France is very clear about the priority objectives it wants to achieve during the time it holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a six-month term that began on 1 January and ends on 30 June.
It is no coincidence that the first three ministerial meetings in a face-to-face format to inaugurate the French Presidency were held on 12, 13 and 14 January to host the European defence and foreign affairs ministers, who first met separately and then jointly.
Nor is it a coincidence that the three meetings took place in the port city of Brest, the French Navy's main arsenal on the Atlantic coast. Nearby is the base for the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines equipped with M51 ballistic missiles, which, equipped with nuclear warheads, constitute the Strategic Oceanic Force (FOST), the naval component of France's military power that makes it the only nuclear-armed power in the European Union.
President Emmanuel Macron has said that in the six months that the EU will be under the Paris mandate, his ambition is to "move from a Europe of cooperation within our borders to a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its decisions and master of its destiny". This vision is shared by his Defence Minister, Florence Parly, who is ready to move from words to deeds to achieve the oft-repeated European strategic autonomy to which the EU president, Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, also claims to aspire.
It is also the goal of veteran Jean-Yves Le Drian, who at 74 is France's Foreign Minister, after leading the defence portfolio for five years (2012-2017) under socialist president François Hollande. In line with Macron, Le Drian affirms that "European freedom of action must be preserved in the oceans, in outer space and in the cyber and information spheres, which are new arenas in dispute". And he stressed that, with "a strong Europe, the Atlantic Alliance will emerge stronger and rebalanced".
None of the three meetings held in Brest were of a decision-making nature, but all of them were extremely important. Under the chairmanship of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Spaniard Josep Borrell, the main item on the agenda was to specify the guidelines for finalising the drafting of the so-called Strategic Compass, the first and foremost priority of the French Presidency.
Considered to be the European Union's first Defence White Paper, it is a consensus document that analyses the threats facing Brussels and the major global upheavals that could have an impact on the citizens and interests of the countries of the Old Continent. Its promoters want the content of the Strategic Compass to be "bold and viable, but not immovable", to capture the "common strategic vision" and to constitute the "framework that should guide and provide answers to European defence and security policy until 2030".
The task is not an easy one. It is a fact that the 27 countries belonging to the European Union share many values but have serious discrepancies in their interests. For example, Poland and the three Baltic states fear that the Strategic Compass and the implementation of the concept of strategic autonomy will mean distancing themselves from the United States and NATO. These are the two pillars that underpin the bulk of European defence, especially vis-à-vis Russia, whose reactions the former Soviet states are wary of.
But the French powers will do everything in their power to iron out the disparate points of view of the 27 countries in order to draft a text that contains a high level of ambition. The Elysée Palace wants the final draft to be completed within nine weeks, so that the Strategic Compass can be approved by the Foreign and Defence ministers on 21 March. If this is achieved, it could be endorsed at the summit of heads of state and government of the European Council to be held in Brussels on 24 and 25 March.
The Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares, was one of those who attended the informal meetings in Brest. The Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, was not physically present because she had other commitments. On the 12th, she had travelled to Pontevedra to see first-hand the contribution of the military personnel of the Galicia VII Brigade to the tasks of screening and vaccination against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following day, 13 January, he paid a visit to the Jefatura de Apoyo Logístico de la Armada (JAL) in Madrid, which is essentially dedicated to sustaining the ships, weapons and equipment of the Spanish Navy. After the visit to the JAL and on her return to the Ministry's headquarters, Margarita Robles 'connected via telematic connection and participated by videoconference in the meeting of defence ministers in Brest', official sources from her department confirm.
France insists that the Strategic Compass must contain criteria so that Brussels can take initiatives to ensure the Union's interests and freedom of action. The first version drafted by the European External Action Service, with contributions from the 27 nations, was presented in mid-November 2021 by Josep Borrell to the foreign and defence ministers. But it still has more than a boiling point to go.
What does the Strategic Compass contain? It is structured around four pillars. The first is focused on improving the capacity to respond to crisis or emergency situations. Paris aims to create a Rapid Deployment Force of around 5,000 troops under the EU flag that can be mobilised when the situation requires it. A second foundation is to build resilience to hybrid threats, both to protect against them and to respond to them. The aim is to safeguard European interests in cyber security, maritime security and space security.
A third area is aimed at developing new capabilities and boosting Europe's defence industry, which is why the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, France's Thierry Breton, attended the meetings. France aims to lead the Europeanisation of most of the EU armed forces' weapons systems and to increase investment in R&D and disruptive technologies in the maritime, air, land, space and cyber spheres.
The fourth and final pillar is dedicated to strengthening Brussels' cooperation with other international actors, especially NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the African Union, the United States and Canada. It also seeks to improve instruments for projecting stability outside the EU framework.