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EU`s Strategic Compass for Security and Defence: A New Approach in 2021

1 June 2021

On 16 June 2020, the EU Defence Ministers embarked to develop a strategic compass for security and defence. On 6 May 2021, the EU Council Ministers held another meeting, part of a series since 2020, negotiating the format of the legal-political agreement expected to be issued at the end of 2022. The Strategic Compass is seen as one of the most ambitious plans to unify the EU response in Security and Defence. The present analysis aims to briefly describe its novelty, lay down the spirit surrounding such initiative, and identify the challenges ahead. By the end, a few recommendations for boosting the EU action in defence will be provided, such as dormant provisions of the EU Treaties that have not or to a little extent been used but can prove to be imperative. 

In a nutshell, the EU Strategic Encompass was introduced during the German Council Presidency in 2020, and it is meant to narrow the gap between ambition and reality when it comes to the Union’s external action (Novaky, 2021). The Compass aims to foster a common European ‘strategic culture’, pushing member-states towards a common understanding of the key threats to Europe and how the EU, as a whole, can be a security provider (Scazzieri, 2020). 

The “Strategic Guidance” is conceived in two phases: Phase I – Risk and Threat Analysis, Phase II – Outcome Document. A negotiation process takes place in each phase, resulting in an understanding reflected in an agreement. The first document was a 360º intelligence report, describing the risks and threats to the EU in 5-10 years. The result of Phase I of the negotiation process took place from June 2020 to December 2020. The second document will be an agreement, having the nature of a legal-political document. (Cordova, 2021) 

Its strategy serves three purposes: First, to formulate the first common threat analysis of the EU. Second, to agree on clear and achievable strategic objectives for the EU to strengthen the EU as an actor in security and defence. Third, to offer political guidance for future military planning processes. In early 2021, the External Action Service concluded a report,  outlining the skeleton, key issues, and questions to be answered by the end, in the form of four baskets – Crisis Management (to answer questions such as in which regions and which functions to prioritise); Resilience (e.g. to draw lessons from Covid-19; or interpreting Article 222 TFEU (Solidarity), or 42.7 TEU (Mutual Assistance); Capability Development (EU’s relationship with the NATO Defence Planning Processing the context of strategic autonomy) and Partnerships, all those aspects are subject to discussions and improvements (Report, 2020).

The aspect underlying the debate is the ambition of the EU’s new leadership team in Brussels for a more geopolitical EU that would “learn to use the language of power” (Borell, 2019). In the same vein, different voices call for certain clarifications to make the mechanism useful, such as rethinking the incentives for the EU actions to encourage EU member states to launch missions and operations in an EU framework both from a legal and budgetary perspective (Koenig, 2021).

However, one needs to acknowledge that the European Peace Facility (EPF) is already a key incentive. It could help the EU counter the harmful advances of adversaries in key geopolitical zones of interest. Moreover, the EPF will finance its first projects in Mali and the Central African Republic by the end of 2021 and will be a crucial instrument to support partner countries bilaterally in military and defence matters. 

Furthermore, the Strategic Compass is set to revise the EU strategic approach and might be of great interest to countries like the UK and Norway, as the fostering of strategic deepening of the EU relations with partners is the third step in the Strategic Compass, along with a shared understanding of threats and a common coherent strategy thereof (Brudzinska, Rybnikarova, 2021)

Despite such developments, there are also challenges ahead. The EU has to integrate its strategic autonomy in defence with the current partnerships, such as the one with NATO, seen as the main security provider in Europe in general. First, they should spell out what tasks they think the EU should focus on and what military capabilities it needs, based on those already identified by NATO’s defence planning process. Second, member states should agree on whether the EU should have a role in territorial and high-intensity operations that seek to separate warring parties, or whether it should focus on lower-intensity crisis management and areas that NATO does not have great expertise in, such as the protection of civilian infrastructure from cyber-attacks.

Ensuring that the Strategic Compass, together with the other EU initiatives, are embedded in national defence planning processes is a core challenge. This is the missing link that could bring significant improvements to the implementation of EU security and defence initiatives. They can be credibly implemented only if they are reflected in national defence planning. Without national buy-in, it will be difficult to stimulate a culture of cooperation and common strategic perceptions in the EU, despite the ambitious initiatives (ISS Report, 2021). 

Furthermore, there are numerous reasons for emphasising such an aspect. First of all, defence planning is not a very attractive topic, and it is difficult to achieve political buy-in on a national basis, even from ministers. Member states have different national bureaucratic and financial resource bases, which can limit engagement with EU defence initiatives. Secondly, the budgetary and procurement cycles of EU member states are not aligned, and they respond to different timelines, financial envelopes, and strategic ends. Third, in some cases, there may be national legal, parliamentary, and budgetary constraints that may make EU defence ambitions less applicable. Finally, defence planning involves long-term budgetary and procurement cycles (5-10 years), etc. Therefore, in the final agreement, the EU must provide a solution. Otherwise, the initiative is rather void. 

Nevertheless, the challenges and the limitations of the EU in Security and Defence are not an impossible mission. There are a series of Treaty provisions, dormant ones, that have been rarely or not used but will be hereinafter mentioned. 

Firstly, Article 31(3) TEU can activate the Passarella clause by the European Council (acting unanimously) and thereby allowing for QMV to be used in Council on Common Foreign and Security Policy without formal Treaty changes for common actions. One might point to the scope of Article 31 (3) that is limited by Article 31(4), which excludes decisions with military or defence implications. However, the TEU does not define what the terms military and defence implications encompass or the difference between them. Additionally, when excluding decisions with military/defence implications, Article 31(4) TEU does not refer specifically to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). To point otherwise would imply that CFSP decisions such as humanitarian assistance would also require unanimity (Blanke, 2013).

Secondly, notwithstanding the contentiousness of the European Army topic, treaty provisions allow the expansion of the EU scope in Security and Defence. For example, Article 42(2) TEU describes the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy that will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, decides. In recent years, security and defence have ranked remarkably high in public support for EU policies, with approximately 75% of citizens in favour of common security and defence, according to a March 2018 Eurobarometer survey.

Thirdly, as for the financing of the civilian EU missions, Article 43(3), first subparagraph, established a special procedure allowing rapid access to appropriate Union budget for urgent financing in the context of civilian missions. Furthermore, the second paragraph of the same article stipulates the possibility of an intergovernmental agreement to set up a start-up fund, made up of member state contributions, to allow for the financing of the preparation of EU military operations not covered by the EU budget.

Fourth, for better information sharing, Article 39 TEU can be used. Although Article 16 TEU ensures that everybody has the right to personal data, for exclusive matter in defence, however, Article 39 TEU introduces a derogation from the general ordinary legislative procedure rule contained in Article 16 TFEU when it comes to data protection by a special legislative procedure conducted by the EU Council.  

To sum up, the Strategic Compass is facing serious challenges, especially in accommodating the national defence strategies. For the EU initiatives to be effective, there should be a clear and coherent legal framework to ensure greater cooperation and be future proof apart from the political will. It does not mean, however, that the EU lacks legal instruments to do so. The articles mentioned above are only a few of them, dormant at this point, but with the prospect of being revitalised and used, even without the need of a legislative point. Strategic Compass, indeed, seems to be, at prima facie, one of the most ambitious projects of the EU in Defence tackling the common response to common threats. Let the future test the proof of effectiveness.    

Written by Michaela UNGUREANU, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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