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As Russia flexes its muscles in Ukraine and Belarus, China tests a nuclear-powered missile and the United States turns its gaze to the Pacific, the EU reacts in its favorite way: with a political document.
EU defense ministers on Tuesday discussed for the first time their so-called “Strategic Compass”, a plan intended to strengthen the bloc’s military capabilities amid a realization that the Continent cannot always rely on the Americans or NATO for cover. The speech came after they gave foreign ministers the summary of the document on Monday afternoon during a joint meeting.
The meeting marks the beginning of a debate on how ambitious the EU should be as it tries to become a security provider, more able to determine its own fate when conflicts erupt. The US withdrawal in Afghanistan fueled the desire – EU allies were barely consulted on the withdrawal, to the humiliation of many capitals.
However, the proposals outlined in the most recent 28-page outline risk highlighting the gap between EU ambition and EU reality, especially given the seismic scale of the geopolitical changes and hotspots beyond the bloc’s boundaries. The biggest possible plan would be a rapid deployment force of up to 5,000 troops that the EU could send to conflict zones – by 2025. Even that seems long for some diplomats who remember the EU’s failed promise in 1999 to create a force of up to 60,000 strong and who have long witnessed Europe’s long-standing caution to accelerate defense spending.
“Member states will not be credible as long as they fail to align their actions with their ambitions,” one diplomat warned.
However, the document has the strong support of key EU members such as France, which plans to push to finalize it next spring, after Paris assumed the rotating EU presidency. It will also be on the agenda when EU leaders meet next month. Its proponents say the strength of the plan is its feasibility.
It’s not just “another political document, it’s a guide for action,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, told reporters at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
“We are pleased that the document is realistic but at the same time ambitious,” said Slovenian Defense Minister Matej Tonin, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency before entering a meeting on Tuesday. However, after receiving comments from foreign ministers on Monday, Tonin acknowledged that work remains. “We need some fine-tuning,” he said. “One is about Russia, another thing is around the Mediterranean.”
Borrell argued that the “EU Rapid Hybrid response teams” envisaged in the draft are in fact well-suited to dealing with crises of recent years, such as border skirmishes that blur the traditional war and peace categories.
As a prime example, the EU has been struggling recently with a deadly confrontation at the border of the bloc with Belarus, where thousands of migrants are stranded, encamped in freezing temperatures with no consistent access to food. The EU has accused Belarus of luring migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere to Minsk before pushing them to the border – a tactic the EU calls a “hybrid attack”. Many migrants died in the harsh conditions, and on Thursday, Polish forces used tear gas and water cannons to repel migrants trying to break through the border.
“This team could temporarily support national actors in the face of concrete situations like the one we are witnessing in Belarus, Poland and Lithuania,” Borrell said. “Today we don’t have such tools.”
Some EU leaders have openly accused Russia of helping direct the scheme for Belarus, its historic ally, creating chaos – and EU concern – as Moscow rallies troops on its border with Ukraine.
But some countries, especially those in Eastern Europe, fear that a push for EU warfare could weaken the strength of one of the continent’s long-term protectors: NATO.
Borrell challenged the argument, saying the EU’s plans are in fact “a way to strengthen NATO, by strengthening the European Union.” He pointed to US President Joe Biden, who controls the largest military within NATO, which has supported the EU’s more robust defense capabilities.
“This approach has been very widely supported by ministers,” Borrell said, adding that he will present “at least” two additional outlines of the Strategic Compass based on suggestions.
Proponents of the strategy say the document is the first time the EU has created a broad vision to address a wide range of global threats, from the U.S. shift to Asia, to the bloc’s delayed military capabilities to needed industrial upgrades. And, they note, the plan offers concrete deadlines for achieving these goals and provides for regular updates on their implementation. The EU, they say, has always taken an increasing approach.
Yet skepticism remains high for some. The EU, critics note, has been here before. In 1999, EU leaders agreed to form, within four years, “armed forces of up to 50,000-60,000 people” that could be deployed within 60 days for tours of at least a year. That never happened. In 2007, the EU set up a combat preparedness system of 1,500 people battle groups to extinguish crises. They were never used.
Any tangible progress on EU military powers “needs to increase defense spending to begin with,” the same diplomat said. And in many European countries, the diplomat noted, it is difficult to win an election after an announcement of a military spending spike.
The current strategy, the diplomat argued, is trying to thread the needle between French ambition and German reluctance.
“The key to a more ambitious EU lies in Berlin,” the official said. “Is the EU ready for a more militarily ambitious Berlin?”
And after failing at least twice to fulfill important promises of military progress, the EU must go carefully, argued another senior diplomat.
“Any credibility gap between our political ambitions and our capabilities should be avoided in order to overstate and empty,” the other diplomat said.