The EU’s Strategic Compass: Brand new, already obsolete

The Strategic Compass underlines the collective action problem at the heart of European attempts to pool defence efforts and resources: everyone agrees that closer integration is essential, but everyone wants someone else to go first

Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, on 27 March 2022 in Kuwait

In 1707, the splendidly monikered British Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell drowned himself and some two thousand sailors when he ran his ships aground at night on the rocks of the Isles of Scilly. There was nothing wrong with his compass: in the absence of a means to determine longitude, he just did not know where he was.

That is exactly the trouble with the Strategic Compass for Security and Defence that the European Union published on 21 March. The product of many months of debate in Brussels, this effort to align the strategic thinking of 27 member states, each with its own foreign and defence policies, was meant to be a foundational document for a geopolitical EU. But, as a strategy conceived and largely drafted in the days before Russian President Vladimir Putin changed the world, the Strategic Compass has simply been overtaken by events.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative, has done his best by adding an updated foreword. Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine underlines the urgent need for a “sea change in EU security and defence”. More investment is required “in a collaborative way and not in a fragmented, national manner”. “The threats are rising and the costs of inaction – of ‘non-Europe’ – are clear. I am convinced that we need a quantum leap forward on security and defence.” Well, yes. But the Compass itself is full of the usual process-heavy gradualism, to be implemented over a decade and wrapped in conventional reflections on the dangerous world we live in and the ever-popular bromides about the EU’s need to “partner” with all and sundry.

Perhaps the most striking example of how the Compass is now obsolete is the idea of a 5,000-strong EU Rapid Deployment Capacity (or ‘Force’, in normal language). This was always a doubtful proposition: after the EU’s failure to meet its post-Kosovo headline goal of an intervention force of 60,000, and similar lack of success with the subsequent (and never used) 1,500-strong battlegroups, there seems no obvious reason why Europeans or anyone else should take this new initiative seriously. This is especially true when it is to be commanded not by an EU Operational Headquarters, as was first mooted nearly 20 years ago, but by something called an “EU Military Planning and Conduct Capability” – a headquarters that dare not speak its name, and that the Compass admits to be deficient in manpower, facilities, and communications.

Now that NATO is rejuvenated and overhauling its whole defensive posture against Russia, no one will rush to stand up a new EU force

What really dooms the operational side of the Compass’s agenda is, of course, the same thing that has crimped the EU’s military aspirations from the beginning – the reluctance of top brass across Europe to take the enterprise seriously. NATO has always been where ‘serious’ military business is done, where they rub shoulders with (and are told what to do by) the mighty United States. The notion of EU intervention operations seems, by contrast, both amateurish and risky without the US to back them up. Now that NATO is rejuvenated and overhauling its whole defensive posture against Russia, no one will rush to stand up a new EU force.

In fairness to the generals who drag their feet on EU defence, they are hardly under pressure from their ministers. It is a classic collective action problem: everyone agrees that closer integration of European defence efforts and resources is essential, but everyone wants someone else to go first. The hard truth is that the waste and duplication in defence spending across Europe is not a bug but a feature of the system. The “fragmented, national manner” Borrell referred to is what preserves career structures in national armed forces, keeps inefficient national arms companies in business, and allows defence budgets to support other government agendas – including employment and regional policies, and straightforward pork-barrel politics.

Borrell argues that this time will be different, since the Compass “is a Member States-owned document now adopted by the Council”. But then so was the 2003 European Security Strategy, with its recognition that “to transform our militaries into more flexible, mobile forces, and to enable them to address the new threats, more resources for defence and more effective use of resources are necessary”. So too was the strategy document agreed by defence ministers in 2007, which recognised that “a fully adequate” European defence technological and industrial base “is no longer sustainable on a strictly national basis”, and that there was a need to “spend more, spend better, and spend more together” on defence research and technology. But member states address these oft-reiterated imperatives in the spirit of St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, make me virtuous – but not just yet”.

Latterly, the European Commission has decided to take charge. With €8 billion to spend over seven years to subsidise collaborative defence procurement and research, and with a new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, the Commission aims to bribe national governments (with what is, of course, largely their own money) to spend their defence budgets more effectively. Further incentives, including tax relief, are foreshadowed in the Compass. Of course, member states will happily take whatever free money is on offer – but otherwise continue to exploit the “national security” loopholes in EU treaties to carry on as before. The “quantum leap” is not going to happen until a critical mass of member states concludes that they really must start taking defence seriously.

“If not now, then when?” asks Borrell. Indeed. Certainly not now, if the heroic Ukrainians win their war – or at least force Russia into a stalemate – and the conclusion is drawn that NATO has come through well and the Americans are back. The EU would then have the various “actions” listed in the Compass to fall back on, providing a comfortable illusion of progress and displacement activity for staffers. But European leaders need to acknowledge the unsayable: that the Americans are back only for the duration of the current crisis, that the Russian military is not ten feet tall, and that – regardless of the outcome of US presidential elections – Washington will shortly be looking to Europeans to provide their own defence, with little more than intelligence and nuclear backup from across the Atlantic.

Like Shovell, Europe needs not a Compass but a real appreciation of the dangers it is straying into. A major course correction is required – an urgent, genuinely “Member State-owned” effort to bring about the defence integration that Europeans have discussed so much and done so little to implement in the past quarter-century. It would be nice to think that the leadership for this effort could emerge within Europe, perhaps from a partnership between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. More probably, and as usual, Europeans will wait for the US to tell them what to do, as it departs for the Pacific.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.