or the power dynamics within or outside the EU and NATO, as these topics have been extensively researched by scholars (Reiter & Gärtner, 2001; Keohane, 1971; Hey, 2003; Walt, 1997). This phenomena can be explained by Shelter Theory, which examines how smaller states address challenges from limited capabilities by aligning with larger alliances and institutions (Thorhallsson, 2019). Instead of exploring the ‘why’, this article will focus on the ‘how’, aiming to clarify the methods and strategies small states employ to maximize their influence within the EU and NATO.