Moving forward on European defence

HR/VP Blog – EU leaders have held a timely discussion on the future of EU security and defence. We need commitment at the highest political level to make the EU a stronger security actor in a world of fast-changing threats.


At the last European Union Council of Friday 26 February, EU leaders had an in-depth discussion on how to develop the EU’s role on security and defence. It was the first time they did since 2018. Given the close collaboration we have with NATO, it was good to also have Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sharing his perspective.

The discussion among EU leaders took place against a backdrop of a deteriorating security environment and a new atmosphere in transatlantic relations: both require us to do more to build a strong, capable EU in the area of security and defence. We need this for ourselves as Europeans but also as an investment in better transatlantic cooperation.


"We need to build up our collective capacity to protect our security interests, by having the right means and the will to use them."


The call from EU citizens is clear: last year, 77% of Europeans supported the efforts to develop a common EU security and defence policy. It is up to all of us, and in particular for me as High Representative for foreign and security policy, to deliver this. This means building up our collective capacity to protect our security interests, by having the right means and the will to use them.

There are several action tracks underway on EU defence. In recent months we have been very active on the ground despite the pandemic: we have initiated a new naval operation IRINI in the Mediterranean; broadened the scope of operation ATALANTA off the coast of the Horn of Africa; reinforced our presence in the Sahel region; and put in place a pilot of the new Coordinated Maritime Presences  concept in the Gulf of Guinea.

More broadly, I have previously set out what we are doing to acquire more usable defence capabilities. Similarly, I have often underlined the need for Europeans to develop a common strategic culture: if we don’t share the same perspective on what the threats and challenges are, we will not agree on what to do about them.

The Strategic Compass: a collective answer to a new strategic environment.

So it is critical that we come together and decide what our objectives and ambitions are for the next 5 to 10 years; what means we need to achieve them; and how we intend to link means to ends. This is the rationale for the work on the Strategic Compass. I was glad to present the state of play to EU leaders and get their guidance.

The starting point of this process was the threat analysis presented last November. This first-ever EU threat analysis was prepared with inputs from intelligence services from across the EU. It paints a bleak picture of the security and defence challenges we face namely growing geopolitical competition and pressure on the multilateral system; destabilisation of our regional environment; as well as increasingly sophisticated hybrid and transnational threats targeting the EU directly.

Against this background, I believe we need European answers and take more responsibility for our own security. Our motto is and remains that we want to act with partners whenever possible and autonomously when necessary.

The four dimensions of the Strategic Compass

The Strategic Compass should set clear and ambitious goals across four interconnected dimensions:

First, we need to make our ongoing engagement as effective as possible.

We currently have 17 missions and operations around the world with close to 5000 women and men deployed. They require a more efficient EU planning and command as well as flexible and robust mandates. This is what we did recently with EUTM Mali (with new activities added in central Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) and Operation Atalanta (to counter piracy but also drug and arms trafficking). The new European Peace Facility, with €5 billion over seven years, is also a game-changer: it will allow us to move beyond training the armed forces of our partners, to also equip them.

We really need to improve force generation: having the necessary troops and equipment from member states to fulfil the objectives of the missions they have decided we should undertake. Too often, we lack the means to do our job. This is a point I have made on several occasions. I also believe we need to be prepared to undertake new operational engagements. Libya is a case in point where we are entering a new phase with the ceasefire and the new interim authorities. Operation Irini’s contribution to the arms embargo is as crucial as ever – so we cannot afford a capability gap. More generally, we need to step up our readiness to meet future crises. We know there is a real risk of continued instability in different regions, which are directly relevant for our own security.

Second, we should enhance our resilience to prevent and respond to changing security threats and challenges.

We have to guarantee secure access to the global commons, in particular cyber, the high seas and space. For instance, we see a growing demand for the EU to expand its role as a maritime security provider. We should build on our naval operations and the recently launched initiative in the Gulf of Guinea. We should also link defence and ‘space’ better and move forward with the implementation of the EU Cybersecurity Strategy.

Third, we need the necessary civilian and military capabilities.

Further deepening European defence cooperation remains the only way to make our defence sector more efficient and our industry more competitive. We have made good progress over the last years, in particular through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). However, more efforts are required to be more result-oriented, focusing on operational projects. With the PESCO Strategic Review conducted last year, we have identified 26 projects out of 46 that will deliver concrete results by 2025 – from cyber-defence and medical support to advanced weapons systems. The financial incentives made available under the European Defence Fund – with 8 billion EUR over the next seven years - will boost those efforts. In parallel, we need to continue promoting technological sovereignty and innovation. The technology roadmap requested by EU leaders for boosting innovation and reduce our strategic dependencies in critical technologies will be instrumental.

Fourth, we should step up cooperation with partners bilaterally and with international organisations, starting with NATO.

A strong alliance requires strong partners on both sides of the Atlantic. The presence of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg at the table of EU leaders was testimony of our close partnership. We can and should do more to boost cooperation between the two organisations, from military mobility to countering hybrid threats, from climate change and security to emerging technologies.

A stronger EU in defence, with more capable member states, will also benefit the Alliance and contribute to a better transatlantic burden-sharing. According to the latest Defence Data report for the year 2019 published by the European Defence Agency the total defence expenditure of the 26 EDA Member States stood at €186 billion, marking the fifth year of consecutive growth and a 5% increase compared to 2018.

Our work on the Strategic Compass will take place while NATO is conducting its own strategic review so we look for synergies and cooperation in these efforts. In parallel, we intend to strengthen our partnership with the UN, regional actors and third countries. With the new US administration in office, we now have an opportunity to reinvigorate our strategic EU-US partnership, in particular in the field of security and defence. During our discussion last Monday between EU Foreign Ministers and US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, we agreed to work extremely closely, bilaterally between the EU and US as well as between the EU and NATO.

Keeping the momentum on EU security and defence.

In light of the guidance of EU leaders, the coming months will be dedicated to discussions with member states, which are driving the process. On my side, the European External Action Service including the EU military staff will continue to take work forward, in close association with the Commission and the European Defence Agency.


"The Strategic Compass must be based on concrete and actionable objectives, with clear timelines, and making full use of the entire EU toolbox."


To be meaningful the Strategic Compass must be based on concrete and actionable objectives, with clear timelines, and making full use of the entire EU toolbox. This should be the essence of the first draft of the Strategic Compass that I intend to present by November this year, in view of its adoption by March 2022. We need a document that is both ambitious and operational and that makes a real difference for Europe’s security. And we should be prepared to pass from reflection and analysis to concrete action when and where needed.

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