The European Union (EU) is developing a Strategic Compass for security and defence, to be ready by March 2022. The first semester of 2021 is the phase of the ‘strategic dialogue’ with the member states and institutions of the EU, including the involvement of think tanks and other stakeholders. Commissioned by the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the Clingendael Institute delivers its contribution to the strategic dialogue on the Strategic Compass by focussing on defining more precisely the military level of ambition of the EU and what it implies for capability development and the relationship with NATO.
The EU faces a wider set of challenges and threats than ever before. In the global power rivalry between China, Russia and the United States, it is ‘Europe’ that runs the danger of becoming irrelevant and the object of great power actions rather than being a global actor. The arc of instability around Europe is unlikely to turn into an arc of stability. The challenges posed by state and non-state actors – the latter in particular in the southern neighbourhood – require the EU to respond to external conflicts and crises, to support partners to provide security for their own population and to protect the Union and its citizens – the three strategic priorities for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as defined five years ago in the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence. While the EU has made progress in many areas – trade policies, partnerships, civilian crisis management – its military tools have remained weak as a result of a lack of political will and the absence of adequate military means.
The Strategic Compass offers the opportunity to close the gap between ‘too much rhetoric’ and ‘too little action’ that have characterised the EU’s security and defence efforts so far. In recent years, new instruments have been created to improve European defence cooperation – such as the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) – but these are what they are: without strategic direction instruments tend to become bureaucratic tools rather than the rails on which the train travels to its destination. In the Strategic Compass the EU has to define more precisely its military level of ambition and what it implies for capability development and partnerships. In short, the report tries to answer two questions: (1) what should the EU be able to do, and (2) what is needed to get there? The relationship with NATO has to be taken into account in answering these key questions.