Grand illusions: Partnerships in the EU’s Strategic Compass

Cooperation with third countries is central to EU foreign policy. Yet the Strategic Compass will need to be careful to avoid security and defence partnerships that create only the appearance of progress.

Belgium, Brussels, 2021/05/19. European Union Military Committee Chairman General Claudio Graziano (c,l), NATO Military Committee Chairman Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach (c,r) and EU Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) pose for the family photo on May 19, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell addressed the EUMC which agenda includes the strategic compass and the EU battle group. Aspects of cooperation between the EU and NATO were discussed together with Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach. Photograph by Olivier Matthys / Pool / Hans Lucas. || Mindestpreis 10 Euro
European Union Military Committee Chairman General Claudio Graziano (c,l), NATO Military Committee Chairman Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach (c,r) and EU Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) pose

International partnerships are a staple of EU foreign policy. Yet the European Union’s approach to such arrangements has long been somewhat counterintuitive: instead of conditioning who it works with on what it wants to achieve, the EU frequently does the opposite. This tendency was memorably captured in former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy’s remark: “we have strategic partnerships, now we need a strategy.” The Strategic Compass the EU is developing has the potential to reverse this trend and breathe new life into its patchy approach to partnerships. However, early drafts of the document seem to be long on rhetoric and short on content.

The document’s chapter on partnerships is no exception. That is, its statements of its global ambitions lack detail on how to fulfil them. Unlike previous strategic documents, the Strategic Compass attempts to differentiate between and compartmentalise the EU’s strategic partners, even organising them along multilateral (NATO and the United Nations), regional (the African Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and bilateral lines. The Strategic Compass also differentiates between the EU’s bilateral relationships, with the United States featuring prominently as an essential partner. Here, the document promises to build on the momentum created by the EU-US Summit of June 2021 and to strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation on security and defence. This is followed by a brief paragraph on Norway, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as well as sections mentioning Turkey, the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership, the southern neighbourhood, Africa, the Indo-Pacific, and Latin America.

Of course, it is difficult to criticise the idea of building bridges with third countries. Yet, in the security and defence realm, the proliferation of partnerships tends to become a handy way to create an illusion of progress. The Strategic Compass needs to avoid this pitfall. For the EU’s partnerships to be effective, policymakers will need to take the following steps.

Tailored partnerships

The EU should admit that its partners are an instrument to achieve foreign policy objectives. So, each partnership should involve a tailor-made component to ensure that each is best suited to achieving a specific goal. But the EU has long been reluctant to tailor its partnership agreements in this way. Instead, it has generally favoured deals that are scalable and applicable to sets of countries rather than to individual states – largely to avoid creating political tensions in member states where Eurosceptic political parties could be tempted to push for a kind of membership lite (such as Denmark and Sweden). Although, again, the Strategic Compass’s rhetoric on tailoring partnerships is promising, it gives no indication of how this will translate into effective policy. Nonetheless, if the EU is to establish goal-oriented relationships with third-country partners, it will have to address a series of practical considerations.

Firstly, the EU needs to consider how tailored security partnerships will differ from existing frameworks such as partnership and cooperation, association, and framework agreements. Additionally, the union will need to decide whether its partnerships should be tailored to EU foreign policy objectives – and if so, which – or to the partner country’s national contexts. Finally, it will need to think about how these more ad hoc arrangements could affect the structure and composition of the European External Action Service. For example, should the EU have a bigger delegation and a military attaché in countries that are strategic partners? Failing to address these questions only thickens the miasma of confused and conflicting responsibilities in bilateral partnerships and other vectors of engagement, such as inter-regional relations and multilateral cooperation formats.

Appealing union

The EU should also improve its credentials as a strategic partner. Indeed, strategic partnerships are a political affair and, in politics, perceptions matter. Emerging powers take a particularly instrumental approach to international cooperation. Therefore, if the EU is to develop effective relationships with them, it will need to be perceived as an appealing partner.

It is only by strengthening ties with key non-EU European partners that the union can reconcile its goal of strategic autonomy with its need for openness

As political scientist Giovanni Grevi puts it: “in a context marked by the revival of nationalism and power politics, a rules-based Union of states and peoples seeking to establish rules-based international cooperation is a global public good.” Therefore, the EU should better leverage its credentials as a regulatory superpower by finding ways to connect internal policies and assets to external instruments and objectives. For example, the union should seek to establish a level playing field for the development and use of emerging technologies in Europe as a step towards shaping related multilateral regimes.

To become a more attractive strategic partner, the EU will need to improve its coordination with member states, especially given that some of them have strategic partnerships that overlap with its own. Where this is the case, the union should spell out to those partners why engaging with Brussels is preferable to dealing with national capitals.

Less can be more

In security and defence, rather than extending partner status to countries across the world, the EU should focus on those players that will be fundamental in making the union more strategically autonomous, such as Norway and the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is striking that the Strategic Compass barely mentions either of these countries. Although the transatlantic partnership will remain central to EU security and defence, it is only by strengthening ties with key non-EU European partners that the union can reconcile its goal of strategic autonomy with its need for openness. To this end, the EU should make it more appealing for these European partners to participate in its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) through existing mechanisms and processes.

It is important for the EU to recognise that excluding the UK from European defence is likely to be both unrealistic and counterproductive. As such, any mixed feelings and wider political tensions associated with Brexit should now give way to constructive defence dialogue between the sides. For this purpose, Brussels needs to offer attractive docking mechanisms to London, such as ad hoc participation in meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and other CFSP processes. As I have argued elsewhere, security and defence are versatile policy areas with the potential to help rebuild trust between London and Brussels. And ad hoc cooperation in these realms could provide a foundation for a better political relationship in the future.

As for Norway, it is startling that the Strategic Compass mentions it in the same breath as the UK and Canada, both of which have far less institutionalised relationships with the EU. This seems to ignore the fact that Norway is the non-member state most integrated into the EU, potentially reducing its willingness to deepen its security and defence relationship with the union. Therefore, any tailored partnership with Norway should reassure Oslo that it will not be left out of EU defence integration (in areas such as industrial development, financial support mechanisms, and intellectual property rights – the final one of these being an issue that Norway has been particularly preoccupied with).

In all, the EU is right to invest political capital and adequate resources in its strategic partnerships. Partnerships and strategic autonomy can be complementary. However, the EU needs to create partnerships that have substantive policy benefits. Form should follow function, especially on security and defence. As in the Jean Renoir movie, European defence is the prisoner of a grand illusion – a belief that one can turn something into reality just by talking about it. The EU should first decide why a specific objective is best achieved through a partnership and what it hopes to get from that specific partner. Then – and only then – should it determine the process that would best serve its interests.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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