What is the 'strategic compass' and what does it mean for EU defence?

A typical European defence policy is being drawn up for the primary time after an agreement by EU defence and foreign ministers on Monday.

The brand new strategy, generally known as the ‘strategic compass’, was described by the EU’s top diplomat as a “turning point for the European Union as a security provider and a crucial step for the European security and defence policy.”

Josep Borrell, who addressed reporters on Monday, stressed that “this is just the start.”

It’s now expected to be endorsed by EU leaders at a council summit on March 24 and 25.

What’s the Strategic Compass?

It’s going to result in the creation of a robust EU rapid deployment capability of as much as 5,000 troops, regular live exercises on land and at sea, a considerable increase in member states’ defence expenditures to cut back military gaps and stronger investments in defence research and development.

It also plans for more regular threats assessments and deeper cooperation with allies.

“It will allow us to support our partners and to be a greater partner,” Borrell said. “We wish to act in a more coordinated way amongst us, and we wish to act in a more integrated way with our partners.”

For Isabella Antinozzi, Associate Researcher on the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, “on matters of EU defence, one has to applaud the little steps.”

“Considered how much of a taboo common defence has all the time been, I don’t think EU efforts needs to be dismissed altogether. In comparison with previous strategic reviews, this looks like a well-rounded document. For the very first time, and at the very best level, Europeans collectively released a joint threat assessment, a typical vision and detailed objectives on EU security and defence,” she told Euronews.

The strategic compass is, indeed, a protracted time within the making.

France, which has probably the most powerful army within the European Union, has been calling for a more coordinated defence strategy for years but its plea had largely fallen on deaf ears.

A previous attempt in 2016 — named the “Implementation Plan on Security and Defence” — stewarded by Frederica Mogherini, then EU high representative, fell through on the eleventh hour.

Crimea to Afghanistan

Eastern member states — equivalent to the Baltics and Poland — were particularly reticent to such common policy despite the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014. These countries are heavily reliant on NATO and feared spooking the US which has many boots on the bottom as a part of the transatlantic alliance but in addition due to additional bilateral agreements.

However the situation on the EU’s external borders has sharply deteriorated since then. Conflict erupted on the bloc’s southern flank — notably in Libya and Syria fuelling a migratory crisis — in addition to on its eastern flank with a temporary but vicious war breaking out between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020.

Work on the strategic compass began that very same yr yet the Threat Evaluation that got here out of Phase I used to be never endorsed by EU leaders and classified.

However the Talibans’ swift and brutal recapture of Aghanistan in summer 2021, which left EU countries, like other Western allies, scrambling to evacuate their nationals and Afghan residents prone to reprisal, accelerated negotiations.

Russia’s build-up of troops along its shared border with Ukraine, which began in spring 2021, provided one other impetus. Its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February sealed the deal.

‘Stark change of rhetoric about Russia’

Considered one of the notable points of the compass is that it “stresses the European Union’s mutual-assistance clause, which obligates members to help “by all means of their power” those members facing armed aggression”, similarly to NATO’s Article 5 clause, Antinozzi stressed.

One other is the “stark change of rhetoric about Russia.”

“While early drafts of the compass were characterised by a diplomatic approach where a would-be adversary is unnamed, now the document uses plain language painting Russia as an aggressor against its neighbour and as a threat to Europe,” she explained.

However it has weaknesses.

There remain questions on how the rapid deployment capability, which is supposed to begin exercises in 2023 and be operational by 2025, will work and whether the bloc will finally beef up the EU operational HQ meant to commandeer it.

One other is on partnerships.

Borrell namechecked NATO, the United Nations and the African Union on Monday evening but for Antinozzi, the compass “fails to elucidate how the identified partners are instrumental to achieving the identified security and defence objectives.”

“Any real utility from partnering is determined by ensuring that “form follows function”. In other words, resolve what if anything you would like to do with another person, what you hope to get out of it, and only then what kind of event or process would best serve that end – the compass does not one of the above. It also fails to acknowledge that to reinforce strategic autonomy, European, non-EU partners (e.g., UK, Norway) are key,” she said.

Actually, she described the UK as one in every of the losers of this latest strategy.

“The document devotes barely a line to outlining cooperation with the UK – which is striking considering how much of a key partner the UK is on matters of security and defence. That is, to me, a transparent sign that relations between London and Brussels are completely strained,” she emphasised.

More cash for defence

The UK though is a component of NATO and the EU is taking great pains to underline that this latest strategy will by no means replace the transatlantic alliance but actually strengthen it.

Most EU countries are NATO members, as are Albania, Canada, North Macedonia, Turkey, the UK, and the US.

Yet, most have consistently failed of their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence expenditures, as required by NATO, usually drawing criticism from Washinton. Greece, Croatia, the UK, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and France were the one European countries reaching that threshold last yr.

However the strategic compass could see that criticism silenced because it indicates that EU member states “committed to substantially enhance their defence expenditures”.

It also plans to strengthen member states’ ability to jointly fund research and development projects based on their capability requirements — which should lead to more “Made in Europe” next-generation military equipment — and for them to jointly put money into capabilities.

Military equipment doesn’t come low cost and because the threats evolve — cyber attacks play an increasing role while Russia has just deployed latest hypersonic missiles — so does technology but it will probably be out of reach for small countries with small budgets, just like the Baltics.

Since January, when the buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine had already reached over 100,000, NATO allies have boosted their resources to its eastern flank with more troops and more capabilities including warships and fighter jets.

The US has also sharply increased the variety of troops it has deployed on a bilateral basis in some European countries. For the primary time since 2005, there have been 100,000 US soldiers deployed across Europe in mid-March.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all border Russia, have all particularly demanded and received more assistance. But they are saying more is required.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said on Monday prior to their Foreign Affairs Council that “the Baltics states are in desperate need of additional attention in relation to security and defence. We now have been counting on deterrence, I believe that phase needs to be over. We now have to actually now on actual standing defence.”

“I believe we want to see more equipment and to start with the actual defence plans of the Baltics that will reflect the strategic reality of the region,” he added.

Latvia’s Defence Ministry indicated to Euronews back in February that it needed further capabilities, “particularly within the realm of air defence, that will close glaring military gaps.”

The country’s Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkevics, welcomed the approval of the important thing document on Monday, arguing “it gives the mandatory toolbox for EU to grow to be an actual geopolitical and security player along with NATO.”

“It’s only the start of the journey. Much will rely on how successful we support Ukraine against Russia’s aggression,” he added

‘A capable and assertive foreign policy actor’

Over the past couple of years, EU officials and leaders have been clamouring as often as possible that they need the bloc to play a have a greater geopolitical weight globally.

However the weeks preceding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dealt an ideal blow to those aspirations with European countries largely sidelined from Russia-US talks on European security.

Since then, the EU has clobbered Russia with massive sanctions in a swift and united way, which boosted the EU’s geopolitical credentials.

The strategic compass should further that.

As a part of its latest policy, the EU is committing to drawing up a latest threat evaluation every three years, which, in line with Antinozzi, “is vital to the creation of a European Strategic culture which, in turn, could make EU foreign, security and defence policies way more coherent.”

“As a response to the invasion, the EU has shown — possibly for the primary time in its lifetime— that it will probably be a capable and assertive foreign policy actor. This breathes latest life into its grandiose rhetoric, not least into the strategic compass,” she concluded.


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