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TematicheItalia ed EuropaThe European Union’s Strategic Compass

The European Union’s Strategic Compass


In recent years, with more strategic competition between countries and increased security concerns, Europe’s security is highly at risk because it faces a wider range of threats and challenges than before. There is a global power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, while Europe may experience the danger of being irrelevant instead of being a global actor. These challenges require the European Union to respond to external crises and conflicts, to support partners to provide security for their citizens, and to protect the Union and its citizens.

These three strategies are priorities for the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and were defined in the Implementation Plan on Security and Defense five years ago. The EU made progress in civilian crisis management, partnerships, and trade policies; however, its military tools remained weak due to a lack of political will and appropriate military means. In other words, the EU’s security and defense efforts have so far been more rhetoric and less action.
The EU is in the danger of “strategic shrinkage” because of ideological, geopolitical, and economic pressures from all sides. Therefore, the EU’s security and defense responsibilities and the capacities it needs to fulfill the responsibilities should be rethought to provide security for its citizens, act faster and more decisively to protect its values and interests, and contribute to international peace and security.

The Strategic Compass, as an operational guide for the EU’s development and decision-making on security and defense, was initiated during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second-half of 2020.
The Compass is meant “to boost the EU’s ability to manage and navigate through international challenges, to make the EU’s ambitions in the fields of security and defense more concrete, and to provide additional guidance to the Union’s military and strategic levels”. The Compass is designed to answer three questions: what are the threats and challenges the EU faces? How can the EU effectively collect all its assets and manage them? And what is the best way to promote the EU’s influence as a regional and global actor?
The Compass may help the EU become a more effective international actor for two main reasons. First, it will inject a new dose of political direction into the system of EU defense cooperation that will guide its development until 2025-30. Second, the Compass will provide further guidance to the member states’ military planners.

Development of Strategic Compass

The first phase to develop the Strategic Compass is to do a complete and independent analysis of the threats and challenges that the EU will face in the next 5-10 years. This comprehensive threat analysis is a classified document and not accessible to public. The EU’s Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity (SIAC) (which includes the EU Intelligence Centre and EU Military Staff Intelligence) conducted the first EU Threat Analysis based on information from the civilian and military intelligence services of the 27 EU member states. SIAC followed its standard and well-established consensus evaluation procedure and shared a draft of the analysis with the intelligence services of the member states for comments.

Regarding the threats, there are different concerns. Many member states find terrorism, cyber-security, hybrid threats, organized crime, proliferation, violent conflict, resource and energy supply, espionage, and illegal migration as threats. Also, the member states consider pandemics and disease as security threats long before COVID-19 struck. Still, for some member states, the rise of militarism, the erosion of multilateralism, cyber-attacks, climate change and conflict are threats to their security.
In addition, the EU faces a slowdown in globalization, growing economic rivalry between global powers, climate change and competition for resources, migratory pressures, and threats to the multilateral system at the global level; while regional instability, conflict, state fragility, inter-state tensions, external influences, destabilizing impact of non-state actors are the threats the EU encounters at the regional level. Meanwhile, the state and non-state actors that target the EU with hybrid tools, including disruptive technologies, disinformation, and other non-military sources of influence are the threats against the EU.

For the adoption of the Strategic Compass by March 2022, the EU had to pass the phase of the ‘strategic dialogue’ with the member states and institutions, including the involvement of think tanks and other stakeholders.
The strategic dialogue aimed to ask the member states to assess their major needs, the main implications of the threat analysis and the relevant policy guidelines, and to discuss their priorities.

The second half of 2021 witnesses the development of the Strategic Compass, which addresses four different but inter-linked areas. The first area is called “crisis management mission”, which includes the types and numbers of the missions and operations that the EU is going to run autonomously. The second area is “capabilities”, which covers the issue of autonomy, that is, the European military capabilities needed for the indicated types of EU military engagement. The third area is “resilience”, which is the role of the EU to counter hybrid threats (such as cyber-attacks, disinformation, and propaganda). The fourth area is named “partnerships”, which concerns the general relations of the EU with the UN, NATO, global powers, and regional actors in the security dimension.

In November 2021, a draft of the “Strategic Compass” was presented. It concerns geopolitical competition, rising threats, accelerated technological development, the climate crisis, and global instability. It also attempts to facilitate a “common sense of purpose” in Union security and defense, strengthen action, deepen partnerships, and stimulate innovation.
Then, the member states exchanged views on the state of playing out the Compass.

Any Problems?

The divergence that the member states show in their perceptions of the threats can be the main weakness of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Some member states worry about Russian aggression in the East, while some others are concerned about the consequences of state fragility in the South. In addition, new security challenges such as climate change, cyber-attacks and disinformation, and civilian and military threats are focused mainly on by some member states. There is a danger of engaging in a “Christmas tree approach”, which means each member state adds the threat/s that it considers most relevant. These differences have important implications for the EU’s role in providing security. Starting a meaningful discussion of objectives, priorities and means involves a more shared analysis of threats and challenges. The EU should ignore the “Christmas tree approach”. The discussions should focus on those threats and challenges that a few member states find them priorities and on the most controversial items, such as the EU’s role in the Great Power competition between Russia, China, and the US. Threats should be analyzed for the purpose of building internal consensus rather than external communication. 

To guarantee a speedier, more cohesive, and efficient crisis response, a focused list of priorities must be agreed upon. Before thinking about reforming current tools and institutions in 2021, it is critical that working on the strategic dialogue proceeds in the correct direction. The progress of the Compass must be stabilized with new documents such as the plans to update and implement security and defense and technologies to be sure of consistency and compliance. The principle of subsidiarity should be applied if possible, but the EU’s resilience can be achieved only through the interaction of different levels and actors: between the EU institutions, the EU and member states, between public and private sectors, between civilian and military actors, and between the EU and NATO. For capacitive development, it is important to ask “how the process of prioritizing capabilities can be simplified and how to strengthen political structures and the integration of military expertise without changing the treaties and without upsetting the existing institutional landscape.” The priority of partnerships should be based on their capacity to fulfill well-defined objectives, and the EU, NATO, and the UN need to be made truly complementary.

Crisis management faces two risks: getting stuck in meta-debates such as on strategic autonomy and getting lost in micro-concepts such as refining concepts for EU training missions. The member states need courage to address and prioritize the controversial strategic questions. The Compass must have a “whole of the EU approach” and link the various instruments that the EU institutions and the member states need to manage to enhance the EU’s resilience. Resilience is going to minimize the disruptive effect of any event on the normal functioning of the EU, the member states, and European societies. The member states cannot become sufficiently resilient to current threats by themselves. The subsidiarity principle should be used wherever appropriate. The Compass will finally fail if it does not have roots in national defense planning. Therefore, any decision must be balanced by the needs of the member states, and any capability priorities in the Compass need to be managed by the defense planners who divide their time between national planning, NATO, the EU, and other capability initiatives. So, it will be particularly important to work with those member states that favor the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP). Despite the limitations, the Compass can build on the extensive network of the constructed partners ranging from close and value-based partnerships to neutral and transactional partners.

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