The German Presidency of the Council of the EU and the Future of Transatlantic Security

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

Strategic Compass: Guiding EU Security and Defense into the Future

The United States is and will continue to be Germany’s most important partner in security and defense. Together we defend our shared values and rules-based order against revisionist powers and various other challenges. Therefore, it is important for Germany and the EU to engage with Washington as Berlin works to strengthen European defense. During its Presidency of the Council, Germany worked closely with EU institutions and member states to promote a shared understanding in the EU of security threats and challenges, to expand the EU’s ability to act internationally, and to enhance European security initiatives.

In this context, AGI and the German Ministry of Defence convened a workshop under Chatham House Rule with EU officials and U.S. experts on December 1, 2020, to deepen transatlantic dialogue and enhance the transparency of ongoing initiatives in the realm of EU security and defense policy, particularly the EU’s Strategic Compass.

The Strategic Compass

The Strategic Compass was initiated in June 2020 and will create clarity as to what the EU wants–and does not want–to be able to do as an actor in security and defense. The document builds on the first threat analysis of the EU. The confidential document was finalized in November 2020 by the EU Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity in the European External Action Service and is based on contributions from national intelligence services. It takes a 360 degree look into the world, compiling the threats and challenges of the next five to ten years. This will update a shared understanding of the EU security environment and help bring coherence to EU security initiatives. The Strategic Compass itself will focus on four “baskets”:

  • Crisis management – improving the effectiveness of the EU’s missions and operations;
  • Resilience – examining and strengthening the EU to manage vulnerabilities, particularly against hybrid threats and cyber attacks;
  • Partnerships – enhancing the EU’s ability to be an effective partner and also engaging and enabling others through training and equipping;
  • Capabilities – enhancing civilian and military capabilities that can be employed in a mutually reinforcing way.

The Strategic Compass will make the European Union a better and more capable security provider for its partners around the world. It is not only important for the member states internally as they examine how to prepare themselves for external threats, but it also provides clarity to partners about the implementation of the strategic goals in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy.

The process for producing the Strategic Compass is member-state driven, and the Council of the EU will adopt the document upon its completion in early 2022. Cooperation between the EU and NATO is crucial, and the Strategic Compass will complement the NATO 2030 initiative and a possible new NATO Strategic Concept.

Operationalizing EU Documents

The Strategic Compass will operationalize the three priorities laid out in the Global Strategy – crisis management, enabling partners, and protecting the Union and its citizens. Work on the Strategic Compass should not impede the EU’s concurrent conduct of operations, partnership projects, and capability development. The Strategic Compass is meant to foster debate and create political consensus to address the capabilities the EU needs to be a more effective security actor.

Convergence: Key Issue

Deepening cooperation and increasing convergence in the European defense sector is one of the most important issues the EU must overcome. There is a consensus in Europe that the EU needs to be able to act in conjunction with partners or independently if necessary. A necessary task of the Strategic Compass is to clarify the EU’s level of ambition, especially as the EU faces growing instability in its neighborhood.

A barrier to determining the level of ambition and the capabilities that support it is the fragmentation of Europe’s defense sector; currently, eighty percent of defense investments in Europe are spent nationally. Awareness of perceived threats across individual states is important as a basis to move forward in greater unity. Basing the Strategic Compass on national threat assessments will promote convergence and awareness. A goal of the Strategic Compass is greater coherence of strategic culture, threat understanding, and military and civilian security capabilities.

Partnerships and Capabilities: What does the EU bring to the table now?

There are currently forty-six projects under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO); thirty-eight are directly contributing simultaneously to identified NATO needs. The EU strives for complementarity with NATO in PESCO. Member states procure capabilities in partnership with participants in a project and in compatibility with all organizations in which they are members. During the German presidency of the Council, the EU has reached agreement on rules governing third-state participation in PESCO, which now enables the United States to participate in projects.

The EU can use these instruments to further common transatlantic interests. NATO focuses exclusively on military infrastructure, but the EU can reinforce dual-use transport infrastructure throughout Europe, and the EU is working to reinforce infrastructure that also serves military requirements. The PESCO project “military mobility” coordinated by the Netherlands seeks to ensure that equipment and personnel can be transported across Europe efficiently in a crisis. Another example, the PESCO project “Network of Logistic Hubs and Support to Operations,” coordinated by Germany, ensures military equipment can be directed where needed in Europe.

The Strategic Compass and the Biden Administration: Reinforcing Complementarity

While the Strategic Compass is an initiative to enhance the EU’s ability to act, complementarity with NATO and benefit for transatlantic security is clear. A stronger, more capable, and more prepared Europe will be a more reliable transatlantic partner. American skepticism of the EU’s ability to act is well known; the dedication of funding through the EU budget in the European Defense Fund demonstrates growing European resources and commitment.

The EU should leverage complementarity and focus on challenges that NATO as a military alliance is harder-pressed to address, such as hybrid threats that require civilian capabilities, critical infrastructure, and technology development. The Strategic Compass will elevate the EU’s contribution to countering current and future threats. Real capabilities, such as military mobility, and a coherent vision in the Strategic Compass, will catch the eye of the new administration and set a concrete basis for coordination. The incoming Biden Administration offers the European Union a window of opportunity to push forward a transatlantic dialogue, highlight current initiatives and complementarities, and improve transatlantic burden-sharing.

A common understanding of threats facing Europe and the transatlantic community is the precursor to joint action. The Strategic Compass can be vital to striking a new transatlantic bargain, facilitating faster decision making, commitment, and action in the European Union. A more capable Europe is not only an advantage to the European Union, but it is also vital to the United States as transatlantic partners pursue common interests for decades to come.