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Will the Strategic Compass be a game-changer for EU security and defence?

Security & defence / EPC ROUND-UP
Amanda Paul , Jamie Shea , Mihai Sebastian Chihaia , Ionela Ciolan , Georg Riekeles

Date: 05/04/2022
The Strategic Compass for a stronger EU security and defence, developed over the past 18 months, was endorsed by European leaders on 24 March. Part strategy, part action plan, the Compass – adopted amid President Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine – is the new guide for the EU’s security and defence ambitions in the next five to ten years.

Now that the Compass has been adopted, the real work can begin. There is a long list of deliverables, from a rapid reaction force to cyber and hybrid defence. Never before have the EU’s security and defence aspirations been spelled out so ambitiously.

But the history of European defence has been rife with promises and plans that have come and gone with little to no avail. Will the EU be able to keep up the momentum for developing its defence capabilities? Will the Strategic Compass be a game-changer for EU security and defence at this watershed moment

In this brand-new format, the EPC assesses pivotal EU policies from different angles. The EPC Round-up collects contributions from EPC analysts and experts in the field, bringing together various points of view for a more comprehensive and nuanced picture.

The EU’s new Strategic Compass certainly represents a major advance on its previous strategy documents. It contains the first-ever agreed EU threat assessment and adapts the EU’s security and defence programmes much more to today’s more challenging security environment, characterised by great power rivalry and possible conflict. The Compass also broadens the spectrum of military threats that the EU must counter in the East as well as the South. It is more explicit about the vital collective defence role that NATO plays to defend EU territory and the capabilities and defence investment requirements for a genuine EU strategic autonomy.

This document describes the world as it is, rather than how the EU would like it to be. Yet only EU joint decisions, such as the recent transfer of €1 billion from the EU Peace Facility to fund the delivery of weapons to Ukraine, or investments to support EU military operations, will show whether the Compass truly is a game-changer or not.

The Strategic Compass’ opening chapter, “The world we face”, paints a complex, fragmented and dark picture of Europe’s security landscape; from war on our borders and natural disasters to terrorism and cyber conflict. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine constitutes a rude geopolitical awakening, calling into question many of Europe’s fundamental assumptions.

The document ambitiously commits to defending the “European security order”. But in practice, there is a major disconnect between the threats identified and the operational means proposed. What in peaceful times would have been valiant efforts to take the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) forward inevitably comes up short now.

The Strategic Compass’ strengths:

  1. The first-ever common threat assessment between member states is an important step towards a shared strategic culture.
  2. Half-strategy, half-action plan, the Compass makes concrete pledges to enhance the CSDP’s rapid reaction ecosystem by 2025, from its operational means to decision-making.
  3. The EU’s role as a security provider and in building collective resilience (against i.e. hybrid threats, disinformation, cyberattacks) is strongly recognised.
Its weaknesses:

  1. The Compass is not a strategy, properly speaking. Security is also a function of economic conditions. The document does not consider energy, food, tech, forced displacement, or how to secure resources when faced with scarcity. It does not focus on geography sufficiently, such as the three maritime hotspots of the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. It presumes a status quo with China.
  2. The EU’s military level of ambition has become very muddled. What happens now to the Helsinki Headline Goal of being able to deploy 60,000 troops in 60 days? Scenarios are now developed based on a political decision of creating a 5,000-strong Rapid Deployment Capacity, not the other way around.
  3. The EU’s interinstitutional crisis management framework, the Integrated Political Crisis Response, that so gravely failed to anticipate and prepare for the evacuation of Kabul, has not been reviewed. Institutionally, the EU needs a Security Council.

The Strategic Compass is ambitious, a significant upgrade from past and current EU strategy papers, and an important response to both old and new security challenges. However, the proof of the pudding will be, as always, in its implementation. Finalised at a time when the post-Cold War security order is under threat as a consequence of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and when great power competition is on the rise, only time will tell whether the EU’s appetite for greater security, defence and military roles becomes a reality or falls flat once again. While the creation of a Rapid Deployment Capacity is an important development, it is worth recalling that the EU Battlegroups approved in 2004 have never once been deployed, despite multiple opportunities to do so, such as to Finland or the Eastern Flank in the context of today’s war.

As outlined in the Compass, strengthening cooperation with important strategic partners like Turkey should be prioritised. Turkey has a long history of helping shore up European security, including through its participation in numerous Common Security Defence Policy missions and operations. Ankara is also playing a central role in mediating a ceasefire to the war in Ukraine. The obstacles to deepening EU–Turkey security and defence cooperation, such as Turkey’s engagement in the Permanent Structured Cooperation, including on military mobility, should be overcome.

The Strategic Compass is both ambitious and concrete. It draws up action points with clear deadlines to address the known shortfalls in capabilities, structures, decision-making processes and financing that have prevented the Common Security Defence Policy from acting rapidly and robustly. But the generous wording does not guarantee successful implementation – and the EU cannot afford to fail.

A Rapid Deployment Capacity, strategic enablers, command and control structures, and other related initiatives are all interlinked in a system of gears: each ‘wheel’ must be in the correct position and move in unison to drive action together. If one of the pieces is blocked, the whole system will grind to a halt.

Concealed behind the Compass’ confident language, fundamental questions remain about the EU’s capacity to deliver, especially regarding its Rapid Deployment Capacity. With the Kabul evacuation still fresh in our memories, it can only work if it has a clearly defined mission spectrum based on the illustrative scenarios; outlines how it can, in certain circumstances, complement NATO’s capacity to act; and benefits from political will and quick decision-making to ensure deployment on short notice.

The Strategic Compass is a move in the right direction. The inclusion of maritime security in the EU’s strategic domains and the promise to create maritime security awareness mechanisms (e.g. the Common Information Sharing Environment and Maritime Surveillance) by 2025 showcase the Union’s geopolitical ambitions.

However, the EU missed the opportunity to focus crucially on Black Sea security. Dominated by geopolitics, geoeconomics and instability, this region is currently the Achilles’ heel of both the EU and NATO. With no clear strategy in place for the region, the Euro-Atlantic organisations simply watched from the side-lines how Russia benefited from and expanded its area of dominance in the Black Sea since annexing Crimea. Today, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is shelling southern Ukrainian cities and could project power into the Mediterranean, Western Balkans and the Middle East. It threatens not only the maritime security of Romania and Bulgaria but also the economy, energy and food security of the entire region.

To truly exert the level of ambition presented in the Strategic Compass, the EU must act geopolitically by adopting a Black Sea Strategy and stop Russia from transforming the Black Sea into Europe’s new Kaliningrad.

The Strategic Compass successfully integrates the digital domains in the European strategic culture. It treats current and emerging technological challenges as spreaders of international insecurity and communicates an important message to the EU’s adversaries: Europe is ready to take technology seriously.

Still, there are some aspects that the Compass disregards or treats ambiguously. For example, it does not consider the dynamics shaping cyberspace and outer space. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine demonstrates that the global cyberspace can become fragmented, which would have consequences for European security by limiting the intelligence capacity of the member states. Similarly, the document fails to acknowledge the challenges posed by the growing role of powers like China in space, the weaponisation of space, and the growing threat of cyberattacks to space assets.

The Compass also fails to elaborate on emerging and disruptive technologies. While it mentions artificial intelligence or biotechnologies, it does not list which technologies are crucial for European security. References to quantum computing as a potential boost to European capacities in the cyber domain are important but fall short. Other quantum-enabled technologies, such as sensing or advanced encryption, are also essential to enhance the level of security of the Union and modernise European capabilities.

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