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December 8 2021 1:15 PM ˚
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The EU’s strategic compass — preparing to navigate MENA with less US presence

Saskia
Saskia M. van Genugten is a non-resident senior fellow with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. She is a former strategy and policy advisor at the Netherlands Ministry of Defense and a research fellow at the Netherlands Defense Academy. This article was first published on The Middle East Institute’s website. (Photo: Jordan News)
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After almost two years of work, the first draft of the European Union’s (EU) so-called Strategic Compass was presented on November 15. The objective of this military strategic plan is to agree on a set of proposals to guide the bloc’s defense cooperation efforts for the next five to ten years. Previous attempts at seriously bolstering Europe’s defense ambitions were often half-hearted, but this time could be different because Europe feels genuinely threatened. For decades, the Old Continent could sit back and relax, with US security guarantees firmly in place, the Russian Federation weakened, China seen as an economic opportunity but not a threat, and a MENA region that was unstable but for a long time had little direct security impact on the EU.اضافة اعلان

Now, increasingly, Europe feels exposed, vulnerable and a little lonely. The likelihood of a scenario in which Europe will have to deal with violence at its periphery by itself is growing. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing his own vision for so-called European “strategic autonomy” in the Middle East and elsewhere, pointing to the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact snub as the latest “I told you so” moments. 

Alarm bells over America’s undeniable shift to Asia have finally been rung in Brussels and other European capitals. European leaders understand that the US is changing its engagement with the MENA region, too. They expect that Washington will stay focused on Iran and will be there if potential conflicts and precarious situations draw in large, important, regional countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. They also expect, of course, that the US will still engage if an armed conflict breaks out involving Russia on Europe’s eastern periphery. 

After a long period of denial, the EU has now entered a period of proposed adjustments. Political will, principles and paper exercises can be a (fresh) start. That is what the new Strategic Compass is. 
It focuses on four overlapping areas: crisis management, capabilities, resilience and partnerships.

The provisions in the first draft of the Strategic Compass show that the EU will not give up that easily, displaying an increased willingness to become better at what it intended to do all along: take care of those crisis situations that the US (and thus NATO) are not that interested in. This includes crisis management and training missions on the EU’s southern periphery. To this end, one flagship proposal is the establishment of an EU capacity for rapid force deployment by 2025 — up to 5,000 troops that could quickly intervene to stabilize a situation in a hostile environment. With such an ability, EU officials have lamented, the Europeans could have held on to Kabul airport without the Americans and continued evacuations for a while longer. 

With the shortcomings of the 2011 mission in Libya fresh in mind, and with an eye on brewing turmoil in the Maghreb and Mashreq, having an EU that would help Paris “punch above its weight” would please not just Macron, but any winner of the 2022 French presidential elections.

Of course, political will, principles and a paper exercise do not make for reality, and the final draft of the strategic document will only be adopted in March 2022. But the EU’s allies and partners should encourage and support the Old Continent on its renewed quest toward greater military relevance and geopolitical say. For the US, it will lead to a partner that can finally share more of the burden. For the region, Europe’s normative approach and long-term, slow-progress engagements full of conditionalities will turn out to be a necessary counterbalance to the more short-term but potentially exploitative deals offered by other geopolitical suitors.

Saskia M. van Genugten is a non-resident senior fellow with MEI’s Defense and Security Program. She is a former strategy and policy advisor at the Netherlands Ministry of Defense and a research fellow at the Netherlands Defense Academy. This article was first published on The Middle East Institute’s website.

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