Jan 14, 2022

Why Europe’s Strategic Compass Points to Trouble

The EU’s new defense strategy runs the risk of adopting a bleak worldview while suggesting measures that are inadequate to address such a world of dangers. A much better investment would be to strengthen Europe’s capabilities within NATO.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell pose for a family photo with European Union countries' defence ministers and representatives during an informal meeting of European Union countries' Defence Ministers in Brest, western France, January 13, 2022.
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The only thing worse than a dull European defense document is one that tries to be too dramatic. On December 16, European Union leaders endorsed the Strategic Compass as their new “ambitious and actionable strategy” for European defense. Many experts in the tight knit European security community worry that in proposing a bolder approach, the EU’s ego is writing cheques its body can’t cash. Specifically, they fear that the EU will once again fail to develop the capabilities it needs to follow its Compass, and thus will be left exposed in a dangerous world. Yet, an informal “Gymnich” meeting of European defense and foreign ministers in Brest this week seems likely to affirm this new direction for EU security strategy.     

Indeed, it is entirely likely that the Compass will only amplify the perennial gap between Europe’s defense expectations and capacity. But this isn’t the biggest danger. If it follows this Compass, the EU risks not only leaving itself exposed but alienating its most important ally and altering its own identity, perhaps irreversibly, for the worse. By doing so, the EU would not only exacerbate the dangers it does face but would also reduce its capacity to deal with them by undermining its genuine power as a unique and creative geopolitical force.

The bleak worldview presented in the Compass is indicative of a mindset that has already encroached on many areas of EU policy—that of “a Europe that protects.” In practice, the EU has developed a doctrine that Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe has called “protective security.” It’s a far cry from the EU’s idealistic origins and the more progressive, optimistic approach that brought it historical success. In contrast, the Strategic Compass threatens to take the EU further down a protective path. This is also a concern for the United States and other NATO members, as important allies would likely become both more distant and more distracted while the EU would become less useful as a partner.

Navigating “a New World of Threats”

The Compass is a signature project of the EU’s top diplomat, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. Following a series of public missteps, Borrell presaged the Compass presentation to EU member state ministers in December with a widely shared op-ed piece, accompanied it with an additional “personal foreword,” and followed up with a blog post arguing that, as the draft had been well received, it was “time to move forward.”

To galvanize the EU’s recalcitrant and divided members into collective action, Borrell and the External Action Service have created the darkest vision of European (in)security ever publicly avowed by an EU institution. The message, repeated in each of the documents, couldn’t be clearer: “Europe is in danger” and so the EU must double down on its protective approach and develop the capabilities and attitude to make it work. Compare, for example, the 2003 strategy that sought to create “a secure Europe in a better world” and emphasized opportunities as well as threats.

Sadly, the new threat assessment really goes all out to take the EU in a different, more negative direction. It asserts that Europe’s “security landscape” is “more diverse, complex, and fragmented than ever” (quite a claim, given the continent’s history). A new “era of strategic competition,” the “return of power politics” and “zones [sic] of influence” are seen to create a “risk of being outpaced” by “ambitious new actors.” Climate change is a “threat multiplier” and even decarbonization is replete with new dangers.

Time and again the texts emphasize rapid geopolitical change for the (very much) worse, a significant proliferation and growing complexity of interlinked threats facing the EU, and a resultant radical uncertainty in regional and global politics. The Compass argues that ‘the EU is surrounded by instability and conflicts’ and, in his foreword, Borrell warns that ‘threats are coming from everywhere’ and “intensifying.”

The Compass thus calls for “greater urgency and determination,” while painting the EU’s previous approach as one of “inaction” and “passivity.” It also demands new capacities and competences to “better anticipate” emerging threats and address them in new realms. EU citizens are said to recognize that as “security starts away from [their] borders” and in light of the US “shift to Asia,” the EU must “take more responsibility for [its] own security—in [its] neighborhood and beyond.” 

“A New Concept of Security”?

So how do Borrell and the European External Action Service propose that the EU deal with this rapidly deteriorating and thoroughly dangerous world? The Compass bids the EU and its member states to “act,” “secure,” “invest,” and “partner.” This entails creating a Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops; “reinforcing” civilian missions and military operations under the Common Security and Defense Policy; upgrading command and control structures; boosting intelligence capabilities; creating a “hybrid toolbox” and developing or upgrading policies and strategies for cyber, space, and maritime domains.

Reformed capability planning and a dedicated “defense innovation hub” will complement the joint development and procurement of weapons (including patrol ships, unmanned naval vehicles, future combat air systems, Anti-Access/Area Denial capacities, and Main Battle Tanks) as well as accompanying “strategic enablers.” The Compass highlights key bilateral partnerships (such as with the United States for which it suggests continuation of current cooperation) and multilateral partnerships (such as with NATO for which a deeper political dialogue is foreseen).

This is forward movement—but not to an extent commensurate with the doom-laden worldview of the threat assessment. Borrell and his co-authors have taken a discursive sledgehammer to crack a rather small nut. If enacted, it would leave the EU looking much like any other aspirant regional power, only less well equipped, strategically coherent, or credibly committed. Contrary to the strategy’s claim, this approach is not new. Its significance, however, lies in its deepening and broadening of the “protective security” approach that the EU has now taken to cyber and terrorist threats, as well as inward migration (which it styles as a threat).

The Usual Suspects

Analysts close to Borrell and the External Action Service see the gravest risk as being that the Compass will fail to deliver on even these modest capability and competence upgrades. They are right to worry. Having clearly signaled it seeks a bigger global role and is willing to pursue its interests through traditional hard power, the EU will be left exposed if it cannot. Tellingly, even the Compass’ flagship capability—the Rapid Deployment Capacity—offers no new troops but draws on triple-badged soldiers (state, NATO, EU) in the same way as the EU’s ill-fated and never used “battlegroups.”

Failure to provide adequate financial resources to develop the other listed capabilities also remain a real risk as many member states have previously been unwilling put their money where the EU’s mouth is. Convincing them to do so may get harder still as the incoming German government’s defense priorities appear focused on NATO, which they describe asthe indispensable foundation of our security,” rather than the EU. Across Europe, commitment to increasing defense spending, particularly through the EU, remains uneven. This risk is only heightened by the European Commission’s consideration of branding the defense industry as “socially harmful,” showing the persistent strategic confusion and lack of coordination between the EU’s various bodies.

To seasoned EU watchers, many of the Compass’ supposedly “concrete” and “measurable” objectives actually look depressingly familiar as well as vague, designed to be all-too-easily ticked off. Those that are more substantive may prove divisive, including the Rapid Deployment Capacity, which is not unanimously supported by the member states. Talk of developing “full spectrum forces” as well as “hypersonics” and military Artificial Intelligence will alarm Berlin where even acquiring armed drones needed a decade-long debate and remains an ongoing saga. The Compass’ proposal for more “flexible” decision making—in practice side-lining concerned or opposed member states—will exacerbate rather than ease intra-European schisms.

All this makes it difficult to envision a large increase in capabilities and effectiveness. Rather, it would leave Borrell and Co. trying, falteringly and imprudently, to speak an unfamiliar “language of power” but unable to back it up with action or materiel.

The EU’s Identity Is in Danger

Worse, the effort to achieve these capabilities would carry dangers in itself. Surrendering to the Compass’ dark vision would lock the EU into an inflationary politics of fear, which is anathema to its unique identity. The present moment is no scarier than 1950 or more uncertain than 1989. At both junctures Europeans sought innovative and hopeful rather than tragic and fearful responses to abundant threats and rapid change.

Contrary to Borrell’s assertion, the EU does not need to become a security provider—it has always been one. It delivered security precisely by eschewing the type of partial and paranoid worldview presented in the Compass while also disavowing military means to achieve its ends. The EU owes its very existence, as well as its greatest achievements—the Schengen zone, enlargement, the eurozone, the European Neighborhood Policy—to creative rather than traditional geopolitics as well as a progressive and inclusive vision of security.

It would be difficult to imagine such achievements being made today, especially with the kind of fearful, narrowly egoistic and overly protective worldview presented in the Compass. An illustrative example comes from migration and mobility policy, which has shifted from focusing on facilitating movement and encouraging socialization between people from different nations, to securing the EU from the seemingly dangerous external world. It has progressively fortified its borders and largely delegated its thinking on mobility to the suspicious minds of law enforcement professionals and border guards.

Worse, it has institutionalized this mindset through Frontex and its risk analysis model, which reigns supreme in border and migration policy. Crucially, this view of migrants and mobility is not offset by any positive language about the benefits of immigration. A picture is thus created that the EU is threatened by hostile outsiders that it needs to be protected from. This has negatively affected relations with neighbors, harmed the EU’s own (economic) interests, and undermined its ability to project and uphold its values, as well as to protect refugees and others in danger. It is a pattern that the Compass seeks to emulate in its quest to anticipate threats in the name of creating a common (in)security culture for Europe.

The EU-NATO Division of Labor

Of course, there was always a military underpinning to the EU’s ability to wield its exemplary and transformative power. The EU succeeded because of its productive division of labor with NATO—possibly the most effective “good cop, bad cop” double act in geopolitical history. NATO, led by the US, provided the defense and deterrence that allowed the EU to eschew military means, hard power, and traditional geopolitical thinking. In doing so it found ways to develop and spread its particular model of mutual and progressive security, complementing and amplifying the American approach to liberal ordering.

In recent times this mutually beneficial bargain has come apart as a result of both European cheap riding and hegemonic American hubris, which left the US with an unmanageable global burden. At the same time, the EU’s effectiveness was undermined by its increasingly protective security thinking which has, lately, been compounded by delusions of military adequacy. Thus, while it is beyond question that Europeans need to do more to provide for their own defense, the way to do it is through NATO.

Paris may celebrate the Compass’ call for a more independent European military. Some in Washington might also welcome anything that shakes the Europeans out of their torpor and encourages them to be more serious about their own security. But the idea of “strategic autonomy” remains highly controversial—and risky—for Europeans and Americans alike. In Warsaw and Berlin concerns abound over its potential to undermine NATO and split the West. In the wake of AUKUS, it’s clear that even if the intent of autonomy is not to alienate the US, that may well be its practical effect, as several German parliamentarians recently noted.

There are, of course, promises of close consultation, complementarity, and cooperation but the Compass’ needle points dangerously close to autonomy, which explicitly assumes that Europe’s interests diverge from those of the US. Developing capabilities to meet the EU’s perceived needs rather than filling NATO’s own lacunae would only fuel fears of transatlantic divergence. It would also be ineffective. Indeed, the Ukraine crisis may concentrate minds in this regard—nobody will be appealing to the EU for protection from military threats any time soon. It is also indicative that the EU has not found a meaningful role in responding to Vladimir Putin’s Russia trying to renovate (or demolish) Europe’s security architecture.

The best way for Europeans to shoulder greater responsibility for their security is reviving and investing in their security relationship with the United States, especially through NATO. This should go well beyond what is envisaged in either the Compass or the latest EU Council Conclusions. European countries should insist on (and be encouraged in) exercising commensurately greater authority and control in the alliance and complement this by reviving the EU’s progressive and creative approach to geopolitics.

The Strategic Compass is still a draft (even though France is pushing for adopting it as early as March) and by resisting its rush toward ever more protective security, the EU can still change course for the better. If it doesn’t, it risks losing its identity, its real geopolitical value, and its ability to meaningfully provide security in and beyond Europe.

Benjamin Tallis is a Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin.

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