For years, the EU’s security environment has continued to deteriorate. To Europe’s South, European efforts to project stability in Mali and the wider Sahel region have not met with the hoped-for successes. The crises in Syria and Libya have gone into their second decade, but Europeans have barely been relevant actors in the efforts to settle them. The Afghanistan mission has failed, and the chaotic withdrawal has painfully illustrated Europe’s total military dependence on the United States. Simultaneously, great power competition between the US and China has emerged as the dominant factor of international politics. Faced with all these developments, the gap between the EU's global ambitions and its actual influence has grown. It has long been clear that the EU and its Member States need to adapt their security and defence policy to new realities to shape international developments rather than being shaped by them.

Right time

Putin’s war has now put an end to all effort to integrate Russia into the European security order. For the foreseeable future Europe’s task will be to deter Moscow’s aggression and to manage a long-term confrontational relationship with the Kremlin in close alliance with the United States. In response to Putin’s war, many states across Europe have decided to turn their security and defence policies upside down. Many will significantly increase their defence spending. Denmark just held a successful referendum on ending the CSDP opt-out, Sweden and Finland want to join NATO.

To react to these developments, the EU’s Strategic Compass comes at just the right time. Although it cannot provide a full answer to the war in Ukraine, which it was never intended to do, it offers a concrete roadmap for developing the tools that the EU needs to finally become a more forceful actor in European defence and security. With its deliverables, it sets the direction that European Member States must now take.

No alternative to NATO

The biggest obstacle on the way to a stronger EU has always been that there is little consensus on what the overall ambition of the EU should be – especially in relation to NATO. Member States differ in their judgement of which organisation should form the central framework for European sovereignty. This became particularly evident during the Trump years when Europeans engaged in a divisive debate about the need for more “strategic autonomy”. Luckily, the Strategic Compass is in no way trying to position the EU as an alternative to NATO. On the contrary, the emphasis on the need for constructive cooperation between the two organisations is a recurring theme throughout the document.

Two aspects are particularly important. First, the division of labour between the EU and NATO and both organisations' own aspirations have become more distinct. The Compass takes a clear position and attributes the role of Europe's collective defence clearly to NATO while the EU’s focus is on crisis management. At the same time, however, the Compass also states that the EU can and should play a role as crucial enabler of a stronger European defence.

Invest more and better

The biggest contribution to this is the commitment by EU Member States to invest more and better in defence capabilities and innovative technologies. In view of the large sums that the individual Member States will invest in defence in the coming years, the incentives which the Compass suggests (Commission / EDA report on collective investment gaps, VAT waiver, more money for the European Defence Fund…) to spend the money better and in a more coordinated manner are urgently needed. Given that European citizens are already very burdened by inflation and increased energy and food prices, Member States will have to work even harder to achieve more efficiency at less cost if they want to ensure that societies sustain high defence spending in the long run.

The main aim must be to jointly procure and develop military capabilities in the EU framework that can also bolster NATO's deterrence and defence capacity. Increased efforts in the field of military mobility will also benefit European defence, just like the planned measures to increase European resilience.


Uncertain relationship with the US

As good as the transatlantic relationship is at the moment, Europeans should not be under any illusion that Washington’s shifting priorities and calls for Europeans to take a greater share of the burden will diminish. The truth is that without the strong leadership of the United States, Europeans would have been less united and forceful when Russia started the war on Ukraine. However, it would be wrong to take the American commitment and engagement for granted. The more Europeans invest in their own defence capabilities in the coming years, the more attractive they will become as partners for the US. This will not happen without friction, especially when it comes to industrial policy issues and the question of whether the many additional billions for defence should be spent on European or American products. In the process, the Europeans must repeatedly signal to Washington that a more capable Europe in security and defence must include a strong, innovative and competitive defence industry whose expertise in strategic future technologies is on a par with that of other major powers.

Precisely because the US will focus its security engagement more narrowly in the future, the Europeans must have more responsibility when it comes to providing security in their own periphery. After the experiences of Afghanistan and Mali, intervention fatigue has set in. The war in Ukraine is now drawing additional attention away from crisis management. Europeans must not lose sight of this task, especially in view of the massive impact of the war on regions such as Africa or the Middle East due to the looming threat of famine triggered by food shortages and rising prices.

High crisis management expectations

Expectations towards meaningful European contributions to crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding are very likely going to increase. This might also lead to a new demand for European-led missions and operations. This was a big problem in the past. While operational structures and capabilities have been strengthened on paper, Member States have made little use of them. When EU Member States have voted in favour of an EU mission or operation in the Council, they have afterwards shown little willingness to also provide the forces required for it. Given the consensus-based – and therefore often cumbersome – decision-making process within the EU framework, those Member States that saw an urgent need for action are increasingly moved outside the formal CSDP structures.

The Strategic Compass now seeks to make European crisis management more flexible, faster and more effective. The Strategic Compass envisages some concrete ideas: The implementation of Article 44 might speed up decision-making. While it certainly is no silver bullet, it could still make it more attractive for Member States to contribute forces and capabilities to operations. The Compass also suggests that the EU could make a financial contribution to support Member States' collective actions through the newly established European Peace Facility - which has already been very successfully used to support Member States' assistance to Ukraine.

Ultimately, however, whether the means and tools suggested in the Strategic Compass will be used depends on the will of the Member States. This also applies to the newly established EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, whose usefulness has yet to be proven. Why should an intervention force of 5,000 be any more credible than its predecessors of 60,000, and of 1,500?
So much has been described as a "final wake-up call" for the EU. Yet Europeans have continued to press the snooze button and muddle through. Faced with the return of full-blown conventional war in Europe with massive spill over potential, they simply cannot afford to do this any longer.

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