The War in Ukraine and Institutional Complexity in European Security: Situating the EU’s New Strategic Compass

Ueli Staeger
University of Geneva & Global Governance Centre
Twitter: @UeliStaeger

Moritz Neubert
University of Mannheim & Global Governance Centre
Twitter: @MoritzNeubert2

Synopsis: The EU’s new security strategy, the Strategic Compass aims to expedite security and defence cooperation in Europe. To do so, it embraces a variable geometry of cooperation and a pragmatic approach to institutional overlap. But can the EU deliver on these ambitious goals? Connected to broader debates on multilateral decision-making, modalities of international cooperation, and institutional complexity, this blog post assesses the potential merits and pitfalls of the Strategic Compass.

Keywords: Institutional Complexity; Security; European Union (EU); North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)

Global governance is, among others, increasingly characterized by three trends: first, consensus is required for major decisions but is becoming harder to achieve; second, institutional complexity is increasing, as policy areas tend to be governed by two or more international organizations; third, cooperation takes place within different institutional forms, be they formal or informal and institutionalized or ad-hoc. Taken together, these trends raise a number of questions regarding global governance dynamics, namely: Do different forms and structures of cooperation complement each other or compete with one another? What is the role of informality for inter-institutional cooperation in issue areas where formal avenues are often blocked?

One policy area particularly marked by these questions is European security. Whereas many observers describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a turning point, actual change in international security cooperation will still be hard to come by. Though already in the making since 2020, the European Union’s (EU) new strategic document, the Strategic Compass, is now widely perceived as a response to this changing security environment in Europe, where many considered overt interstate war to be a phenomenon of the past.  

Similar to the response against the Russian invasion, the Strategic Compass proposes a more pragmatic and solution-oriented approach to institutional complexity in European security whereby actors no longer insist on the primacy of one multilateral IO over another. Until now, both academic and policy thinking has largely emphasized the challenges arising from institutional overlap for the coherent and effective governance of security.

Any discussion on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) cannot dodge the question of how it relates to a traditionally more established security actor, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The EU’s Strategic Compass suggests a new pragmatism in this regard. It reiterates that NATO “remains the foundation of collective defence for its members” and strives for coherence and complementarity, including through the possibility of “joint and inclusive exercises” in the future. Beyond the EU-NATO relationship, the document also underscores the relevance of various other cooperation formats outside of the EU framework, such as the European Intervention Initiative.

The Strategic Compass endorses a more pragmatic approach to these hitherto entrenched discussions. On paper, the EU is not only edging away from a strict interpretation of unanimity in the security realm but also recognizes the reality of institutional complexity and the added value of various forms of cooperation in this policy area. Of course, time will tell whether this ambition can be fulfilled.

The core idea linking different security and defence initiatives is the “single-set-of-forces” principle: European states only have one set of military assets that can be deployed to different organizations, be it the EU, NATO, or the UN. The Strategic Compass embraces the variable geometry of security and defence cooperation while striving for complementarity, both within and outside of the EU. That is, it realizes that not all member states will participate in every cooperative activity and will not always pursue it in the EU’s institutional framework.

Within the EU’s security architecture, the Strategic Compass seeks to facilitate consensus-making within an institutionally complex policy area. It implies that a common policy does not have to be a single policy. Even if the EU pursues certain activities, not all member states have to be actively on board and contribute to it. To a certain extent, this recognition reflects a simple reality: not all member states actively participate in every CSDP mission or operation and some member states work more closely together on projects in the context of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

EU decision-making rules accommodate such increased institutional flexibility. The Strategic Compass continues to endorse “unanimity as the norm for decision-making,” but also underlines the value of “constructive abstentions.” Such an approach does, for example, offer the EU the possibility of delivering lethal arms to Ukraine through the new European Peace Facility, while allowing the neutral states of Austria, Ireland, and Malta to opt-out from this specific assistance measure.

It equally permits the implementation of Article 44 of the Treaty on the European Union, which enables “a group of willing and able Member States to plan and conduct a mission or operation within the EU framework and under the political oversight of the Council.” Operationalizing this article could make the EU more flexible and reactive.

The EU is also perceptive of how security governance increasingly occurs through both formal and informal cooperation. The Strategic Compass acknowledges that member states “provide important contributions to securing EU’s interests and peace and stability in the world through various forms of cooperation.” It highlights the possibility of “further support European-led ad hoc missions and operations that serve EU interests,” hinting at the potential for more operational flexibility and complementarity overall. The Strategic Compass provides concrete examples of this, mentioning the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz and “patchwork” cooperation efforts in the Sahel region.

In addition, the Strategic Compass underlines that capability projects among member states “will make a tangible difference to European security and defence in the future and will lead to convergence over time.” For instance, France, Germany, and Spain are developing a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) outside of the EU despite the existence of PESCO. By appreciating these possibilities, the Strategic Compass ascertains that European states are working together on security in a variety of cooperation formats, be they formal or informal and institutionalized or ad-hoc.

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s resolve for unlawful intervention have galvanized European security actors into becoming more results-oriented. Some states, above all France, push for “strategic autonomy.” But the Strategic Compass mirrors the European reaction to the Russian invasion: the pragmatic embrace of institutional complexity whereby European governments act through different formats, especially when consensus can be hard to come by. Thus, the opposition of a few Member States might no longer stop collective action through EU frameworks by others. The challenge is, however, for states to ensure compatibility and synergy.

The Strategic Compass, therefore, acknowledges institutional complexity and informality in this policy area. The debate is no longer about either the EU or NATO, but about managing various institutional frameworks pragmatically. The recognition of differentiated levels of ambition in the realm of security allows for a pragmatic and solution-oriented approach to multiplicity. If managed cooperatively, it could provide the basis for European actors to strive for complementarity. Such a process may eventually contribute to the convergence of strategic cultures through “Europeanization without the EU.” Yet, it also elevates the risk of fragmentation if governments try to use complexity to their own advantage. Actual change will still be hard to come by and institutional preferences will not disappear overnight, even in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both academics and policy-makers should keep a close eye on whether the ambition of complementarity will be managed, accelerated, or undermined in the years to come.

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