Official and intellectual efforts seem to have gained traction of late geared towards elaborating the EU’s Strategic Compass (SC) to be adopted in March 2022 under the French presidency.
Hence leaks, comments, and forecasts are galore as the deadline for the SC approaches. A hectic period lies ahead to formulate the EU SC, and the near future will demonstrate whether that strategic document ends up in dwarfed heights or catapults the efforts of the last three decades on EU security and defence into new dimensions.
Although this is not the first time the EU launches a process to streamline its quest for strategic autonomy in the security and defence domain, the strategic landscape in which the SC will be operationalised is radically different from previous occasions.
The comfort zone of the post-Cold War era is no more, and it has become evident that the EU will have to take on more responsibilities particularly in its neighbourhood and beyond to claim a strategic role. The imminent term will be a litmus test for the EU to demonstrate to what extent it will substantiate the controversial notion of strategic autonomy in security and defence.
The trek to strategic autonomy started in the 1990s with the Maastricht Treaty and witnessed different stages culminating in developing and strengthening C(F)SDP/ESDP initially by the introduction of new structures within the EU.
In the aftermath of the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty of 2010 and particularly during the Trump administration, the momentum to corroborate the EU’s security and defence pillar had acquired momentum at a time of bruised transatlantic relations.
When Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, Merkel made a clarion call to her EU colleagues to ‘take the destiny of Europe into their hands.’ Before that urging, the EU launched several initiatives such as PESCO, EDF, CARD guided by the EU’s Global Strategy of 2016. The level of ambition for strategic autonomy was thus conceptually elevated, but the capabilities as well as the financial pillar needed to realise it were missing.
The call by the then President of the EU Commission Juncker to constitute an EU Army, later to be referenced by the succeeding President Ursula von der Leyen was alluring to some within the EU but lacked any solid basis to act upon.
Such calls were reinforced by Macron’s proposal for a European Intervention Initiative in 2017 to foster the emergence of a European strategic culture with a focus on reinforcing the ability of Europeans to act together. And the real blow came when Macron declared NATO’s brain dead prior to the London Summit in 2019.
The question was once again to what extent intentions matched the EU’s capabilities, and more importantly whether there was a common political will in the ranks of the EU to carry forward such ambitious initiatives without undermining the transatlantic bond despite the strains between European Allies and the U.S.
High Representative Borrell summed it up in his recent article of 12 November 2021 to the effect that ‘this effort in no way contradicts Europe’s commitment to NATO, which remains at the heart of our territorial defense.’ This is exactly where the buck stops!
The Franco-German Treaty of Aachen of 2019 notwithstanding, the spat between the German Defence Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer and President Macron in 2020 as to the role of the U.S. security guarantees for Europe signified a bone of contention among the two leading EU members as to the future of the EU’s strategic autonomy. Now that a new coalition government is formed in Germany to be led by Social Democrats almost on the heels of the EU SC, the topic as to how Germany’s approach to strategic autonomy evolves will be of high interest.
The broader scene in Europe was further compounded by the finalisation of Brexit and its implications for European security and defence. The fact that the U.K., a major player in European security calculus, became a ‘third party’ for the EU cannot simply be neglected sofar as European security at large is concerned.(https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/a-new-transatlantic-compact-in-the-aftermath-of-brexit)
When Biden took the helm in the U.S. in 2021, a ray of hope appeared for the EU over the horizon to reconcile the EU’s ambition in the security and defence realm within the transatlantic frame. Biden’s contacts with the EU leaders and the ‘NATO 2030: United for a New Era’ report by the Independent Experts Group, in which one of us took part, rekindled the spirit of transatlantic solidarity and raised hopes to redefine the urge toward EU’s strategic autonomy, albeit under new terms (https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Reflection-Group-Final-Report-Uni.pdf)
The latitude seized in transatlantic relations came under strain once again during the period leading to the dramatic withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the AUKUS pact launched among the U.S., the U.K., and Australia in September and the continuing shift of the U.S. focus to Indo-Pacific to counterbalance the increasing influence of China in that region.(https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/from-kabul-to-canberra-new-destinations-or-dead-alleys/)
It has now become a twist of history that the EU’s SC is under way when the strategic rivalry among the U.S., Russia, and China is reaching new peaks. How that process will transpire in March 2022 EU Summit is destined to remain on the agendas of political pundits and defence planners at a critical inflection point.
It is yet to be seen whether and to what degree the version of the draft text to be submitted to the EU leaders in December, and the upcoming NATO-EU joint declaration before the end of 2021 impact on galvanising an understanding among the EU members on a short term strategic guiding document extending to 2025.
Another irony that must be reckoned is that the EU SC will be adopted before NATO’s updated Strategic Concept to be adopted in June 2022 Summit. Owing to that peculiar sequence, will the EU SC provide a breathing ground for NATO or introduce new frictions to the transatlantic frame remains to be seen.
It is necessary more than ever to propose some potential ingredients for the EU SC in the following terms:
Image: Dr. Christian Mölling, Troben Schütz, “The EU’s Strategic Compass and its Four Baskets”, DGAP Report, November 2020. Available at https://dgap.org/en/research/publications/eus-strategic-compass-and-its-four-baskets