EU arms itself against Russia, China with age-old tactic: A policy document

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While Russia flexes its muscles in Ukraine and Belarus, China will Testing a nuclear-weapon capable missile and the USA are looking to the Pacific, the EU reacts in its favorite way: with a policy paper.

EU Defense Ministers first discussed their so-called “Strategic Compass” on Tuesday, a plan designed to strengthen the bloc’s military capabilities amid the dawning realization that the continent does not always rely on the Americans or NATO for cover can. The conversation came after they had given the Foreign Ministers an overview of the document during a joint meeting on Monday afternoon.

The meeting marks the beginning of a debate on how ambitious the EU should be in trying to become a security provider capable of determining its own fate in the event of a conflict. The US withdrawal in Afghanistan fueled the desire – the EU allies were hardly consulted during the withdrawal, to the humiliation of many capitals.

However, the proposals outlined in the latest 28-page draft risk exposing the gap between EU ambitions and EU realities, especially given the seismic scale of geopolitical shifts and hotspots beyond the boundaries of the bloc. The biggest potential plan would be a rapid reaction force of up to 5,000 soldiers that the EU could send into conflict zones – from 2025. That too seems a force to some diplomats, who remember the EU’s failed promise in 1999 up to 60,000 strong and who have long witnessed Europe’s longstanding caution in increasing defense spending.

“Member states will not be credible unless they reconcile their actions with their ambitions,” warned a diplomat.

Still, the document has strong support from key EU members like France, which plans to finalize it next spring after Paris takes over the rotating EU Council Presidency. It will also be on the agenda when EU leaders meet next month. Its defenders say the plan’s strength is its feasibility.

It is not just “another political document, it is a guide to action,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, to journalists at the end of the meeting on Tuesday.

“We are pleased because the document is realistic and ambitious at the same time,” said Slovenian Defense Minister Matej Tonin, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Council Presidency, before entering the assembly on Tuesday. However, after receiving feedback from foreign ministers on Monday, Tonin admitted that the work remained. “We need some fine-tuning,” he said. “One is about Russia, the other is about the Mediterranean.”

Borrell argued that the proposed “EU Rapid Hybrid Response Teams” were indeed well suited to dealing with crises of recent years such as border skirmishes that blur the traditional categories of war and peace.

As a prime example, the EU has recently faced a deadly stalemate on the bloc’s border with Belarus, where thousands of migrants have been stranded and camped in freezing temperatures with no constant access to food. The EU has accused Belarus of luring migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere to Minsk before pushing them to the border – a tactic the EU calls a “hybrid attack”. Numerous migrants have died in the harsh conditions, and on Thursday Polish forces used tear gas and water cannons to repel migrants trying to break through the border.

“This team could temporarily support national actors in concrete situations like those we are experiencing in Belarus, Poland and Lithuania,” said Borrell. “Today we don’t have these types of tools.”

Some EU leaders have openly accused Russia of helping orchestrate the plan for Belarus, its historic allies, and creating chaos – and EU concerns – when Moscow deployed troops on its border with Ukraine

However, some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, fear that a push to militarize the EU could weaken the strength of one of the continent’s longstanding protectors: NATO.

Borrell denied the argument, saying the EU’s plans were indeed “a way to strengthen NATO by making the European Union stronger”. He referred to US President Joe Biden, who oversees the largest military within NATO supports more robust defense capabilities of the EU.

“This approach received very broad support from ministers,” said Borrell, adding that he would submit “at least” two more drafts of the Strategic Compass based on feedback.

The strategy’s defenders say the document marks the first time the EU has developed a comprehensive vision to address a wide range of global threats, from US relocation to Asia, to the bloc’s declining military capabilities, to required industrials Upgrades. The plan provides specific deadlines for the achievement of these goals and provides for regular updates of the implementation. The EU, they say, has always taken an incremental approach.

Nevertheless, some remain skeptical. Critics note that the EU has been here before. In 1999, the heads of state and government of the EU agreed to form “military forces of up to 50,000-60,000 people” within four years, who could be deployed for at least one year round trips within 60 days. It never happened. In 2007 the EU create a combat-ready system of 1,500 combat groups to suppress crises. They have never been used.

Any tangible progress by the EU military powers “first requires increased defense spending,” said the same diplomat. And in many European countries, the diplomat said, it is difficult to win an election after an increase in military spending has been announced.

The current strategy, argued the diplomat, tries to thread the needle between French ambition and German reluctance.

“The key to a more ambitious EU lies in Berlin,” said the official. “Is the EU ready for a militarily more ambitious Berlin?”

And after the EU has failed at least twice to deliver on key promises of military progress, it must act cautiously, argued another senior diplomat.

“Any credibility gap between our political ambitions and our capabilities should be avoided in order to promise too much and deliver too little,” said the other diplomat.

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