Circle the wagons, Mrs von der Leyen!

A squad leader of Swedish rangers from the newly re-established regiment in Arvidsjaur taps on his head signalling his patrol members to form a 360-degree hasty defensive position around him and the radio operator. In Swedish military hand signals this is known as “hedgehog defence” – a tactical procedure for a minor time-out; to assess the situation, study the terrain and perhaps communicate with their command. European settlers colonizing North America would form a similar defensive circle with their iconic horse carts. 

At present, on a strategic level, an on-going initiative announced by EU leaders in June 2020 could be seen as an equivalent to such a tactical procedure of “circling the wagons.” On 15 November 2021, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell presented the first draft of EU’s “Strategic Compass,” with the ambition of having a text endorsed by Member States in March 2022.(1) 

This is the last article in a series of three which seek to contribute to the “Strategic Compass” discussion. An initial article broadly assessed the current state of multilateral relations on a global level. The second one provided a set of recommendations primarily for support to EU partner countries with capacity building, advice and Security Sector Reform. This third article outlines conceptual changes to facilitate rapid and decisive EU military operations.  In addition, the three articles have a cross-cutting theme of calling for a return to realpolitik, setting a clear priority of defending Europe and not overstretching resources or becoming hostage to a narrative of self-professed moral high ground.

Foto: Wikipedia. Den på vagnarna har Don Graham som upphovsman.

Common Security and Defence Policy evolving to coalitions of the willing

As described in the first article, the current state of affairs – globally as well as in the EU – is one of polarisation and omnipotent lack of consensus. However, the need to maintain a capacity for joint military action by Member States of the European Union (MS) is more important than ever, with and without the support of the US.  As this series of articles contextualizes and explains, the most feasible framework for multilateral action is for a coalition of willing MS to launch and run a military force with only a general concept for the mission approved by the EU Council. This is a swift and expedient model, envisioned in Article 44 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), though so far never utilised. 

The expedited manner envisioned with Article 44 in TEU stands in great contrast to the lengthy process used to date. Current operations launched under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) have received their mandates through a legal act from a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. Authorised budget and Operations Plans are approved in various other EU Council configurations following a number of time-consuming and elaborate steps. 

These established practices have tied up Brussels-based MS representatives in prolonged, detailed discussions and, on a number of occasions, hampered or delayed the response to pressing security challenges. Notably, in the spirit of our time, the last few years have seen a number of military initiatives by MS, which circumvent the EU Council.  “Task Force Takuba” in Mali, the “Coordinated Maritime Presences” off the coast of Guinea countering piracy and the “Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz Mission” are illustrative examples of military operations launched, led, funded and executed by coalitions of willing MS. 

Geography matters – Keep troops close to home!

The expected geographic areas for MS to act in – with above mentioned decisiveness and rapid use of force – are indicated in the 2016 Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy. A key passage of the Global Strategy states that: “To the east, the European security order has been violated.” This was a clear reference to the Russian Federation after its  annexation of Crimea in 2014.(2) Instrumentalization of migrants/refugees at the Polish-Belarus border and build-up of forces near Ukraine in 2021 gave further impetus of the threat on the EU’s eastern flank articulated in the 2016 Global Strategy presented to MS by the then High Representative Federica Mogherini. 

The reference in the Global Strategy to “Threats in the South” also leave little guessing to imagine, with Libya still fragile, migrants/refugees adrift in the Mediterranean, Greece and Cyprus at loggerheads with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and Lebanon at the brink of collapse. The focus of EU military operations on our neighbourhood can partially be seen as filling a void when US attention and resources have directed to other parts of the world.

Leave Russia to NATO

In the Arctic and Eastern Europe where the Russian Federation constitutes the major challenger to interests of MS, NATO appears a more capable and likely framework for military cooperation. The EU framework though is increasingly called upon to ensure at least a minimum of political coherency and to coordinate measures of financial and trade power projection. Yet, for the last decade EU has found itself using its carrot as a stick rather than successfully appeasing the Russian Federation.

Mare nostrum – Core of the European security

In the Mediterranean where Turkey is a challenger, NATO falls into a role somewhat like the OSCE – an inclusive platform with significant added value for confidence-building and political conflict mitigation. In contrast, the EU appears as the best suited platform for collective security in the Mediterranean. Humanitarian emergencies at sea and the Libyan civil war is fought only some 1 000 km over the sea from the Italian mainland. Poland’s humanitarian dilemma in the fall of 2021 with migrants/refugees used as proxies shares essential characteristics of what Mediterranean MS have experienced for many years. The availability of motorboats and user-friendly navigation devices facilitated the now regular emergencies at sea. MS here have resource advantages, short supply lines and critical challenges to security requiring engagement by a mix of multiple instruments. Hence, the primary focus for EU military cooperation and power projection should be the broader Mediterranean region (North Africa and Levant). 

Benevolent gun-boat diplomacy

Pipeline politics, piracy, humanitarian emergencies at sea, the proliferation of undersea fibre optics cables, the March 2021 blockage of the Suez Canal, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic associated turbulence in supply chains – all serve as a compound set of stark indications for the importance of naval assets to protect the interests of MS. At present EU naval vessels act jointly in two operations under CSDP; around the Horn of Africa countering piracy and in the Mediterranean enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya. Since early 2021, a new model for EU naval action was employed to stem piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. 

In formalising “Coordinated Maritime Presences” MS navies retain their national command and control, yet have established a joint coordinating cell, endorsed by the EU Council Conclusions of 25 January (3). Under a French lead, a number of MS joined naval assets into the “The European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz Mission” to safeguard and stabilise shipping. In this effort MS took divergent policy stances; Estonia and Lithuania joined the US lead naval task force, together with the UK, instead of joining the “European” initiative. (4) 

Task Force Takuba as a model

A novel multilateral force (albeit at the time of drafting likely to withdraw upon the request of the host country) addressing instability in Sahel is the Swedish-led Task Force Takuba. Half of the 600 troops are French, with ten other MS contributing, as well as the UK and US. Jean-Pierre Maulny, of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), described it as a necessary pragmatic construct, circumventing time-consuming EU procedures. Maulny considers this Mission as a step in the direction of interventions under Article 44. He asserts that the incorporation of UK ground forces in a combat support role would have been hard to imagine being approved unanimously with the required EU Council Decision. (5) 

As argued in this series of articles, developments have surpassed the cumbersome processes of CSDP and Task Force Takuba may be a model for the next generation of military operations. The EU Council could soon find itself with a role restricted to issuing conclusions on military operations that MS are already engaged in and possibly, but not necessarily, endorse a concept giving the operation a formal EU aegis. 

Stay in Sahel, but do less with less

While each context is unique, the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan should serve as a double-edged warning to Western powers. First, recent events illustrate a debacle following a complete withdrawal, a scenario imaginable in other countries and areas of operations. Second, large scale deployments of military force to provide security for ambitious state building ventures seem a feature of the past. 

The lesson appears to be to stay engaged, with small contingents, where a small presence is pivotal and where it would make a difference and contribute to maintaining security and stability. In pragmatic terms, it is better to be the King maker than to fight someone else’s war. Small forces can support a regime which acts favourably, and it is easier to disengage should political winds shift. EU instruments may face the options of adapting a pragmatic and expedient approach, or become less relevant. 

Accept divergent priorities to safeguard common core interests

Living up to the mantra of being “united in diversity” in the end also implies recognition and mitigation of differences in current and future strategic priorities and diverse views of MS on relations with other major global and regional powers such as China, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the US. Agreeing to disagree and carrying on loyally to the acquis communautaire will be crucial in the current and future global setting. It is even imaginable that a number of MS may become embroiled in direct hostilities with one of the major powers mentioned, while others would  deem it necessary to maintain trade relations and flows of natural resources, also during the on-going conflict in Europe. 

Policy towards China and engagements in the Indo-Pacific will likely divide MS, thus EU should here focus on maintaining the lowest common denominator of policy consensus and rather focus on challenges in the geographical proximity to Europe. However, in today’s hyper connected world, an actor of the EU’s compound weight has interests in energy supply, transport infrastructure and maritime links – globally.

Reverse order to: 1. Intervention, 2. Council decision 3. Coalition forming/force generation

As aforementioned, today’s fast pace of developments, information saturation and turbulent “new normal” justify fundamental reform. The necessary shift of paradigm could, for example, envision a scenario of a necessary military engagement in the EU’s greater neighbourhood playing out as follows:

  • One MS acts to an arising challenge with drones and other air assets, as well as special operations teams.
  • Regular military units having been on alert follow, a handful of other MS join the effort. 
  • The EU Council approves an EU concept for prolonged military operations by a group of MS, possibly with support from US and/or UK in air and naval assets, or other capabilities in high demand. In terms of clarity in lead, a framework nation stepping up as overall responsible for funding and logistics will be instrumental. 

The EU engagement – a unified effort – could deploy after the expected initial phase of intense hostilities. Ground combat assets may be deployed to ensure stability with a broad political backing, or smaller teams of armed advisors may be deployed to train, advise and fight alongside host country security actors. Expediency in command and control will be paramount. Such assets would be politically reinforced by a concept approved by the EU Council under Article 44. The sequencing here described is not alien to history; a multilateral peacekeeping component has traditionally intervened in conflict only when a ceasefire, or provisional agreement between warring parties is in place. 

EU umbrella’s greatest added value is on long-term engagement

In contrast to executive military action, which benefits from the quicker national chain of command, post-conflict engagement is a long-term and an inherently highly politicised process. In such efforts, a broad backing and acting in concert  with the EU delegations in host countries and EUSRs is of utmost importance. In that case, unilateral initiatives by MS can even be counter-productive to the common EU interests. Hence, stabilisation efforts in the forms of strategic advising and support to a host country’s security sector reform are best placed as the responsibility of EU structures, fully incorporated with a larger strategic effort, managed through the EEAS – a core recommendation in the second article in this series; “Crisis is the new normal: Adapting the EU’s Security and Defence Instruments.”


Prudently circling the wagons means prioritising core interests shared by all MS and not overstretching. As a political entity, the success of the EU lies in its nature of a confederacy. It should remain such – power needs to be decentralised and authority delegated. The Union must be able to carry on common and joint endeavours, without agenda specific brinkmanship. That is, issues can be compartmentalised to preserve unity. Modular forms of cooperation allow diverse policies, without unanimous votes and the ever present Damocles sword of a veto. The EU framework should never hamper MS to act in their national interests and to protect and serve their democratic constituents.


Henry Wathen

Wathen is former US Marine and Swedish civil servant deployed to multiple EU-missions in the Balkans, Middle East and the Caucasus from 2003 to 2020. Currently he is studying Theology at the University of Uppsala.




  1. Dick Zandee, Adája Stoetman and Bob Deen. The EU’s Strategic Compass for security and defence – squaring ambition with realism. Clingendael Report, May 2021.

  1. “Shared vision, common actions: A stronger Europe – Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy”, 2016.

  1. Council Conclusions launching the pilot case of the Coordinated Maritime Presences concept in the Gulf of Guinea. 25 January 2021. DOI:

  1. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Tobias Borck.The European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz Mission” in Ad-hoc European Military Cooperation Outside Europe RUSI Occasional Paper, December 2021. DOI: and EMASOH – Joint Communiqué on the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz, 1 October 2020,

  1. Jean-Pierre Maulny. “Takuba Task Force: A New Approach to European Military Cooperation?” in Ad-hoc European Military Cooperation Outside Europe RUSI Occasional Paper, December 2021. DOI: