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The Future of European Security: Strategic Autonomy

by Ivana d’Argence
         July 16th, 2021

As Europe looks to take more responsibility for its defense and security, talk of “strategic autonomy” has resurfaced and given rise to a great deal of controversy. How realistic is this foreign policy ambition? This article addresses its surrounding misconceptions, necessity, and feasibility in light of challenges and existing capabilities. 

As Europe looks to take more responsibility for its security and defense, the policy objective of European Strategic Autonomy (ESA) has resurfaced to the center of political debates. The term “strategic autonomy” first appeared in the European Union (EU) council documents in 2013. Since 2016, following the release of the EU Global Strategy document, it has been an official component of European foreign policy. In essence, strategic autonomy in the field of defense and security encompasses the EU's ability to make political decisions and take independent action, have the necessary institutional governance structures to facilitate decision-making, and possess the military, civilian, financial, and operational tools to enable Europe to act independently when a conflict or crisis emerges. While this aspiration seems to be driven by simple logic, the term itself has caused a stir. Experts in European countries, EU institutions, and NATO, have suggested discontinuing its usage in discussions to prevent furthering misperceptions. Others, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, believe it is a very intuitive concept: "The mere fact that saying it triggers so many reactions and doubts really surprises me." Namely, European states have differentiated understandings about the concrete implications of strategic autonomy, and several of them have already developed strong opinions regarding its value. Meanwhile, abstract debates and unhelpful rhetoric culminated in the perpetuation of reductive interpretations, such as the idea that the EU's choice rests on autonomy versus dependence, ignoring that global affairs run on mutual interdependence and do not fit extremes.

The discussion on strategic autonomy is not new. Rather, it is an echo of debates prevailing since the 1990s about the need for the EU to act autonomously. In 1998, the Franco-British Summit at St. Malo concluded, based on the objective of constructing a more political Europe capable of dealing with geopolitical crises, that the EU "must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises." This motivated the establishment of new Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) institutions, defense integration initiatives, and a combat-ready system of Battlegroups and Rapid Reaction Forces for CSDP missions and operations beginning in 2003. However, the EU's external action has faced numerous structural and ideological divisions & barriers and thus has yet to fulfill such an ambition. How realistic is European Strategic Autonomy? This article addresses its surrounding misconceptions, necessity, and feasibility in light of challenges and existing capabilities.

The Need for ESA & Misconceptions

Understanding why European strategic autonomy is necessary can logically be seen as a precondition for the unity and cohesion required to clarify and implement this policy goal. Above all, Europe faces increasing instability in its neighboring regions. Europe's Southern Neighborhood and the Sahel suffer from intractable armed conflicts, human rights violations, and terrorist insurgencies. In Europe's Eastern Neighborhood, resolution of post-Soviet "frozen conflicts" tends to Russian and Turkish interests due partly to the EU's absence from these processes. The Western Balkans are experiencing democratic backsliding as their leaders favor Russian and Chinese models of authoritarian capitalism. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation continuously attempts to undermine democracy abroad and the international rules-based order.


Map of the EU's "Neighbors" according to The European Neighbourhood Policy

Source: European Neighbours, 2021

Unconventional or hybrid threats, including malicious cyber activities, disinformation campaigns, deployment of irregular armed groups, and poisonings, continue to shake the EU's stability. These geopolitical challenges in and around the European Union undermine European security, interests, and values. Ensuring a more secure and prosperous environment for EU member states warrants a new, more demanding level of ambition to fill existing capability gaps and loopholes in EU foreign policy toward its surrounding regions.

Further, it is essential to unpack straw man arguments. Some states are relatively unconcerned with Europe’s low levels of military capability due to different strategic priorities and the comforting US security guarantee that has been in place for nearly 75 years.  For example, Poland, Greece, Hungary, and the three Baltic States have sought to align with the United States more firmly, forging bilateral defense agreements primarily because they perceive NATO's efforts in Eastern Europe as insufficient.

In that context, these member states fear that today’s “theoretical” talks regarding US disengagement may become a reality if the EU sends premature signals of its increased autonomy. In turn, while most experts from across Europe (63%) agree that the ESA will strengthen NATO, some still make the argument that European strategic autonomy will compromise US-EU relations.

In fact, evaluating the need for strategic autonomy based on the United States’ potential reaction is fairly distracting. Fears of undermining the alliance and accelerating American disengagement are misled. The EU has already witnessed the continuous reduction of the United States' security footprint in Europe over the last three decades-- from 118,000 active duty troops in 1995 to a mere 65,000 troops today-- as Americans shift their strategic focus onto the Asia-Pacific region to deal with rising powers like China. Meanwhile, the relevance of European affairs is waning in US political circles. There is growing scholarly consensus that the United States is interested in letting Europeans assume responsibility for their defense and that its withdrawal is a structural trend. It follows that the US is unlikely to re-engage deeply in North Africa, the Middle East, Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, even under a Biden administration. Accordingly, it is high time for the European Union to take the lead in addressing this era’s challenges.


Data from interviews conducted with experts in European countries, the EU institutions, and NATO

Source: European Neighbours, 2021

Besides, greater burden-sharing with Europe has been a continuous US interest dating back to the Eisenhower administration. In light of this, the push for strategic autonomy ought to be interpreted favorably by the Biden administration-- as long as the European ambition does not duplicate existing NATO structures and capabilities, decouple from the United States, and discriminate against non-EU NATO members. More equitable burden-sharing and a strengthened Europe will provide the basis for a stronger transatlantic partnership on security and defense in the long run, essential in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment.

That being said, in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron: "The question for Europeans is not whether they should defend themselves with or without Washington, nor to know whether the security of the United States plays out in Asia or on our continent." In other words, EU member states ought to ask themselves why they have been so reluctant to increase their defense spending -- leading to a significant reduction of European military capability since the 1990s. Among the reasons was the financial toll of the global and European debt crisis of 2008-09.


Share of total military spending in Europe

Source: CSIS

It resulted in plummeting defense spending, which only recovered to pre-crisis levels ten years later. Still, the budget cuts led to a severe downgrade of European armies’ operational capabilities. Most of Europe’s military forces are non-deployable, equipment is obsolete, and wasteful duplication is widespread. Part of the members’ consistent failure to meet NATO’s 2-percent defense pledge owes to the lack of economic capacity to absorb increased defense spending. However, the issue is also political.


Combat battalion numbers in 1990 vs 2020

Source: The Economist, 2020

Challenges to European Strategic Autonomy

The core problem facing EU external action is member states’ chronic unwillingness to incur the risks of heightened responsibility in the neighborhood, even when the EU possesses the capabilities needed for action. As Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, once said: “there is a gulf between those who feel threatened and those who don't—and between those who feel a responsibility for others and those who have no qualms about taking for granted a security guarantee that is underwritten by others." To this point, EU missions suffered from incoherence and inconsistency between member states and EU policies on numerous occasions; in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Iraq war in 2003, the Arab Spring in 2010-12, or Ukraine in 2014. For instance, in Libya, the lack of consensus between member states prevented the deployment of a humanitarian assistance operation. The EU failed to play a more prominent role while the situation in Libya spiraled out of control. Furthermore, Europe is currently absent from the Normandy Format in Ukraine and the Minsk Group in Nagorno-Karabakh, benefiting Russian and Turkish interests. For years, states have been reluctant to yield sufficient sovereignty and have restrained deeper integration in the domain of external relations. Correspondingly, EU frameworks that safeguard sovereignty at the expense of efficiency, such as intergovernmental cooperation and unanimous voting, are firmly established. Moreover, member states are still lagging on their commitments to NATO’s defense funding. The Commission's proposal of a €13 billion budget for the European Defense Fund from 2021 to 2027 shrunk to €7 billion euros after taking a beating in the final agreement due to the coronavirus pandemic. The challenges of dealing with the pandemic and bleak post-crisis economic projections will shift European investment and budget priorities even further away from defense to health and the economy.


Map of the European Union's CSDP Missions and Operations in 2020

Source: European Union External Action Service, 2020

A further challenge lies in the absence of a common strategic culture due to member states' divergent geographical locations, threat perceptions, and national interests. For instance, Poland prioritizes security in Europe's eastern neighborhood due to Russian assertiveness, whereas Italy prioritizes the south due to North Africa's developments and migration flows. Western European countries such as the Netherlands have broader threat perceptions, recognizing threats in both geographical flanks. Political framing and misperceptions also influence how member states regard the idea of European strategic autonomy. The picture turns bleaker when taking into account the fragmentation of Europe's military forces. The sort, scope, and intensity of Europe's military ambition is the subject of disagreement since European militaries vary in capability, strategic cultures, deployment patterns, and lack common training and language. Hence the EU’s power to autonomously mount a defense and deterrence against threats is undermined.

Unfortunately, increasing defense and technological capacity will not remedy the fact that member states make political decisions that hinder the EU's objective of assuming a more prominent geopolitical role. On the other hand, reaching a consensus on the desired breadth of this policy goal, and committing to it, would be a step in the right direction.

Major Developments Since 2016

Since the 2016 adoption of the EU Global Strategy and its designation of five priorities for the EU's External Action, talk of a European identity as a source of peace and security has gained momentum, and EU-NATO cooperation has improved. A wave of new initiatives provides a promising start to more robust autonomy.

In 2017, 25 EU member states launched a new framework within the CSDP to promote joint defense capabilities, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO. Under this framework, varying groups of member states, divided into ‘project members’ and ‘project coordinators,’ can initiate, coordinate or partake in military projects, and may allow non-participants to join them at a later stage. There are currently 34 different projects under this framework designed to enhance the EU's defense capabilities and integration. One of them, the Military Mobility project, aims to simplify and standardize cross-border military transport processes, to facilitate these movements.

Under a new initiative called the "Strategic Compass," member states and several EU bodies and institutions will work together for two years, from 2020 to 2022, to harmonize and achieve a broad consensus on the threats, challenges, and objectives of the EU's security and defense. The Compass will thus address a root cause currently undermining EU cohesion in its common foreign policy and security course of action. Evidence of progress in this sphere includes setting a precedent in recent joint communications by characterizing a superpower, China, as a “systemic rival,” economic competitor, as well as a negotiation and cooperation partner.

Outside the EU's framework, French President Emmanuel Macron sponsored a European Intervention Initiative (EI2) program—a coalition of 15 member states, including the UK. It aims to simplify future deployments through NATO, the EU, the UN, or on an ad hoc basis, foster discussions of threats, and advance the exchange of intelligence to achieve a common strategic outlook. Notably, these efforts enjoy the full support of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who has prioritized increasing the EU's role on the world stage since taking office in 2019.

Finally, the Treaty of the European Union possesses untapped potential. The greatest impediment of the unanimity voting requirements for CFSP decisions is that an individual member-state can thwart collective action. However, there are dozens of policy areas where the EU and its member states can take on more responsibility under the Treaty's existing legal framework without revisions. For example, the under-used passerelle clause of Article 31(3) grants the European Council the power, by unanimous agreement, to allow the Council of the EU to undertake decisions through qualified majority voting in some areas of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP); decisions regarding human rights issues, sanction regimes, and civilian CFSP missions.

The Way Forward

The debate over European Strategic Autonomy is a reminder that the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is Europe's weakest element, which has not only seen minimal progress over the years, but is fraught with numerous institutional and political obstacles. Given the decades-long unsuccessful history of this policy ambition, one can infer that today’s calls for strategic autonomy are perhaps misdiagnosing the EU's core issue: the incoherence caused by member states' divergent strategic cultures and insufficient will to take on higher responsibility-- rather than a lack of capabilities. Such attitudes explain why strategic autonomy, a relatively simple concept, became a contentious issue. Thus, it would be wrong to assume that the EU can overcome its disunity and fill defense capability gaps within a couple of years. Progress will require a sustained and long-term effort from member states. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic will delay these aspirations from materializing, as EU member states shift their priorities to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic's fallout.

Despite the setbacks, achieving greater strategic autonomy is not an overly ambitious goal. The European Union has already been making strides at increasing the effectiveness of its security and defense mechanisms, most notably by creating new frameworks to facilitate a more common European strategic culture, to improve the readiness of armed forces, and to encourage member state contributions to fill in the gaps in funding. In the very near future, other forms of progress might include: releasing a document dedicated to clarifying European Strategic Autonomy (ESA) and its concrete implications; seeking reassurance from the Biden administration to alleviate fears of premature decoupling and, in turn, mobilize greater support for the ESA; establishing a framework for identifying progress; providing a roadmap for incremental progress through a detailed action plan; and reasserting the EU's shared commitment to upholding liberal and democratic norms within the community and its neighborhood.

Acknowledgements:  I want to thank Andrew Ma, Gregory Arcuri, and Dr. Dimitris Tsarouhas for their suggestions and feedback. In addition, thank you to the Onero Institute for assisting me with the publication of this article and providing such a supportive platform for students to improve upon and share their research.
About the Author:  ​Ivana D'Argence is a rising senior at The George Washington University, majoring in International Affairs. Her areas of interest include the United States' relations with Europe & Russia, the politics of the European Union, and comparative politics of the Middle East. 

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