The EU Strategic Compass: Charting a course in stormy seas

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The EU Strategic Compass for Security and Defence was approved by the Council in Brussels on 21 March. Then, at a 24-25 March meeting, the European Council endorsed the document with the intention to move forward on implementation according to the timetable it sets out.

The Conclusions of the 24-25 March meeting noted the Strategic Compass was to provide strategic guidance for the next decade and that it defined “actions, ways and means, and clear targets required for this new impetus by

a. enabling the European Union to act more quickly and decisively when facing crises;

b. securing our interests and protecting our citizens by strengthening the European Union’s capacity to anticipate and mitigate threats;

c. stimulating investment and innovation to jointly develop the necessary capabilities and technologies;

d. deepening our cooperation with partners to achieve common goals.”

The Conclusions added that the European Council would regularly assess implementation of the Strategic Compass and progress in the area of security and defence and would provide further guidance if needed.

In a commentary for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Nick Witney noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February has made the Strategic Compass “brand new, already obsolete.” That is a rather harsh assessment. What is more justified, perhaps, is Witney’s observation that the Strategic Compass is “full of the usual process-heavy gradualism.”

And the destination is…

More problematically, how useful is a compass if there is no precise idea of what true north is in a security context? The document’s authors avoid advocating a European army, yet that could easily be seen as the logical conclusion. At an event in Florence in March 2022, the distinguished diplomat and author Robert Cooper pinpointed the greatest difficulty with such an army: who would be in charge of it?

Similarly, Pawel Herczynski, Managing Director, Common Security and Defence Policy [CSDP] and Crisis Response in the European External Action Service (EEAS), said in a webinar on 8 April that he saw no prospects for a European army any time soon, adding that the very notion was rather unhelpful. We have the 27 armies of the 27 Member States, he continued, and the EEAS is trying to ensure that they cooperate as closely as possible. He characterised the vision of a European army as a ‘catchy phrase’ used by some politicians, and not realistic. Efforts are indeed under way to strengthen the 27 EU armed forces, increase their interoperability and ensure that they are ready and willing to deploy within CSDP missions.

The problems with partnering

The Strategic Compass emphasises the importance of partnerships, especially with NATO and the United Nations. As for the former, it is not that long since French President Emanuel Macron told The Economist “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” His opponent in the run-off for the French Presidency on 24 April, Marine Le Pen, favours removing France from NATO’s integrated command. While withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in 2021 was seen as a debacle for NATO, the alliance appears to have been galvanised and rejuvenated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman commented that NATO’s solidarity and weapons modernisation are guaranteed for as long as Putin is in power “and probably another generation after that.” Finland (possibly also Sweden) seems likely to apply for NATO membership soon.

For some, EU-NATO partnership raises concerns of a possible duplication of effort.  Benjamin Tallis of the Hertie School Centre for International Security in Berlin, commenting on a draft of the Strategic Compass, feared that the Compass would only “amplify the perennial gap between Europe’s defence expectations and capacity.” He also remarked on its pessimism and “narrowly egoistic and overly protective worldview”. For Tallis, the best course of action for Europeans is to invest in their relationship with the United States, especially through NATO, for hard-power capability and to orient the EU back to the very real contributions it can make to other kinds of security.

Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper, writing shortly after the Afghanistan fiasco, echoed the view that Europe should not become a military power. “Instead of acquiring a hammer, Europe should use its more sophisticated toolbox of sanctions, diplomacy, aid and arms negotiations.” We are actually witnessing this, as High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell points out in his foreword to the Strategic Compass. Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the EU has taken rapid actions across the spectrum: unprecedented sanctions, financing delivery of military equipment to Ukraine and building an international coalition to support Ukraine.

Another complicating factor is that the UK, which spends about £50 billion a year on defence, remains an important member of NATO and is now part of AUKUS.

Partnership with the United Nations (UN) is also highlighted in the Strategic Compass. Yet Russia’s military aggression has raised issues about the global governance capabilities of the UN, especially its most important body, the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member. On 24 February – the day it launched its invasion – Russia held the rotating presidency of the Council. Former Prime Minister of Finland and current head of the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance Alexander Stubb has been sharply critical: “The UN Security Council with Russia as a member has limited, if any, credibility.”

The UN General Assembly’s vote on 7 April to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council on account of “gross and systematic violations of human rights” in Ukraine provides some symbolic satisfaction, but, as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “the practical effect is negligible.”

The EU’s dilemma: To be or not to be a military power?

From its foundation, the EU has been about peace. With the passage of time, many feared this narrative was losing salience because younger generations had no recollection of the Second World War. Now, tragically, war has returned to Europe.

The imperative of ensuring adequate defence must be fully acknowledged. Still, it would be regrettable if the EU, given this opportunity to revitalise peace as its raison d’être, instead chose to embrace what the foreword of the Strategic Compass calls “learning to speak the language of power” – a veiled reference to military might.


Michael Sanfey is a Visiting Fellow in the Global Governance Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) Lisbon.