Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Stronger Together - Poland: Realigning the Compass

Stronger Together - Poland: Realigning the Compass
 Marcin Terlikowski
Ph.D, Head of International Security Programme in the PISM

Ever since accession to the EU in 2004, Poland has been among the most skeptical member states with regards to European defense ambitions. Instead, it focused its security and defense policy on NATO and the partnership with the United States, seen as the ultimate guarantor of peace in Europe, especially to counter the Russian threat. Poland is committed to strengthening European cooperation on security and defense, but in a way that will reinforce NATO rather than undermine it by constituting a false alternative. As the nature of conflicts is evolving, with actors using an increasing number of different (including non-military) tools to threaten European governments, citizens and economies, strengthening European resilience requires a concerted action of many actors. In this last chapter of our European defense series, Marcin Terlikowski, head of the International Security Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), shares his insight on how Poland can contribute to reexamining the approach to the concept of European strategic autonomy.

It might seem that everything has been said about the concept of European strategic autonomy. Compelling arguments were made in support of the idea that Europe should be enabled to formulate and implement its own security and defense policy goals without resorting to support from the US and NATO. Strong opinions were also expressed, stressing that a hapless implementation of this concept may bring adverse effects on the transatlantic bond and NATO, still seen by a number of EU member states - with Poland clearly belonging to this group - as an ultimate guarantee of peace in Europe.

Some fundamental assumptions of this notion have however hardly been discussed, such as the one that Europe needs to be able to plan, prepare, deploy and command a military operation of an executive type entirely on its own. The debate on "European strategic autonomy" is therefore based on a dogma, which has laid at the very root of almost all European defense initiatives, including the recently launched mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF). But the sheer scale of the evolution of Europe’s security environment over the last few years calls for reexamining the approach to the concept, particularly in its military and operational dimensions.

Today, only a very general guidance regarding the envisaged scale of EU operational activity exists.

In this regard, an opportunity is offered by the Strategic Compass. This process aims, in the first place, to have member states take a deeper reflection about how many and exactly what kinds of crisis management operations will fall within a revised EU military ambition, and what capabilities will be needed to enable such European military engagements. 

Today, only a very general guidance regarding the envisaged scale of EU operational activity exists. According to the November 2016 Council conclusions, the UE should be able to run joint crisis management and stabilization operations, rapid response missions, air and maritime security and surveillance operations as well as a number of civilian missions, mostly of an advisory and training character.

Accordingly, the development of PESCO and the EDF has been recently streamlined to focus on capabilities which are most needed for operations. The EU’s nascent operational headquarters, the so-called Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) cell, is designed to command and control a battlegroup-size executive operation (1,000-2,000 soldiers). Member states are also expected to work towards improving availability of national high readiness forces for potential deployments. But how do EU objectives regarding its military level of ambition look against the backdrop of the revolutionary changes in European security environment?

Taking the evolution of conflicts into account 

First, it is worth noting that the very approach to expeditionary operations has changed significantly in Europe. Intervention fatigue among both public opinion and political elites in Europe is indisputable. When it comes to addressing security crises in Europe’s neighborhood, it is unlikely that political leaders would opt for a military operation - seen as a potentially open-ended commitment, burdened with the usual "mission creep", and draining financial and human resources. Europeans have done their homework properly and are now willing to engage in crisis management rather through partnerships than by deploying their own troops on the ground. The way in which the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was defeated - i.e. by deploying only modest forces, while the bulk of the effort was put on enabling local actors to fight - best represents this modus operandi evolution in European military engagements. The newly established European Peace Facility (EPF) is expected to reinforce this evolution by providing budget for such actions.

At the same time, the very nature of conflicts has changed too. They are more internationalized than ever before, as demonstrated by the scale of foreign fighters mobilization which enabled the rise of the so-called Islamic State after 2014 and became the source of the increased international terrorist threat ever since. 

The very nature of conflicts has changed. 

The battlefield has also deeply evolved over the last few years due to advances and proliferation of new technologies (like commercial Internet-based services, which allow communication, radicalization, money gathering, open-source intelligence, etc.), that have enabled terrorist organizations or militias to challenge professional militaries in an unprecedented way.

These observations lead to a straightforward conclusion: when looking at the debate on strategic autonomy, it is hard to escape the impression that in the military and operational dimensions, it has remained focused on capacity-building for Europe to engage alone in a military-heavy crisis, requiring a deployment of a robust force to perform executive tasks, i.e. fight. What is seldom indicated, however, is that Europeans are more likely to be engaged in prolonged, multidimensional conflicts with many actors, shifting alliances, blurred lines between war and peace, and overwhelming ambiguity. In other words, these will be conflicts which would require a concerted action of various actors.

Simultaneously, Europe itself faces a sustained, direct threat to its citizens, its democratic governments and its economy in non-military domains. Cyberattacks, disinformation, propaganda, policy of coercion based on energy dependencies and illegal financial flows are all used effectively by Europe’s systemic rivals and non-state actors. Powers such as Russia and China use these tools to weaken and divide Europeans, in the pursuit of their goal of rewriting the global legal and political order to the benefit of their regimes, while terrorist organizations aim to radicalize, mobilize and recruit new members.

Let us not overlook EU partnerships

Then arises the issue of partnerships and resilience, which happen to constitute the two other baskets or conceptual dimensions of the Strategic Compass process (the two other being crisis management and capabilities, as noted above). If Europe is expected to address complex security crises, then it should naturally strive for maximal efficiency. This, in turn, calls for European cooperation with as many partners as needed to effectively tackle both the very roots and effects of crises: other international and regional organizations, key regional actors, non-governmental organizations, private sector, etc. And among these numerous partnerships, the one with the US and NATO remains special, at least on the military and operational dimensions.

When thinking about crisis management in Europe’s neighborhood, one cannot easily disregard NATO’s command and control system, interoperability, joint operational culture.

It is neither only about values, which are shared by states on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, nor exclusively about their common interests. What matters in this partnership is the fact that NATO offers a robust machinery to address security crises, lest they require a military reaction. When thinking about crisis management in Europe’s neighborhood, one cannot easily disregard NATO’s command and control system, interoperability, joint operational culture or pre-defined operational plans. These are ready tools, which can be effectively deployed in almost any scenario requiring the use of force.

Of course, the entire debate about European strategic autonomy is pointing at contingencies in which no consensus can be found within NATO with regards to a military mission (mostly, but not exclusively, due to potential American disinterest) and the Alliance’s resources thus could not be deployed. Such scenarios cannot be excluded. The question we must then ask ourselves today is: should Europe continue to focus the discussion about strategic autonomy on such scenarios?

As usual when strategic issues are concerned, the answer is not straightforward. However, a more realistic approach to the EU’s military level of ambition is something that could surely - and vastly - improve the chances for success of the Strategic Compass exercise in particular and help reach a strong consensus on what European strategic autonomy means in general. Such a consensus is necessary given the clear division between member states who focus on the transatlantic dimension of European security and those who seek a more empowered Europe vis-à-vis the US.

Ever since its accession to the EU in 2004, Poland has been seen as a part of the former group, as one of the most skeptical member states towards European defense ambitions, even though it has been contributing significantly to many EU military operations (in Congo, Chad, Central African Republic) and capability development initiatives (the battle group system). Due to its frontline position at the Eastern border of the EU, Poland has focused its security and defense policy on NATO and the US, which are seen as the ultimate guarantor of peace in Europe. Warsaw, which has historically perceived Russia as a long-term threat, has been calling for a prudent Western approach to the long-sought partnership with the Kremlin and indicating that Russian goals towards its neighbourhood were pretty straightforward and fall within the logic of the "spheres of influence". The events of 2014, with Russia illegally annexing Crimea and sparking a separatist conflict in the East of Ukraine, only confirmed this assumption. Faced with a resurgent threat from Russia, Poland focuses now even more on reinforcing NATO, with the US politically and militarily engaged in Europe, including in the Eastern Flank, where Polish-American cooperation allows an additional presence of US forces. Poland remains at the same time interested and committed to developing European defense ambitions, but in order to strengthen NATO rather than undermining it by constituting an (fake) alternative.

Rethinking the EU’s role, complementing NATO  

Europe surely needs to develop some capacity to use force outside NATO settings. This is important for the credibility of its future approach to security crises, which has been weak, to say the least. It is also what our transatlantic partners actually expect from Europe, as seen by the evolving debate on burden sharing (and the Biden administration may change the form, but not the merits of US policy in this regard). Important steps have already been taken in this direction with PESCO and EDF in the first place and through the expansion of the MPCC, the launch of capability-oriented projects in the EU over the last few years with a common goal to directly and indirectly strengthen European capacity to operationally engage. Finally, the European Intervention Initiative (which is not limited to EU member states) aims at fostering a common European strategic culture.

But the European focus on maximising autonomy in the operational and military dimensions neglects various domains where Europe can deliver fast and with much more "bang for the buck". Why are we expected to commit to further increasing the military level of ambition, thereby risking more transatlantic tensions and the creation of a gap between rhetoric and reality if the implementation fails due to controversial goals and unrealistic assumptions? Europe should instead focus on expanding the framework for EU-NATO cooperation and on our capacity to address non-military threats.

Europe should focus on expanding the framework for EU-NATO cooperation and on our capacity to address non-military threats.

This can be done relatively easily. The recent decisions about participation of third countries in PESCO projects could be swiftly used to establish joint programs with non-EU members of NATO, while the EDF may be utilized to develop high-end capabilities most needed for a broad set of scenarios. Military mobility and logistical cooperation can become a "joint venture" of the EU and NATO, with the European Union’s regulatory and financing abilities directly reinforcing the Alliance’s defense and deterrence. Further, the EU’s untapped potential to identify, defend against and prevent threats in cyberspace, disinformation campaigns, or coercion based on energy dependencies, could directly contribute to building Europe’s resilience to hostile, albeit non-military actions of its rivals, both state and non-state. Such capacities would complement NATO in areas where it is handicapped by its very nature.

Beyond, when it comes to crisis management itself, Europe should rethink lessons learned from its past engagements and further streamline its concept of integrated approach, which was given surprisingly little attention after it was introduced by the Global Strategy for the EU. Once again, this does not mean that the aim of being able to autonomously engage in some military contingencies should be abandoned. Quite on the contrary, the EU should finally deliver on what it promised in terms of new military capabilities, naturally available for both the EU and NATO (and perhaps also coalitions of the willing). But more focus should definitely be put on redesigning how the EU wants to work with (various) partners on early identification of unfolding crises, acting quickly to prevent escalation, bringing stabilisation if previous efforts failed, and finally, rebuilding and reconciling war-torn regions, so that they cease to constitute threats for Europe itself. In other words, the concept of the integrated approach should again be put in the center of the reflection on strategic autonomy, along with the issue of the European military level of ambition.

If Europe embraces the current momentum, built up by the Strategic Compass process, with a sound dose of realism rather than wishful thinking, it can chart a new way forward for its defense ambitions. By becoming a more self-standing part of NATO and the transatlantic partnership, it may finally find the right place and exact role it long sought under the concept of strategic autonomy.



Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English