On March 25, 2022, EU leaders endorsed the long-awaited release of the EU Strategic Compass – a guiding document meant to inform the coming decade of EU security and defense policy. The Compass has been significantly revised in the last few months compared to the November 2021 draft. One major development in the interim has been the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. In a remarkably short time, several vague and muddled narratives surrounding EU priorities, objectives, and international partners have been readdressed and clarified, with red lines redrawn and taboos upended. Yet, the unresolved compromises made in the process have inescapably limited its strategic longevity.
The EU’s road towards a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) has been long and meandering. And yet, particularly since 2016, EU leaders have accelerated efforts to develop more autonomous EU-centered military capabilities. Notable innovations in recent years include the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation in 2017, the European Intervention Initiative of 2018, and the European Peace Facility (EPF) set up in 2021. Still, defense projects have proceeded slower than anticipated, partially due to pandemic-related budget cuts but also deep-seated qualms over the potential impact on member states’ national sovereignty or EU relations with NATO and the United States. This indecisiveness has cast a shadow on the drafting of the Strategic Compass.
At its release in early November 2021, the first 28-page draft was widely viewed as underwhelming and lacking in ambition. Over a year’s worth of stakeholder input, analysis, and deliberations ultimately resulted in a product “long on rhetoric and short on content,” suffering from strategic fragmentation, over-institutionalization, and diffusion of responsibility. Even the much-highlighted flagship proposal for a 5,000-strong EU Deployment Capacity was vague, reminiscent of the never-deployed EU Battlegroups of 2007 or the unmaterialized goal of 50,000-60,000-manned EU-led operations by 2003. Perhaps most striking in a document meant to provide strategic guidance, there was an apparent inability to prioritize between various threats and issues, threading the needle along with the lowest common denominator of member state interests. Moreover, while it accurately identified dominant trends in international relations – namely U.S.-China rivalry and growing multipolar dynamics – there was little to no attempt at meaningfully assessing how changes in either might impact the EU long-term. While some understanding might be in order – it was the draft stage, after all – these exclusions certainly spoke to the limits of security discourse in Brussels.
Given this lack of clarity, speculations ran high on whether the Compass would be finalized on time and if this was even desirable. Publishing the document amidst the Ukraine War to show European unity would entail a greater risk that it becomes performative and quickly outdated, precluding the integration of strategic lessons from the war. However, after some initial hesitation, Brussels’ increasing resolve in the face of the Russian invasion saw issue after issue reevaluated. Kyiv’s diplomatic offensive in European capitals, coupled with rapid changes to popular opinion across individual member states, soon translated into stronger pushes for action at the EU level.
With Russian missiles aimed at targets in Ukraine only ten miles from the Polish border, EU member states were jolted into action, no longer seeing common defense as optional but rather a strict necessity. Germany’s so-called Zeitenwende included the cancellation of the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a pledge to reach NATO’s 2 percent defense-to-GDP spending target, and the caving in on sending arms to an active warzone. EU-integration-averse Denmark announced a referendum on ending the Danish opt-out from the EU’s CSDP, whereas Sweden, Finland, and Ireland reopened public conversations on the value of alliance neutrality. Meanwhile, previously hesitant leaders in Northern Europe, the Nordics and the Dutch – economically liberal with more Atlanticist leanings – appear to be warming to France’s goal of strategic autonomy.
Four Key Takeaways
There are unmistakable changes in how the now-much extended 47-page document addresses the world and European security. First, as foreshadowed by the March 10-11 Versailles Declaration, the EU’s defense policy has finally found its primary raison d’être; there is a clear turn towards hard security in terms of prioritization. The Strategic Compass mentions Russia nearly 20 times, prominently featured together with the Ukraine War. This “tectonic shift in European history” motivates stronger EU military capabilities, including enhanced intra-union military mobility, the capability to deploy troops in “non-permissive environments,” and regular live exercises in all domains by 2023. “Spend more and better” has replaced the intention to merely review capability developments. Additionally, the practice of sending lethal aid to EU partners through the EPF, as has been done with Ukraine (albeit often poorly coordinated), is now codified in the Compass, giving further credibility to the EU’s ever-more emphasized Collective Self Defense Article (Article 42.7 TEU).
The Ukraine War appears to have fast-tracked the recognition that the EU should not be overly dependent on the United States for defense. First, it is no secret that Europe’s defense “Free Rider” problem has been a decades-long thorn in the side of transatlantic relations, one unlikely to diminish as Washington pivots to the Asia-Pacific and war ravages Eastern Europe. Second, as illustrated by Biden’s uncoordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan and Putin’s refusal to negotiate European security with Europeans at the table in January, EU leaders will always play a secondary role in major decisions unless they develop the capabilities and credibility to independently act when needed. Third – most strikingly displayed during the Trump Presidency – Brussels and Washington’s interests are far from always aligned. There are no guarantees against the return of EU-undercutting unilateralism in the White House, and there is more continuity between Trump and Biden than many EU capitals had hoped.
The inability to openly address these realities without damaging EU unity has necessitated a silent compromise. In a ringing endorsement, the U.S. is upheld as the EU’s “staunchest and most important strategic partner,” with NATO repeatedly affirmed as the cornerstone of collective defense. The unprecedented upgrades to EU military capabilities are strictly described as complementary to NATO, and the contentious term EU “Strategic Autonomy” is mentioned only once. French President Macron has gradually toned down criticisms of NATO, recently describing the Ukraine War as an “electroshock” providing “strategic clarification” – figuratively ending the “Brain Death” he polemically diagnosed in 2019. In assuaging Europe’s Atlanticist voices by avoiding sensitive issues such as alternative developments to the increasingly uncertain status quo, EU leaders could agree on enhanced joint defense. Still, in its so-called constructive ambiguity on delicate issues, the Compass disappointingly leaves the EU’s existential questions unanswered, like many consensus-building exercises before. Whether the EU’s common defense is integrative or cooperative in nature and what Brussels will do if Washington’s “sacred commitment” to NATO is thrown into doubt after the next elections are issues ultimately kicked down the road.
Finally, the Strategic Compass brings unusual clarity about the EU’s competitors, particularly China, bringing the EU closer to Washington’s position. The document notes a “competition of governance [and] battle of narratives,” underscoring a risk for Europe to be “outpaced” by competitors. It calls out asymmetries in market access, Beijing’s use of cyber tools and hybrid tactics, modernization of armed forces, and, most remarkably, the need to ensure China’s development “happens in a way that contribute to uphold global security [… EU] interests and values.” While single member states have clashed rhetorically with Beijing in the past, it is noteworthy how even more conciliatory states – like France and Hungary – now tacitly endorse such strong language, describing China’s rise as something to be managed. Beijing’s unwillingness to pressure Moscow and EU leaders’ suspicions that China is considering military assistance to Russia have hardened the bloc’s resolve. Ahead of the April 1 EU-China Summit, EU leaders are signaling forcefully that rendering Moscow aid is unacceptable and that Sino-European relations to a great deal are dependent on the choices now made over Ukraine.
Profoundly influenced by the Ukraine War, the drafting of the Strategic Compass has clarified EU defense priorities and delivered unprecedented pledges on joint defense upgrades, increasingly narrowing the gap between French overambition and German inclusivity. It has also aligned Washington and Brussels’ positions on strategic rivals much more closely for now.
Still, the Compass’s unresolved compromises and the impermanence of shared external grievances guarantee that internal contradictions will resurface. Nearly two decades after the European Security Strategy and six years after the EU Global Strategy, the Compass is still more reactive consensus-building than long-term strategizing. The EEAS has described the Strategic Compass as a vision for the EU’s security objectives for the next 5-10 years. Given how rapidly the world is changing, it would not be a surprise if this vision is revised sooner rather than later.