What is the EU Strategic Compass?
The Strategic Compass, which was formally adopted by European Union member states - including Ireland - last week, is the latest iteration of the union's defence and security policy, and is designed to meet the challenges of what EU leaders see as an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.
Brexit, the Trump presidency and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have driven home to the EU that it needs to be able to respond independently to events. In the words of French president Emmanuel Macron, it will make Europe "powerful in the world, completely sovereign, free in its choices and the master of its destiny".
In short it is an evolution, not a revolution, in common European defence. It seeks to encourage increased co-operation between member state's militaries and to allow the EU to respond to international incidents, such as the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last year, without relying on Nato or the US.
While it aims to make the union an independent actor on the world stage in terms of security and defence, it stops well short of creating an EU army.
How will it do this?
Firstly, member states will be expected to significantly increase military spending and to review how that money is best utilised. There will also be an increased focus on investment in defence research and innovation at the EU level.
The EU's cyber defence policy is to be better resourced to counter cyber attacks from criminals and belligerent nations, and a "hybrid toolbox" is to be created to respond to hybrid threats such as the use of refugees flows by Belarus to increase pressure on Poland. Chief among these tasks will be developing the means to counter "foreign information manipulation and interference", including when it comes to elections.
What about the rapid deployment force?
A key feature of the Strategic Compass is the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity. Like the Strategic Compass, this is an evolution of an existing structure, namely the EU Battlegroup initiative.
These 1,500 strong Battlegroups were designed to act as a preliminary insertion force in conflict zones while a more long-term peacekeeping force was assembled at UN level. However, for various reasons they have never been deployed.
The Rapid Deployment Capacity will comprise 5,000 troops and is designed to be more flexible, with the ability to include specialist units and air and sea capabilities. This means it will be able to deploy to a much wider range of scenarios, such as the rescue of EU citizens from a civil war zone or the stabilisation of a country in the immediate aftermath of hostilities.
The capacity is intended to reach full operational capacity by 2025.
Will Ireland take part in this force and how will it impact neutrality?
Ireland was a member of the Battlegroup system and it likely to take part in the rapid reaction force. "As regards a rapid reaction force, yes, I think there's a good chance that we'll be involved in that," Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said last week.
This means Irish troops are more likely to be deployed on EU military missions but it will not represent a major shift in Ireland’s policy of remaining military neutral.
The deployment of Irish troops will still be restricted by the Triple Lock system, which means government and Dáil approval are required, along with an UN mandate, before they can take part in any overseas mission.
Crucially, countries will be able to opt out of partaking in a rapid reaction mission but deployment requires unanimity among all EU member states.
Is the EU seeking to replace or compete with Nato?
No. Most EU countries, particularly those in the east, still see Nato as their primary guarantor of security. Any EU common defence strategy is unlikely to replace this, at least in the short to medium term.
Rather the Strategic Compass seeks to give the EU “strategic autonomy”– the ability to act alone on the international stage without Nato’s help. However, it also emphasises increased co-operation with Nato where their goals align.
This is facilitated by the new attitude of the US. Previously, it was against the EU building up its military capacity for fears it would become a rival to Nato and reduce reliance on the US arms industry. However, since coming into office President Joe Biden has encouraged the EU to develop its defence apparatus.