PESCO and the Strategic Compass –Reality goes down the road, the EU down the garden path

“At the beginning of December, it will be exactly three years since the Council of the EU adopted a formal decision establishing the “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO) program. Under this framework of mutual cooperation between EU member states on issues in the fields of defense and security, a total of 50 projects have been launched to date. With some having dropped out in the meantime, there are currently 46 projects with 25 EU member states participating. These 46 projects are being implemented in various areas, such as training facilities, ground forces systems, naval and air systems, cyber security, and even space-related projects.

At a recent informal meeting of defence ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council, held online on November 20th, 2020, a review was undertaken of existing PESCO projects and guidelines were given for the next phase set for 2021-2025. This strategic review of PESCO projects was agreed to at the Zagreb meeting of EU defense ministers in March of this year, with the goal of achieving some concrete results in the next 4-year period. Following the review, it was concluded that 26 projects from the PESCO framework will deliver concrete results or reach full operational capability by the end of 2025.

On behalf of the Republic of Croatia, State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense Zdravko Jakop participated in the meeting and supported an ambitious approach for the next phase, but also called for facing reality, as stated in the Ministry of Defense press release: “because there could potentially be a mismatch between available resources and ambitions. Namely, on the one hand, it was concluded that some of the projects overlapped with existing projects being developed within individual national approaches; while on the other hand, the ability to participate in the development of certain projects is uneven and fragmented. However, this flaw is present in all other EU departments as well, although less pronounced in some than in defense. That is why EU defense ministers agreed to strengthen the commitments of countries participating in PESCO projects, and why High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Securit Policy Josep Borrell asked ministers to have their nations focus more on operational projects that facilitate joint (EU-level) deployment in the field.

But there are a few positive examples: first, the Cyber Rapid Response Teams (CRRTs), made up of several available standby teams, are capable of responding to cyber incidents in any Member State (including EU Common Security and Defense Policy missions and operations). Croatia is also participating in this project and has committed to assign one of its experts from the recently established Cyberspace Command to the Rapid Response Team by the end of this year, and a memorandum of cooperation on this topic was signed by 6 EU member states in Zagreb on March 4th, this year.

A second good example is the European Medical Command – a multinational structure that coordinates medical resources within the EU and NATO, and in cooperation with the European Defense Agency (EDA) can be linked to (1) the EU military hospital development project, or (2) a project for the development of a multi-role tanker transport aircraft which could be converted for medical evacuation as well. The current COVID-19  pandemic hastened EU member states to develop a military hospital, with special emphasis on strengthening the biological warfare unit.

The third positive example is the so-called “BLOS” (Beyond line of sight) – a new generation of medium-range missile systems for precise strikes out of sight. This is a missile for ground operations, with drones delivering images and coordinates in real time, and conducting missile strikes. These are three projects that are developing well within several EU institutions, and which are on the list of those projects that will reach operational capability in the next phase. Based on the decision of the Foreign Affairs Council of November 5th of this year, in addition to EU member states, third countries or third partners may also participate in PESCO projects. According to the set conditions, there is no blank invitation to a third party, and such cooperation is the exception rather than the rule. Namely, third countries may be invited to the project if they meet a number of political, material and legal conditions which must not conflict with the security and defense interests of the EU and its member states, and their acceptance for participation in the project must be the consensus of all members participating in it.

The Strategic Compass

This spring, at the Zagreb meeting of EU defense ministers, member states agreed to launch a new strategic initiative called the “Strategic Compass”. This initiative will identify the main threats and challenges at the EU level, and define a common way of dealing with them, as well as tools and instruments that can be mobilized to address the identified challenges. At the November 20th meeting, EU defense ministers took note of the first threat analysis, based on contributions from the intelligence services of the 27 member states. This was also the first time that EU intelligence services – both military and civilian – were working together to draft a joint document such as the threat analysis. This first analysis refers to, among other things, global and regional threats, conflicts in the EU neighborhood, and threats to the European Union in the next 5 to 10 years. In doing so, European intelligence services took into account: (1) the slowdown in globalization, the strengthening of economic rivalry between global powers, climate change and migration; (2) regional instabilities, conflicts, weakness of states in the region and their institutions, intra-state tensions and external influences; and (3) hybrid threats to the EU by other state and non-state actors, dissemination of false information and other non-military sources of influence, as well as so-called disruptive technologies and terrorist threats to the EU. One of the essential goals of the Strategic Compass will be to establish clear structures and clearly defined roles within the EU system.

This, together with some subsequent analyses, will translate into a comprehensive strategy for responding to threats and challenges, as well as for crisis management. According to the current plan, the first half of next year is reserved for talks with EU members, which should result in the development of the Strategic Compass in the second half of next year – while the final version of the Strategic Compass should be adopted in the first half of 2022. Slovenia has announced that within its 18-month EU presidency, together with Germany and Portugal, special emphasis will be placed on partnership as one of the pillars of the Strategic Compass. Commissioner Borrell has already declared the drafting and adoption of the Strategic Compass as the most important achievement of his term.

In parallel with this new strategic document, the European Union intends to draft a new military doctrine by 2022, which would define future military threats and ambitions for the EU.  This is particularly important given the growing debate in recent years over whether the EU should strengthen its military power independently of the United States, and how, and in what light, to view its great Atlantic ally. So far, the work on the joint military strategy has not been particularly successful, moreover, it has shown large discrepancies in the security priorities of small and large EU member states. The same discrepancies between large and small members are evident in relation to the United States, while the change at the head of this world power will have little or no effect on the view of the United States as a strategic ally of the EU.

Looking at these two initiatives – PESCO and the Strategic Compass – it seems as if the EU has once again delved into problems we have seen before in, for example, discussions on the purpose of EU battlegroups. While growing pressures (the COVID-19 pandemic, third country influence, fake news, natural disasters, etc.) are pushing the European Union towards more rapid responses, greater autonomy and strength; at the same time, Brussels is trying to stick to its plans as they were initially -however generally and compromisingly- drafted. At the same time, Croatia’s statement on the gap between ambitions and existing resources is quite significant – a gap that has often proven to be an insurmountable practical problem for the EU in general, but also for the Common Security and Defense Policy in particular. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that EU members already have back-up solutions for achieving at least some moderate levels of achievement – projects they are developing outside the EU framework, on their own or with a third partner. These external partners will soon include the United Kingdom, but the United States is already one of them, whether they are a strategic ally and partner for the European Union, or just a distant friend.”, writes Lidija Knežević for

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project ‘Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021’. The author is solely responsible for the content and cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.