EU Strategic Compass

EU Strategic Compass: Has the EU advanced in its threat-analysis capacity?


06 | 07 | 2022


This essay studies whether the threat-analysis contained in the Compass builds up from previous documents in the capacity of the Union to address multiple threats and challenges

“If you want to talk about defence, you have to talk about challenges or threats, because you defend [yourself] from something. The first thing you need is a sound assessment of your strategic environment. This is what we did. Last year [we did] an assessment [of] the threats and challenges. The overall view is that we are witnessing instability, conflicts, transnational threats that impact our security […]”[1]

Josep Borrell, HR/VP


With such precision, the High Representative accurately expresses the important role of the threat analysis for the security of the Union. After the recent publication of the Strategic Compass in a context of high tensions in Europe and the world, we must study whether the unclassified part of the threat-analysis contained in the Compass builds up from previous documents—such as the 2016 Global Strategy (EUGS)—in the capacity of the Union to address such a vast array of threats and challenges. As we know, there is an unpublished part of the threat analysis carried out for this Compass; thus, this essay devotes its efforts to three particular aspects—they are not the only ones—of the public threat-analysis found within the Compass. In the first section we analyze the presentation of the strategic environment as key cornerstone for the defence landscape; in the second, the change in the taxonomy of threats and challenges distributed along such environment; and in last term, the return to power politics in a global order currently undergoing substantive changes which must be carefully studied (namely, Russia and China).

It is important to bear in mind, prior to exposing such differences with the previous documents, that the threat analysis not only sets the parameters of the Compass process, but it also updates the strategic assessment presented in the EUGS back in 2016 (which already identified the threats of the EU).[2] Furthermore, this threat-analysis is a novelty in the sense that it was not a document agreed in political terms. Member states were not given the option to amend or discuss any of the conclusions provided by the intelligence officers in charge of its drafting.[3] We could then link the EUGS from 2016 more to a national security strategy, and the Compass to a ‘white book’ on security and defence.[4]

Analyzing the EU´s strategic environment

The first improvement, as already advanced with the quote of the High Representative, is the presentation of a clear and mapped strategic environment for the Union; a necessary and crucial element for any security strategy. To be able to defend yourself, you must first understand who or what are you defending from; and thus, the first section of the Compass dedicates a significant effort to the clear identification of the strategic environment the EU currently faces and lives in. Each of the regions of such environment is classified with the number of threats found within, and in a much deeper way than all previous documents, which fail to specifically point out the precise threats within each region.

The strategic environment provides an overview of all areas of threats. In the north of the globe, the Artic is emphasized as being a very rapidly changing region due to climate change and marked with both geopolitical rivalries and increased commercial interests by many States. In our Eastern neighborhood, we find the Western Balkans as having a major potential for spill overs and being subject to manipulation campaigns in the first place. In the second place, aside from the Ukraine Crisis with Russia (which, we must say, determines the overall approach this Compass has been given), the direct threats to sovereignty faced by Georgia, Moldova and other Caucasus countries are also highlighted.[5]

The crises in Syria and Libya, added to the enduring terrorist and organized crime threats, make the Southern Neighborhood another focus of concerns from a security perspective. The Middle East and Gulf Region include the threat of ballistic missiles proliferation; and in the most distant places from our territory (but yet with high importance), Latin America is seen as a source of migratory pressures as well as home of various threats to political stability, and in Asia, a vast array of irregular migration, drug smuggling, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns are a potential destabilizing source.[6]

All the threats described above could be classified as highly multifaceted, due to the numerous areas and functions they address, at the same time they are highly unpredictable in many cases (and highly unpredictable at the same time), due to the changing nature of the present international order. Additionally, the Compass identifies the climate change as a threat multiplier, which further exacerbates already-existing inequalities and “adds to the potential for social, economic and political instability;”[7] and must therefore be carefully taken into consideration.

Classifying our threats: regional vs. domain

In second term, to better understand the advancements in threat assessment accomplished in the Compass, we must briefly consider the 2003 Security Strategy and the 2016 EUGS. In none of them does the threat-analysis reach the level of depth we can find in the Compass; and they also present a higher degree of mismatch between the level of ambition expressed and the threat analysis used. This fact becomes more visible when comparing the EUGS and the Compass from an organizational perspective, making a distinction in the way threats are classified in both documents.[8] Hence, the second difference is the classification on the EUGS of the security of the Union into five different areas (security and defense, counter-terrorism, cyber security, energy security, and strategic communications)[9] plus three (enlargement policy, our neighbors, and resilience in the surrounding regions).[10] The Compass underlines its more precise classification based on the regions from where each threat comes from. Every continent or area of influence comes mapped with its specific, pin-pointed threats. For example, Africa is a source of instability, with presence of terrorist groups and weak state structures, mercenaries and, above all, widespread poverty.[11]

This difference can also be understood by considering the EUGS and the Compass as different approaches. The EUGS is conceived more like a national security strategy, and the Compass could be seen as a white book, a document also published to help the EU citizens understand the roots and nature of the wide variety of threats the EU faces. It was initiated to clarify and provide coherence to the “Implementation Plan on Security and Defence”, which followed the EUGS.[12] That is the reason why the threat analysis provides with this new taxonomy, describing what threats can the EU find in each region of the world; and additionally, the division between regional, global, and state/non-state threats.

Nonetheless, we can also identify common elements between the one from 2003 and the Compass, as the latter marks a return to the initial statement made in the former one twenty years ago –it was omitted in the EUGS in 2016–, underlining the fact that being a security provider entails not only defending one´s own territory, but also supporting external security. In the Compass we can find this important idea with the statement “to make the EU a stronger and more capable security provider;”[13] and in the 2003 Strategy, in one of the main headings, which reads: “Providing security in a changing world.”[14]

A global order in change

In third instance, the Compass outworks previous strategies in what the global order is concerned. First, by highlighting the major shifts that international relations´ narratives are experiencing, now subject to a highly confrontational discourse. Secondly, by adapting the threat-analysis to the current ongoing situation in the global sphere, and also defining the international system in a precise way. In such changing world, two actors are of particular importance for the EU and must be paid close attention: China and Russia.

Concerning the former, the EUGS in 2016 failed to provide with an adequate analysis of China´s role, and the growing tendency it is experiencing (and will keep experiencing). Now we can read in the Compass how “China is a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.”[15] A clear reflection of an underlying truth: in its analysis of the strategic environment and the threats found within, the Compass succeeds—at least, in part—in providing with a set of guidelines on how to handle each of the identified threats. And China is surely a player to whom close attention must be paid. The Asian giant is currently ongoing a modernization of its armed forces, and its development and integration throughout the globe must be looked at closely, so as to ensure it is done in a way that complies with international law and the interests and values of other actors.

As for the latter, the situation with Russia has been a key determinant for the Strategic Compass. As we know, the Ukraine crisis broke in the midst of its publication, forcing the EU to quickly adapt its Compass to meet the highly challenging nature of the conflict. Russia has brought the most radical change in the security environment: the return to war. The unjustified aggression launched by Russia against Ukraine is perhaps the biggest challenge currently faced by the EU and will probably mark a historic shift in our history as well (as mentioned in the Compass). The motivation of establishing the so-called spheres of influence around itself has now consolidated as a major challenge to which the Union must prepare to respond in an efficient and adequate way.

The success demonstrated with the Compass in bringing together a shared assessment of the threats to the Union that the 27 member states have agreed is, indeed, a remarkable achievement. It is not an easy task to find that “minimum common denominator” between all 27, that allows the EU to keep building in its security, with all their different strategic cultures. Nevertheless, this progress doesn´t entail it is a perfect document at all. Despite it is not an element of the threat-analysis in itself, we shall also comment on the idea of `strategic autonomy´ put forward in the Compass and a direct outcome from its threat-assessment.

The concept of Strategic Autonomy is, in our eyes, used in an overly optimistic way, especially considering the current situation with Ukraine and the Russian invasion. Strategic autonomy may be subject to a vast array of different understandings and definitions. From the threat analysis, it should encompass aspects such as developing capabilities, reducing external dependencies, and an acute awareness of external risks.[16]Therefore, even a complete threat analysis is not enough yet; it should be considered just the starting point. There are multiple areas to be developed as derived from the Compass, like intelligence sharing between the member states, technical needs to address specific threats or challenges, and others. Consequently, the EU will continue working on all those in parallel to updating the strategic environment analysis.


In conclusion, this essay highlights the importance of the threat analysis carried out in the Strategic Compass as an achievement, successfully completing the EUGS 16, which was perhaps vague and imprecise in the definition of threats and objectives. It effectively identifies the strategic environment the EU is currently facing, classifies the threats according to their region of origin; and further assesses the changing nature of such international environment by exposing the ongoing battle of narratives and the challenges that a threat-multiplier such as climate change also poses to the EU.

Consequently, the Strategic Compass provides a solid base upon which the EU can deepen its security and defence. Its threat analysis is relevant for the security and defence policy of the Union, as well as for each member state. It provides with greater coherence and common sense of purpose; something of high value taking into account the already mentioned difficulty of finding that `minimum common denominator´ of threat assessment between all 27 members. It is a demonstration that member states believe the EU is under threat by an external power—Russia—and that it calls for a coordinated action. Furthermore, it also proposes areas to be developed for the EU to become both a security provider and a strategically autonomous actor.

[1] Josep Borrell, Foreign Affairs Council: Remarks by the High Representative at the press conference. (

[2] European External Action Service, `Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe: A Global Strategy for the European Union´s Foreign Policy and Strategy´ 2016. p. 7.

[3] Fiott, Daniel and Gustav Lindstrom, ´Strategic Compass: New bearings for EU Security and Defence?´ Chaillot Paper 171. 2021. p.5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] `A Strategic Compass for Security and Defense´, 2022: 8-9.

[6] Ibid. 10.

[7] Ibid, 38.

[8] Despite we are focusing on the EUGS and the Compass, note that the key threats identified by the 2003 Security Strategy were: terrorism, proliferation of WMD´s, regional conflicts, State failures and organized crimes (Cfr. `European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World´, 2003: 30-32).

[9] European External Action Service, `Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe: A Global Strategy for the European Union´s Foreign Policy and Strategy´ 2016: 19-23.

[10] Ibid, 24-27.

[11] `A Strategic Compass for the EU´, 2022: 10.

[12] Council of the European Union, `Implementation Plan on Security and Defence´, 2016.

[13] Ibid, 10.

[14] European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, 2003: 7.

[15] Council of the European Union, `A Strategic Compass for Security and Defense´, 2022: 8.

[16] Council of the European Union, “Strategic Autonomy, Strategic Choices” ART Issue Papers (2021) 8.