Global Governance
The European Union and ‘Strategic Autonomy’ — An Elusive Concept in the Making

While the logic of strategic autonomy is based on establishing the EU as an independent pole in a multipolar world, the concrete steps remain moderate, partly disparate, and the concepts vague with room for different projections, writes Valdai Club expert Hans-Joachim Spanger.

The new US administration of Joe Biden has given a new impetus to the debate in the European Union about its sovereignty vis-à-vis the USA and beyond — albeit in different directions. While some dream of a back-to-normal reversion to familiar transatlantic relations, others see no fundamental change. These differences are not accidental and reflect the basic problems that have characterised Brussels’ efforts to play an independent role in world politics since debates on the EU’s “strategic autonomy” started in earnest.

“Strategic autonomy”, “strategic sovereignty” or “resilience” are currently the most popular terms which, in their generality and with different objectives, have one thing in common: to ensure the self-assertion of the European Union — and its member states — in an international environment that is perceived as increasingly uncomfortable and demanding.

Self-assertion is to be understood comprehensively, comprising the economy and society as well as internal and external security. Against this background, “strategic autonomy” means the ability of the EU to make and implement decisions autonomously, with partners or independently, disposing of the necessary institutional and material prerequisites. External dependencies that impair these abilities must be curtailed, and at the same time the influence on setting international norms and procedures, in the sense of the much-cited “rules-based international order”, must be strengthened. In this respect, there is consensus within the EU, which, however, quickly evaporates when it comes to the details. There is also consensus that the EU must not become the plaything of other great powers — since Donald Trump’s presidency also of the USA — a danger that is becoming more salient against the background of global power shifts. The fact that in the wake of the strategic rivalry between the USA and China a new bipolarism looms on the horizon, makes the ability to act autonomously all the more urgent if one does not want to be forced to take sides.

The debate on “strategic autonomy” gained momentum in mid-2016 — the term already appears seven times in the 2016 Global Strategy presented by the EU’s then foreign representative, Federica Mogherini. But to date, there is neither a common understanding among the member states of what “strategic autonomy” actually means, nor what goals it is supposed to achieve. Even more, observers complain of a “toxic verbiage” and a “battle of narratives” that divides alleged “Transatlanticists” and “Europeanists”, as well as those who aspire to a European federal state and those who at best accept a European confederation.

So far, the debate on “strategic autonomy” has focused mainly on security and defence policy, i.e. the “hard” instruments of power. This is not surprising as in this realm the EU and its member states have the greatest deficiencies. On the other hand, the EU has the greatest power resources in the non-military sphere, in trade and technology, the internal market and the euro, which represents the second most important currency after the US dollar, most strongly in international payments. It is also here that the institutional preconditions for coherent policies are most advanced.

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Nevertheless, there are also serious restrictions on autonomous action in this area (although these are rarely subsumed under “strategic autonomy” in EU jargon). For instance, the EU is only surpassed by the USA in imposing the “soft” instrument of sanctions. At the same time, however, it has repeatedly been the victim of extraterritorial sanctions by the USA, which it has so far been powerless to counter. One example is Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with Iran, which also caused the EU’s trade with Iran to collapse. Its countermeasures proved to be completely ineffective, be it the reactivated 1996 “blocking statute”, once employed to neutralise the US sanctions on Cuba in order to protect its companies, or be it INSTEX, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, meant by its most important members to conduct trade with Iran through their own payment system. The situation was similar with regard to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Although the project met with little sympathy in Brussels and among many EU members, including France, with reference to the supposed overdependence on Russian energy, the US sanctions, however, were unanimously rejected. Yet, this also achieved little to nothing and could only be resolved by a costly bilateral German-American political compromise in July 2021. In any case, threatening American companies with counter sanctions played no role, but would have been the adequate response in terms of autonomous balancing — albeit without any chance of consensus in the EU.

This brings us to the decisive Achilles’ heel that has so far prevented significant progress in “autonomous” foreign, security and defence policy. Unlike trade and monetary policy, for example, the foreign, security and defence policy of the EU is not only organised on a purely intergovernmental basis, following the principle of consensus and therefore usually reduced to the lowest common denominator. It also lumps together highly diverse states whose alliance status, military potentials, threat perceptions and strategic cultures differ fundamentally, to the point of incompatibility. The result is an overall military expenditure that is disproportionate to the inefficient outcome. An aggregate defence budget of more than 200 billion US dollars of the 27 members in 2020 finances armed forces that are too small to provide a sufficient spectrum of military capabilities, that have only low interoperability and, in view of overwhelmingly national procurement, are strained by extremely high equipment costs, combined with expensive duplications and about six times as many weapon systems as the USA. In addition, in view of the exploding costs of modern weapon systems, there is a progressive loss of efficiency and competition in the defence industry, which is also strongly committed to national prerogatives, although it is concentrated in only a few big member states.

There is consensus that changes are urgently needed, but no consensus on how to achieve these. The result is an incremental process whose pace is a credit to any snail. At least an institutional framework has been in place since summer 2016 that is meant to create the conditions for a more coherent defence policy. This includes a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), as already envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty (Article 42), a European Defence Fund (EDF), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) to expand joint defence planning, a European Peace Facility (EPF) and, for the first time, an EU Capability Development Plan coordinated with NATO.

However, even these moderate steps — the Defence Fund, for instance, which is supposed to enable joint development and procurement, only provides for 7 billion euros until 2027 (for comparison, the German so-called “Digital Pact” to equip schools with computers entails expenditures of 5 billion euros between 2020 and 2024) — went too far for the USA. While all US administrations have committed to the goal of expanding European defence capabilities, they have done so with the caveat that this should not come about autonomously. PESCO and the defence fund in particular have therefore been openly criticised by Washington with a mixture of geostrategic and arms-industrial arguments. And this has met with quite some appreciation from a number of EU members, namely in the East. Without emancipation from the US, however, autonomy is stripped of its very essence, and whether such autonomy actually leads to a weakening of the US commitment to European security and thus a weakening of NATO depends by no means only on the EU, but essentially on the tenacity with which the US defends its dominant status quo. However, Brexit has vividly demonstrated that any such processes of emancipation and separation can produce considerable friction.

The fact that this striking difference has so far blocked significant progress has also had an impact on the Franco-German tandem, which is anything but in lockstep on this issue — despite their agreement on fundamental issues such as the continuing importance of transatlantic relations.

France and Emmanuel Macron in particular, is the driving force behind efforts to achieve European defence autonomy. In this sense, Macron called in his famous Sorbonne speech in September 2017 for the EU to have a common defence force, a common defence budget and a common military doctrine by the end of the 2020s, proposing as a first step the creation of a “European Intervention Initiative”. Its goal: create a common strategic culture through joint operations in a smaller circle of hand-picked members — outside the framework of the EU. It was founded in June 2018 by nine states — including the United Kingdom and, after lengthy negotiations, Germany.

Germany’s focus, on the other hand, remains on PESCO, the comprehensive cooperation framework to which almost all EU members (with the exception of Denmark and Malta and, at the time, the United Kingdom) signed up in December 2017, but whose operational yield is modest, to say the least. The “Strategic Compass”, which Germany launched during its EU Presidency in 2020 to work towards harmonising strategic cultures by 2022, aims in the same direction — yet discursively and not operationally as Paris prefers. In contrast to France and its approach based on exclusivity and pragmatic efficiency, Germany continues to pursue its traditional inclusive approach based on broad participation and accepting serious losses in efficiency. Here, the classic integration dilemma of the EU appears in a new form, because efficiency and participation contradict each other and have to be brought into a sometimes precarious balance. With regard to strategic autonomy, the integrative approach also opens the door to blockades by an external power — the USA.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer made it clear that this may also be in the interests of significant parts of the political class in Germany when she decreed with a view to a new administration in the USA, a day before the elections: “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” Macron immediately rejected this intervention as a “misinterpretation of history” and pointed out that, according to his impression, the German Chancellor held a different view. And indeed, the defence minister backtracked a little later when she announced that “we must become more European to remain transatlantic” and qualified: “The idea of European strategic autonomy goes too far if it feeds the illusion that we can ensure security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the US.”

Such cacophony is not atypical of the EU. While the logic of strategic autonomy is based on establishing the EU as an independent pole in a multipolar world, the concrete steps remain moderate, partly disparate, and the concepts vague with room for different projections. However, the goal of strategic autonomy is establishing itself in more and more dimensions as a benchmark for individual policy measures and is thus gradually unfolding its own weight. At least discursively, it is creating its own reality, the concrete form of which in security and defence policy remains open for the time being. Nevertheless, partners and adversaries alike should not dismiss the efforts as hot air. For proper diplomacy, as is well known, is characterised by getting ready to deal with all eventualities, whereas public diplomacy is limited to just serving basic instincts.

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