For EU leaders, ‘strategic compass’ points in different directions

KRANJ, SLOVENIA — In the end, the beef cheeks on the menu of an EU leaders’ dinner on Tuesday seemed more carefully prepared than the debate over military and security cooperation and the question of Europe’s reliance on the United States.

According to the menu, the beef was cooked for 13 hours at the precise temperature of 74 degrees Celsius, “on reduction sauce with smoked potatoes and meat stock.”

According to heads of state and government, diplomats and officials, the debate around the dinner table was loose, unscripted and inconclusive, with leaders failing to bridge a deep and longstanding disagreement over whether the EU should focus on building its own military capabilities — so-called strategic autonomy independent of Washington — or reinforce its reliance on the U.S. and NATO.

To create an illusion of consensus, they opted for an all-of-the-above approach, insisting the EU could and should enhance its capacity to act independently, while also strengthening its partnership with NATO (in which EU countries now count for 21 of the 30 allies). They did not explain why, if both are possible, they have been engaged in an endless either-or argument for the past few decades.  

“Of course, this is a debate amongst the 27 without a paper, clear paper from the [European] Commission, so this was a brainstorming debate — and very useful,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said as leaders exited the meeting after midnight, adding that in his view, leaders had agreed on an “and-and approach.”

“We have to do more on the European side to work on our collective defense,” Rutte said, “whilst at the same time we have to make sure that the transatlantic relationship through NATO but also the EU-U.S. stays strong.”

Geopolitical shifts

Tuesday night’s discussion, ahead of a summit on Wednesday focused on the Western Balkans, was partly the result of a series of recent incidents that have left Brussels unsettled about its role on the world stage. This includes the hasty and chaotic U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as a surprise announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden of a new Indo-Pacific security partnership between the U.S., Australia and the U.K., which infuriated France.

The heads of state and government have now tasked the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, with drafting a written “Strategic Compass,” to be presented in November, and debated again by leaders in December with an eye toward approving it next March.

“We are very much aware that the world is having a shift on the geopolitical balance of power,” Borrell said as he left the meeting. “There is a big bipolarity between China and the U.S. on one side, and on the other side there is a multipolarity of actors, and Europeans have to act. Europeans have to create a common strategic culture, to share the challenges they are facing, and that’s what the Strategic Compass is about.”

An adviser said that during the dinner, Borrell told the leaders: “If we want to talk about what the EU wants to do on the international scene, we need to know what we want, and this is also for leaders to say. We need to know what we want and it’s about creating a common strategic culture, and basically get our act together.”

A senior official from a northern EU country said there were no concrete outcomes. “The discussion was very much unfocused,” the official said. “That was to be expected and that’s how it went. It was a long and tedious session without any clear outcome.” The official added, “We would have appreciated a more result-oriented approach.”

Asked about the dinner discussion, a senior diplomat said: “A lot of issues raised, apparently the conclusion is that they have to continue.”

Officially, or rather unofficially, the conclusions from the dinner were issued by European Council President Charles Michel — as “oral conclusions.” They were distributed in writing — fitting, perhaps, for a debate full of contradictions.

“We are committed to working with our allies and like-minded partners, in particular the US and within NATO which is the cornerstone of our security,” Michel said, adding: “Drawing the lessons of recent crises, we are committed to consolidating our strengths and strengthening our resilience by reducing our critical dependencies. To become more effective and assertive on the international stage, the European Union needs to increase its capacity to act autonomously.”

But Michel had little choice but to acknowledge the differences that will persist while Borrell develops the Strategic Compass. “In the meantime, we will progress on the different existing tracks in the field of defence and security,” Michel said.

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said a more self-reliant EU, with NATO still the bedrock of its security, were not contradictory goals: “The discussion of strategic autonomy is not a choice of either the EU and NATO or the EU alone, but it is an inclusive notion.”

He added, “I am absolutely convinced that this is the only way — that NATO as the cornerstone of European security is and will remain in the future, the cornerstone of our security, but that is not in contradiction to having a stronger European Union.”

But Latvia’s neighbor, Lithuania, was not as keen about the autonomous end of things. President Gitanas Nausėda tweeted with an abundance of flag emojis in support of EU-U.S. relations.

Energy agenda

Leaders had a brief discussion about concerns over rising energy prices, with statements by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Michel has said the energy issue will be on the agenda of a regular European Council summit later this month in Brussels.

But there seemed to be little effort to connect the conversation about energy costs, and particularly about the EU’s reliance on natural gas from Russia, with the broader security discussion.

And some leaders had their own, more narrow concerns.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger said the EU’s credibility hinged on taking steps to strengthen ties with Balkans countries, especially those on track for EU membership. “No doubt the EU has to make every effort for its global role,” Heger tweeted. “But if we really mean it, we first need to start proving that at home.”

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa called on the EU to complete its trade negotiations and protect the oceans. “If the European Union wants to be a relevant global player, it has to open up to the world,” he tweeted.

Rutte said it was not a surprise that EU leaders disagreed on strategic military issues, but that overall there was consensus for the and-and approach.

“Some member states will put more emphasis on the European side, our collective defense, whilst others will put more emphasis on the need for a strong transatlantic relationship,” Rutte said. “But we all agree that both elements have to be, absolutely.”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Jakob Hanke Vela, Aitor Hernández-Morales, Suzanne Lynch and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

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