Most Europeans think the European Union should do more in security and defence policy. EU’s security environment has worsened in recent years threatening the well-being of the block. Yet, despite the clear strategic need and the existence of public opinion consensus on the matter, the EU’s efforts to strengthen its security and defence policy are timid and insufficient. The measures recently proposed by the EU Strategic Compass are unlikely to change this situation.

30 years after the end of the Cold War the European Union still has a long way to go to become a meaningful strategic actor, especially in the defence sector. The EU has no army; its defence resources are limited, and the political will that is required to develop genuine and autonomous defence capabilities is both inconsistent and scarce at best. There are two main reasons why progress in this area has been so slow: the resistance at the level of member states and the fear of undermining NATO, which remains the primary defence point of reference for most EU member states.

In the past, the issue was less pronounced as the EU faced a relatively stable strategic environment; however, there is no doubt that the recent years and months have seen a rapid deterioration of the strategic context. It suffices to mention Lukashenko’s hybrid attack involving irregular migration on the eastern EU border and the threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine – EU’s direct neighbour and its associate state – for the second time in six months. Many EU member states are exposed to the threat of terrorism and illegal migration. The severity and number of threats and challenges make necessary a unified and coordinated response from the EU.

In recent months, the EU has been engaged in the efforts that were meant to redefine the Common Security and Defence Policy and to adapt it to the new challenges. To this end, the EU began the process of unveiling a new strategy, named the EU Strategic Compass. The document proposes some measures that could potentially equip the EU with some capacity to act in the defence realm, especially the Rapid Deployment Capability, albeit with a limited purpose. For those that expected a strategy preparing the EU for the challenges of deteriorating security environment, the EU Strategic Compass is disappointing. The document is reactive, not proactive; it addresses the challenges of the past rather than contemporary issues or potential threats in the near-to-long future and it proposes no meaningful measures that would boost the defence of EU member states. In short, the document’s level of ambition remains too modest to merit the name ‘strategic’.

1. Content and Process

A draft of the Strategic Compass was unveiled by EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Joseph Borrell, on the 15th of November 2021. Following this, the proposal was debated at the European Parliament subcommittee on Defence on the 30th of November. The final draft is meant to be approved and implemented under the French Presidency of the EU Council in March 2022.

The document includes a classified threat assessment, which is meant to be updated at least every five years, as well as sections on crisis management, capabilities, resilience and partnerships.  Against some lofty expectations, the Strategic Compass does not propose the setting up of a European army. Instead, the document proposes the establishment of a 5000-strong EU Rapid Deployment Capability to become operational by 2025. The new force would be swiftly deployable, and it would consist of land, air and maritime components. The new force is meant to “respond to imminent threat or quickly react to a crisis situation, rescue, evacuation mission or a stabilisation mission”. The new force would consist of “modified battle groups and of member states’ other military forces and capabilities”. Developing the new capability would include regular exercises starting from 2022. Command and control of the new force would lie with the pre-identified national headquarters or a body within EU Military Staff (EUMS).

The key question about the new force is not its composition and its tasks, which naturally can evolve over time, but its ability to deploy. After all, the EU has had 2000-strong battle groups on stand-by since 2004, yet they have never been deployed to a crisis situation. This has not happened because of a lack of common funding or political reluctance. As of now, the EU force can only be deployed on the condition of unanimity, meaning all 27 member states must approve such an operation.

The draft of the Strategic Compass is unclear how it will remove these stumbling blocks. The draft proposes a “more flexible decision-making arrangement” and an “extended scope of common costs (including the costs of exercises) to contribute to the rapid deployability of the capacity”. As far as the decision-making process on operations is concerned, the draft does not specifically suggest a departure from unanimity into majority voting. It suggests instead an option of “constructive abstention” to “enable willing and capable European-led coalitions”.

The document provides no indication to suggest that the EU would want to undermine the role of NATO. It pledges closer co-operation with the Alliance on matters of crisis management and operations, exercise and new emerging threats. It also highlights the role of the EU-US security dialogue, being hopeful about the results of the summit due in June 2022.

2. Strategic Compass and Challenges to European Security

The measures proposed by the Strategic Compass cannot be read as a response to the challenges faced by European Security, which are numerous at the outset of 2022. To start with, Russia continues to threaten Ukraine with a full-scale invasion and demands a major remodelling of the European security order. Meeting the Russian demands would alter the strategic balance at the EU’s and NATO’s Eastern flank. Russia and Belarus continue to destabilise Eastern flank nations through various forms of hybrid attacks, most prominently through migratory pressures and information warfare. Meanwhile, much of western Europe continues to be exposed to instability emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, including terrorism, human and drug trafficking and illegal migration.

As of now, the EU has no military capacity to meet these challenges, and the measures proposed by the Strategic Compass – including its Rapid Deployment Capability – are in no way adequate to deal with them. The Compass, even if fully adopted, will not make a strategic difference to European Security, which is organised first and foremost around NATO.

The EU’s continuing reliance on NATO and America’s engagement in European security seems a rational choice under the current circumstances. However, in only two years America may elect a president whose perspective on Transatlantic relations may be as reluctant as that of Donald Trump. In fact, at this point, it cannot even be ruled out that Trump himself returns to the White House. Should this scenario materialise, and NATO would be weakened by America’s reluctance or even disengagement, the Europeans would not have an alternative mechanism to rely on. In its current form, the Strategic Compass is doing little to prepare the EU for the world in which the Europeans have to rely on themselves.

Significantly, the measures proposed in the Compass are meant to address not future but past challenges. It is important to bear in mind that the idea of the Rapid Deployment Capacity was motivated by the Afghan scenario and the perceived inability of the Europeans to organise an orderly evacuation. These days, however, this scenario is of remote relevance for the Europeans who are faced with a belligerent Russia, hybrid warfare and the threat of terrorism, just to mention the most obvious.

Previously, the EU has made similar mistakes. For example, in the late 1990s, a Rapid Reaction Force was approved to deal with the situation in the Balkans. In the early 2000s, the EU approved the development of Battlegroups, which was influenced by the perceived need to deal with instability in Africa. When the strategic circumstances changed, the attention to these EU defence constructs drifted away. Most importantly the requirement of unanimity and a lack of common funding discouraged an actual practical use of these formats.  As a result, neither the Rapid Reaction Force nor the EU Battlegroups have ever been deployed. Currently, there is a serious risk that the proposed Strategic Compass EU Rapid Deployment Capacity may share the fate of these earlier initiatives, especially if the unanimity rule persist.