What is the 'strategic compass' and what does it mean for EU defence?

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By Alice Tidey
Austrian NATO peacekeeping EUFOR troops stop as they patrol in downtown Sarajevo, Bosnia, March 7, 2022.
Austrian NATO peacekeeping EUFOR troops stop as they patrol in downtown Sarajevo, Bosnia, March 7, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Armin Dorgut

A common European defence policy is being drawn up for the first time after an agreement by EU defence and foreign ministers on Monday.

The new strategy, known as the 'strategic compass', was described by the EU's top diplomat as a "turning point for the European Union as a security provider and an important step for the European security and defence policy."

Josep Borrell, who addressed reporters on Monday, stressed that "this is only the beginning."

It is now expected to be endorsed by EU leaders at a council summit on March 24 and 25.

What is the Strategic Compass?

It will lead to the creation of a strong EU rapid deployment capacity of up to 5,000 troops, regular live exercises on land and at sea, a substantial increase in member states' defence expenditures to reduce military gaps and stronger investments in defence research and development.

It also plans for more regular threats assessments and deeper cooperation with allies.

"This will allow us to support our partners and to be a better partner," Borrell said. "We want to act in a more coordinated way amongst us, and we want to act in a more integrated way with our partners."

For Isabella Antinozzi, Associate Researcher at the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, "on matters of EU defence, one has to applaud the little steps."

"Considered how much of a taboo common defence has always been, I don’t think EU efforts should be dismissed altogether. Compared to previous strategic reviews, this looks like a well-rounded document. For the very first time, and at the highest level, Europeans collectively released a joint threat assessment, a common vision and detailed objectives on EU security and defence," she told Euronews.

The strategic compass is, indeed, a long time in the making.

France, which has the most powerful army in the European Union, has been calling for a more coordinated defence strategy for years but its plea had largely fallen on deaf ears.

A previous attempt in 2016 — named the "Implementation Plan on Security and Defence" — stewarded by Frederica Mogherini, then EU high representative, fell through at the eleventh hour.

Crimea to Afghanistan

Eastern member states — such as the Baltics and Poland — were particularly reticent to such common policy despite the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014. These countries are heavily reliant on NATO and feared spooking the US which has many boots on the ground as part of the transatlantic alliance but also because of additional bilateral agreements.

But the situation at the EU's external borders has sharply deteriorated since then. Conflict erupted on the bloc's southern flank — notably in Libya and Syria fuelling a migratory crisis — as well as on its eastern flank with a brief but vicious war breaking out between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020.

Work on the strategic compass started that same year yet the Threat Analysis that came out of Phase I was never endorsed by EU leaders and classified.

But the Talibans' swift and brutal recapture of Aghanistan in summer 2021, which left EU countries, like other Western allies, scrambling to evacuate their nationals and Afghan citizens at risk of reprisal, accelerated negotiations.

Russia's build-up of troops along its shared border with Ukraine, which started in spring 2021, provided another impetus. Its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February sealed the deal.

'Stark change of rhetoric about Russia'

One of the notable aspects of the compass is that it "stresses the European Union’s mutual-assistance clause, which obligates members to aid “by all means in their power” those members facing armed aggression", similarly to NATO's Article 5 clause, Antinozzi stressed.

Another is the "stark change of rhetoric about Russia."

"While early drafts of the compass were characterised by a diplomatic approach where a would-be adversary is unnamed, now the document uses plain language painting Russia as an aggressor against its neighbour and as a threat to Europe," she explained.

But it has weaknesses.

There remain questions on how the rapid deployment capacity, which is meant to start exercises in 2023 and be operational by 2025, will work and whether the bloc will finally beef up the EU operational HQ meant to commandeer it.

Another is on partnerships.

Borrell namechecked NATO, the United Nations and the African Union on Monday evening but for Antinozzi, the compass "fails to explain how the identified partners are instrumental to achieving the identified security and defence objectives."

"Any real utility from partnering depends on ensuring that “form follows function”. In other words, decide what if anything you want to do with someone else, what you hope to get out of it, and only then what sort of event or process would best serve that end – the compass does none of the above. It also fails to acknowledge that to enhance strategic autonomy, European, non-EU partners (e.g., UK, Norway) are key," she said.

In fact, she described the UK as one of the losers of this new strategy.

"The document devotes barely a line to outlining cooperation with the UK – which is striking considering how much of a key partner the UK is on matters of security and defence. This is, to me, a clear sign that relations between London and Brussels are completely strained," she emphasised.

More money for defence

The UK though is part of NATO and the EU is taking great pains to underline that this new strategy will in no way replace the transatlantic alliance but in fact strengthen it.

Most EU countries are NATO members, as are Albania, Canada, North Macedonia, Turkey, the UK, and the US.

Yet, most have consistently failed in their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence expenditures, as required by NATO, regularly drawing criticism from Washinton. Greece, Croatia, the UK, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and France were the only European countries reaching that threshold last year.

But the strategic compass could see that criticism silenced as it indicates that EU member states "committed to substantially enhance their defence expenditures".

It also plans to strengthen member states' ability to jointly fund research and development projects based on their capability requirements — which should result in more "Made in Europe" next-generation military equipment — and for them to jointly invest in capabilities.

Military equipment doesn't come cheap and as the threats evolve — cyber attacks play an increasing role while Russia has just deployed new hypersonic missiles — so does technology but it can be out of reach for small countries with small budgets, like the Baltics.

Since January, when the buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine had already reached over 100,000, NATO allies have boosted their resources to its eastern flank with more troops and more capabilities including warships and fighter jets.

The US has also sharply increased the number of troops it has deployed on a bilateral basis in some European countries. For the first time since 2005, there were 100,000 US soldiers deployed across Europe in mid-March.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all border Russia, have all in particular demanded and received more assistance. But they say more is needed.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said on Monday prior to their Foreign Affairs Council that "the Baltics states are in desperate need of additional attention when it comes to security and defence. We have been relying on deterrence, I think that phase should be over. We have to really now on actual standing defence."

"I think we need to see more equipment and first of all the actual defence plans of the Baltics that would reflect the strategic reality of the region," he added.

Latvia's Defence Ministry indicated to Euronews back in February that it needed further capabilities, "particularly in the realm of air defence, that would close glaring military gaps."

The country's Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkevics, welcomed the approval of the key document on Monday, arguing "it gives the necessary toolbox for EU to become a real geopolitical and security player together with NATO."

"It's only the beginning of the journey. Much will depend on how successful we support Ukraine against Russia's aggression," he added

'A capable and assertive foreign policy actor'

Over the past couple of years, EU officials and leaders have been clamouring as often as possible that they want the bloc to play a have a greater geopolitical weight globally.

But the weeks preceding Russia's invasion of Ukraine dealt a great blow to these aspirations with European countries largely sidelined from Russia-US talks on European security.

Since then, the EU has clobbered Russia with massive sanctions in a swift and united way, which boosted the EU's geopolitical credentials.

The strategic compass should further that.

As part of its new policy, the EU is committing to drawing up a new threat analysis every three years, which, according to Antinozzi, "is key to the creation of a European Strategic culture which, in turn, can make EU foreign, security and defence policies far more coherent."

"As a response to the invasion, the EU has shown — possibly for the first time in its lifetime— that it can be a capable and assertive foreign policy actor. This breathes new life into its grandiose rhetoric, not least into the strategic compass," she concluded.