March 10, 2022

The EU’s Strategic Compass: A Guide to Reverse Strategic Shrinkage?

French soldier hoists the European flag in front of the European Parliament, in Strasbourg.
French soldier hoists the European flag in front of the European Parliament, in Strasbourg.

The EU Strategic Compass provides an opportunity to pre-empt the logjams that have held EU foreign policy back for too long. But one should never underestimate the debilitating capacity of the EU to divide itself. However, the EU’s firm response to Russia’s full-blown war in Ukraine is a welcome and much needed change from such practices.

“We Europeans should take our fate into our own hands”. Alluding to difficulties with US President Donald Trump, Brexit, and the confluence of security crises on and around the continent affecting the EU, Angela Merkel captured the collectivemood in European capitals in 2017.

The phrase has been repeated many times since and the international developments that have followed, from China’s sabre-rattling in its near abroad to the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, have reinforced the belief that more unity is required in the EU’s supposedly ‘common’ foreign and security policy; that member states and EU institutions alike must invest in their capacity to think, decide and act in strategic terms – “together with our partners and on our own when needed”, as the tagline of the concept of ‘European strategic autonomy’ goes.

With geopolitical change picking up speed, the case for collective action has indeed become more urgent and compelling. The pressures on Europe are intensifying and the capacity of individual member states to cope is declining. Faced with strategic shrinkage, ‘Europe is in danger’, as the High Representative Borrell has been saying for months. Indeed, the EU cannot afford to be a bystander in an increasingly competitive strategic environment, always being principled but seldom relevant. The Union needs to defend its own interests, project its presence in the world, and promote security in its neighbourhood and with its partners. The question is whether the policy mix currently being proposed will be able to correct the EU’s current trajectory.

The Policy Response

For its part, the self-styled ‘geopolitical’ Commission has launched an ambitious agenda to shore up European strategic autonomy by cataloguing dependencies and vulnerabilities, and proposing bold initiatives to digitalise and green the economy, reinvigorate Europe’s industrial policy, and diversify its energy sources. In a world in which issues previously belonging to the realm of low politics, such as transport and telecoms (cf. 5G), have come to characterise great power rivalry, the competences attributed to the European Commission, and the management of a €2 trillion budget for seven years (2021-27), can indeed make a difference in defining the international position of the EU. But in its strategic communication, the Commission would be well advised to dial down the rhetoric in areas where it cannot meet expectations.

In the area of defence cooperation, the 2016 EU Global Strategy (EUGS) had already sparked a renaissance. On the back of increases in defence spending to meet the 2% goal agreed within NATO, the EUGS has not only led to the pooling and sharing of member states’ capability development plans monitored by the European Defence Agency through a coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) to rationalise military spending and identify possible collaborative projects. The new elan has also produced a slow but steady dynamic in permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) to increase the capabilities and interoperability of European armed forces. More than a third of the 61 projects benefit from seed money drawn straight from the EU’s general budget and managed by the Commission’s new Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS) through the European Defence Fund (EDF).

But with many of the initiatives focused on capability development and defence industrial cooperation, the strategic dimension of the budding ‘European Defence Union’ has largely been neglected. In the meantime, the EU has 7 military operations and 11 civilian missions deployed around Africa and the European neighbourhood. And while the level of the EU’s economic warfare to counter Russia’s unprovoked and full-blown invasion of Ukraine, and the promise of EUR 450 Million worth of ‘lethal aid’ in support of the latter, may indeed mark a watershed moment for the European peace project, leaders of mainly western EU member states will also have to ask themselves how they have so badly misread Putin’s intentions.

Designing a Strategic Compass

In June 2020, the member states tasked the High Representative to start a two-year reflection process to develop a ‘Strategic Compass’ to guide the implementation of the security and defence dimension of the EU Global Strategy.

The objective of the Strategic Compass is to propose operational guidelines to enable the EU to become a more fully-fledged security provider. Four strands of work have been identified as being key to the assignment at hand: how the EU manages crisis; how it enhances resilience; capability development; and strategic partnerships.

Drawing on the first-ever shared assessment of the threats and challenges the Union faces, a draft paper was presented to the Council in November 2021. Some of the language has subsequently been amended to reflect the worsening relationship with Russia and the growing military capacity of China. The final text of the Strategic Compass is supposed to be presented to the European Council on 23-24 March 2022 but, given the volatility of international affairs, one should not exclude further changes to the text or indeed a postponement of the date of adoption.

In view of the return of power politics, characterised by increased transactionalism, fluid partnerships, the weaponization of economic interdependences, hybrid warfare, and attacks on the ‘global commons’, the draft document recognises the need for a more total defence of Europe, premised on an all-encompassing concept of security. Whereas the EU will continue to favour dialogue geared toward multilateral solutions, it is abundantly clear that the Union will have to strengthen its defensive and expeditionary capabilities and invest in new technologies to be able to back up diplomacy by force when needed. Here, the Strategic Compass is expected to provide direction. The challenge will be to collect the funds needed to attain the level of ambition.

Where additional capabilities are needed, partners will have to be found to muster the intelligence, troops and kit. Here, cross-channel and transatlantic relations will prove key. Post-Brexit, EU-UK relations will require stronger and more structured dialogue and cooperation mechanisms in foreign affairs and security policy. And in view of the parallel reflection process aimed at endowing NATO with a Strategic Concept by June 2022, an accompanying EU-NATO declaration should spell out in considerable detail where and how the two organisations can complement each other in the pursuit of shared interests. With those aims in mind, the Strategic Compass should offer a sharp and realistic definition of the kind of security actor that the EU expects itself to be.

Assuming political willingness among member states, which can never be taken for granted, operational efficiency will be required to give credence to the implementation of the level of ambition espoused in the Strategic Compass. In an integrated approach to external crises and conflicts, the EU institutions and member states will have to be able to flexibly and efficiently use the entire toolkit at their collective disposal. This includes the swift and decisive use of force if needed, deployed in a conflict sensitive manner geared toward sustainable and locally owned dispute settlement.

Implementation, Implementation, Implementation

On paper, the Strategic Compass provides an opportunity to pre-empt the logjams that have held EU foreign policy back for too long. If the final product manages to clarify how the EU will strike a balance between interests, level of ambition and inclusivity, then it should be easier for the EU collective to agree on the trade-offs that will have to be made for swift and decisive action in crisis situations, and to define the type and level of compensation needed to offset some of the envisaged damage.

For the Strategic Compass process to yield results, it should not solely rely on the executive bodies and general budget of the EU. The final document should be carried by the member states, which hold the bulk of the competences, the prerogatives and the assets.

The Strategic Compass should be formally adopted by the European Council, preferably as a ‘decision’ so that implementation can happen by way of the qualified majority voting (QMV) procedure in the Council.

Herein lies the Achilles’ heel of the Strategic Compass, as indeed the EU’s common foreign and security policy writ large. Much has been said about the divide-and-rule tactics of adversaries like Russia and China. But one should never underestimate the debilitating capacity of the EU to divide itself. Member states have so far effectively denied ‘their’ EU any credible agency in foreign affairs and security policy by holding each other hostage in search of consensus, inevitably leading to the lowest common denominator. The EU’s firm response to Russia’s full-blown war in Ukraine is a welcome and much needed change from such practices.

Having gone through a two-year long strategic reflection process, surely member states will not continue to deny the wisdom that they should recognise the common European interest as their own? Surely they wouldn’t object to more habitually resort to QMV in CFSP decision-making, knowing that they can hang on to the treaty which provides them with the possibility to pull the emergency brake to protects their vital national interests?

Frustrated with the current state of affairs, the number of governments clamouring for the mainstreaming of QMV in Council decision-making on CFSP matters has been growing. Perhaps the spirit of unity that was regained in the face of Russian aggression, outcomes of the upcoming French and Hungarian elections, or indeed the Conference on the Future of Europe, will tip the balance and lead to an alignment of the European stars.

In the absence of a rolling endorsement by the member states, the Strategic Compass risks remaining a dead letter, thus failing to catalyse a common strategic culture among member states and to produce the course correction the EU needs to defend and promote its interests in a volatile world.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).