Can the EU’s Strategic Compass guide EU security policy?

Opinion piece (Encompass)
04 April 2022

Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine marks the start of a more dangerous era in European security. The more threatening international environment created by Russia’s invasion gives the EU’s newly-released Strategic Compass additional significance, as the Compass sets out the EU’s ambitions in security and defence for the next decade. According to the Compass, the EU faces a range of "multifaceted and often interconnected" threats and challenges.

The Compass might be expected to set out how the EU should deal with these. However, that is not what the document was designed to do. It is not a grand strategy in the mold of the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy. Instead, the Compass focuses on the tools the Union needs, and sets out a roadmap to develop them. In essence, the Compass lays out a role for the EU as the ‘enabler’ of a stronger European defence, by 1) trying to facilitate joint investments and military procurement; 2) fostering resilience at home; and 3) strengthening partners.

The proposals on military capability development are the most promising. The Compass stresses that member-states need to spend more – and more co-operatively – to achieve economies of scale. Currently, joint R&D is only 6 per cent of total defence R&D; joint procurement, 11 per cent of total defence procurement. The EU will try to encourage co-operation by organising annual defence ministerial meetings on EU capability initiatives and establishing a defence innovation hub in the European Defence Agency. The size of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which is supposed to foster joint investment in R&D and military capability development, may be increased. A new financing system for the EDF would allocate more of its funds to projects involving member-states jointly acquiring or owning capabilities. And the Commission is developing new financial solutions for defence capabilities and a VAT waiver for defence equipment.

The impact of these measures will depend on whether they see the light of day and in what form. The need for member-states to increase defence spending is even more pressing after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But, while some EU states have already announced rises in spending, not all will be able or willing to do so in the deteriorating economic environment – joint EU action to help strengthen member-states’ military capabilities is more important than ever.

The Compass indicates that enhancing resilience to threats will be a major area of focus for the EU in coming years. The Union will develop a “hybrid toolbox” to help respond to threats like disinformation, for example by creating ‘hybrid rapid response teams’. The EU also wants to strengthen its cyber-defence policy through regular exercises and the Commission is developing a ‘Cyber Resilience Act’ to set standards to counter disinformation and election manipulation. If the EU does all these things, it will consolidate its role as an enabler of more resilient societies and a security provider in areas that do not have a military dimension, complementing the efforts of NATO and national security policies.

The Compass aims to strengthen the EU’s ability to carry out military operations. The EU has never fully met its 1999 Helsinki Goals of being able to deploy 60,000 troops. Now, the EU wants to be able to deploy a 5000-strong force, the ‘rapid deployment capacity’ (RDC). The RDC, which is scheduled to be operational by 2025, would be composed of reformed EU Battlegroups (operational since 2007 but never used), and additional forces. The RDC will draw on a larger pool of available forces, including strategic enablers like airlift, which until now have been provided by the US. The components of the RDC will regularly train together to increase their readiness and ability to work together.

Making the RDC fully operational by 2025 will be challenging, as it will not be easy to procure all the strategic enablers that it will need by then. It is also unclear whether member-states will be willing to commit the required forces to the RDC force pool (which will have to be substantially larger than 5000). The bigger issue is that even if the RDC is fully operational by 2025, it will still require consensus between the member-states to deploy. The Compass proposes moving towards “more flexible decision-making”, including constructive abstention and EU-endorsed ‘coalitions of the willing’. But these options are not new. The recourse to EU-endorsed coalitions of the willing also requires consensus.

The need for consensus will continue to push member-states to act in NATO or in ad-hoc formats outside the EU, especially when it comes to heavy-footprint military operations. But, as the Compass highlights, the EU can still play a significant role in strengthening such operations. For example, the Compass envisages that the EU could contribute financially to supporting member-states’ operations through the newly launched European Peace Facility – potentially encouraging them to undertake more ambitious missions.

The Compass is unlikely to end transatlantic and European debates about the EU’s role in European security. The Compass does not in any way pitch the EU as an alternative to NATO, repeatedly emphasising that the two are complementary. Still, the EU’s ambitions to be a military player endure and could create transatlantic friction, and disagreements within Europe, if they lead to competition for resources with NATO. There may also be disagreements if the EU expands its investments in defence capabilities, as funds would very likely be tied to strengthening the EU defence industry and therefore buying European equipment. These issues won’t be major sources of friction under the Biden administration, which supports a larger EU role in defence, but they could become more controversial if a Trump-like president is elected in 2024.

The Strategic Compass is not a silver bullet for EU security and defence. So long as EU security policy remains based on consensus, EU actions will reflect the lowest common denominator of what member-states can agree to. Still, the Strategic Compass presents a realistic way forward for EU security policy. If fully implemented, the EU will be stronger and better placed to take on more demanding tasks, including in the military field, if it has to. Implementation of the Compass lies in the hands of the member-states. Unlike the 2016 Global Strategy, they have formally endorsed the Compass, meaning that they should be more willing to fully adopt its prescriptions. They must now transform words into actions.