Europe cannot afford to be a bystander in the world. We need a “strategic compass”.

HR/VP Blog – Major geopolitical shifts are taking place, which put into question Europe’s ability to defend its vision and interests. European leaders discussed last Tuesday how we should respond. To move forward, we must focus on action and not get stuck in abstract and divisive debates. The Strategic Compass that we are preparing and will present in November will set out a set of concrete steps in the area of security and defence.


In less than a month, we have gone through the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the announcement of the AUKUS defence deal. These events have sharpened and accelerated the debate on Europe’s global role and it was therefore right that we had a discussion at the level of leaders about the implications - and the choices we now need to make.


I stressed at the informal European Council that in principle two attitudes are possible. The first is to bury our heads in the sand, finding reasons to downplay the significance of geostrategic developments, or argue that they only concern certain member states. The second is to realise that important shifts are happening and that we must act if we do not want to live in a world order that we cannot help shape.


In fact, there are two major trends affecting us more and more. First, we are witnessing a strengthened reaction to China´s rise and assertiveness, of which the AUKUS case is a good illustration. Second, we are seeing a multipolar dynamic where actors like Russia and others are seeking to increase their margin of action and sphere of influence, either regionally or globally. Quite often, they act to the detriment of EU values and interests, as we see in Syria, Libya, Mali and elsewhere.


"Europeans are at risk of becoming more and more an object and not a player in international affairs, reacting to other people’s decisions, instead of driving and shaping events ourselves."


The result is that today Europeans are at risk of becoming more and more an object and not a player in international affairs, reacting to other people’s decisions, instead of driving and shaping events ourselves. The question is: what do we want to do about this? Are we as European Union content to remain a sort of regional actor, focusing mainly on economic and normative power, for whom the world's affairs and hard power are too complicated? Or do we consider that there is no free lunch, i.e. that passivity also has a high cost?


"We should avoid our usual tendency to have an abstract, and frankly divisive, debate on whether we should either strengthen Europe’s own security capacities or do so in NATO. We clearly need to do both."


We have of course discussed these issues for years already. That is why we should avoid our usual tendency to have an abstract, and frankly divisive, debate on whether we should either strengthen Europe’s own security capacities or do so in NATO. We clearly need to do both. The stronger we become as EU, the stronger NATO will be.

At the informal European Council, leaders agreed on the need to achieve concrete progress in strengthening Europe’s global role. Their guidance relates to our work on security and defence, relations with the US, and our strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific. Concretely, I see four main lines of action:

  1. The priority of all priorities is to develop both our capacities and our will to act. For this, we must focus on what unites us and continue building the necessary trust among us. It cannot be the agenda of one, or a handful of countries. And the basis to achieve this is to nurture a common strategic culture, a shared sense of the threats we face.

This is precisely what the so-called Strategic Compass is all about: it will lay out a strategic approach for our security and defence that will guide our actions to 2030. It will give a sense of direction: how we should develop the necessary defence capabilities and overcome strategic gaps and how we should bring greater focus and results to combating hybrid threats and protecting EU interests in cyber, maritime and outer space. It will also propose more ambitious partnerships in these domains. Leaders tasked me to present a first draft of the Compass in November and I pleaded for a strong level of ambition.


  1. Many leaders rightly stressed that the transatlantic partnership is and remains irreplaceable. Based on an ambitious Strategic Compass and a new joint EU-NATO statement that should come out in the coming months, we must strengthen the transatlantic relationship and place it on a stronger footing. However, as repeatedly stated over the last years and demonstrated by recent developments, including the Afghanistan withdrawal and AUKUS, our American friends expect us Europeans to carry a greater share of responsibility - for our own and the world’s security. I will travel to Washington next week to continue my discussions on this with Secretary of State Blinken and other interlocutors. Importantly, with the new US administration, our discussions are on a different and very constructive path.

In addition to the need to develop our capacities and willingness to act, recent developments have also reinforced the imperative of having a coherent strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific, including how we deal with China and develop our relations with the rest of a region that will mark world events in the 21st century.


  1. On China, leaders agreed that we must remain strong in our approach, based on the “partner, competitive, rival” tryptic. In terms of practical policies, the challenge is often how to blend these three elements into a coherent whole. For me it is clear that the best way to engage China is from a position of unity and strength. We must encourage dialogue and cooperation in certain areas like climate policy. But we should also be ready to push back when Chinese decisions run counter to our views, notably on human rights and geopolitical choices. That was the line I took last week when I spoke with Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the EU-China Strategic Dialogue.


  1. At the same time, we have to deepen our engagement in and with the Indo-Pacific region, based on our recently adopted strategy. To recall: 40% of EU trade passes through the South China Sea and the region produces 60% of global growth. The EU is also still biggest investor in the region (not China, as many believe) so we have a big stake and contribution to make. 

The challenge of Indo-Pacific and a rising China require more coordination and less fragmentation. The point of our Indo-Pacific Strategy was to signal readiness to cooperate with China where this makes sense, to diversify relations (deepening cooperation with Japan, India, South Korea, ASEAN and others) and to modernise our stance (going beyond trade – to security cooperation, including the proposed maritime presence).  The Indo-Pacific is a prime geostrategic theatre and we need to be present. 


The debate on Europe’s global role has reached a critical stage. It is what Germans call a Chefsache: a question for EU leaders i.e. presidents and prime ministers. Big trends and decisions are compelling us to act. In the months ahead, we have a chance to turn the realisation that Europe cannot afford to be a bystander into concrete actions. The world is not waiting for us.

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