Date: 16 August 2021

European Strategic Autonomy: myth or future reality?

The European Commission has underlined several times how strategic autonomy should encompass a variety of sectors, ranging from economy to security. With the election of Joe Biden in the United States the pillar of security and defense, fundamental to European strategic autonomy has received growing attention.

SOURCE: 123rf

“The strategic independence of Europe is our new common project for this century”: with these words European Council President Charles Michel remarked the EU vital objective driving the Recovery Plan. The European Commission has underlined several times how strategic autonomy should encompass a variety of sectors, ranging from economy to security. With the election of Joe Biden in the United States the pillar of security and defense, fundamental to European strategic autonomy has received growing attention. The US President – a convinced transatlantist, has renewed and reinforced his commitment towards NATO and fulfilled his wish of a stronger and more independent Europe capable of standing next to the US in the face of Chinese and Russian security threats.

The attention on EU strategic autonomy has increased along with recent profound shifts in the international system, in particular, those concerning the rise of China and the often-aggressive foreign policy carried out by Russia. These developments have rendered evident how the US “no longer represents the world’s undisputed hegemon” . Since its creation, the EU has developed and grown following principles of the international liberal order based on US-driven practices, organizations, and laws . However, the changes in the global stage and the past four years of Trump Administration have shaken the EU. The political and economic union reached the conclusion that it could not rely on the US as it had done in the past and should therefore develop its own strategic autonomy. This is not to say that US-EU relations are at stake. Rather, in the current multilateral global order, the EU achieving strategic autonomy could reinforce and help to redesign Transatlantic relations. On the other hand, it is also true that the relationship between the EU and the US in the defence sphere is slightly asymmetrical as the EU strongly depends on US.
Soon, the EU should aim to strengthen solidarity and deliver new tangible assets and capabilities to be able to face a wide range of threats. For this purpose, it is essential for EU Member States to define European common goals and understand what kind of capabilities will be needed to face current and future security threats . Undoubtedly, fragmentation within EU Member States’ defence strategies, investments, and capabilities represent one of the main weaknesses of the EU that would significantly benefit from a more integrated and cohesive approach towards security and defence policy. To face this, EU Members have called for a comprehensive approach to security enhancing more efficient cooperation, resourceful and technological capacities, and joint information sharing, intelligence and risk assessment in the New Strategic Agenda (2019-2024).

If the EU wants to achieve strategic autonomy and diminish its level of reliance on the US, and achieve further integration, addressing these issues must become a top priority. Thus, further discussion at the EU level on security and defence should be focused on budgets, strategic priorities, capabilities, and policy developments with particular focus on cybersecurity and on the creation of a common understanding in relation to Russia, China, and other EU neighbours. In the cyber realm, considering the EU weaknesses in terms of network and information security, and of EU laws’ gaps, bilateral cooperation and consultations with the US could be particularly helpful for the EU to strengthen its response towards this kind of threats following the path of a more experiences ally.

The past four years with the US under the Trump Administration, during which he repeatedly showed a “selective engagement” in world affairs and EU security when American “direct interests were not at stake”, have proven to the EU that it cannot rely on the US as it had done in the past . Hence, in an age characterized by multipolarity, the idea of a strategically independent EU has regained popularity as it would both reinforce transatlantic ties, and foster responsibility and autonomy for the EU across surrounding regions and transnationally. On the US side, with the advent of the Biden administration, the approach towards EU security and defence has radically changed with the US President sustaining and welcoming growing investments in the EU military capabilities in order for the US and EU to share the defence burden more equally. Washington’s purpose is to support its European allies in capacity building and to increase inter-European training exercises within the context of NATO to reinforce the existing strategic partnership. In this regard, one of the main commitments of the EU should be increasing its military spending. Even during previous US Administrations, American Presidents have been frustrated by the EU Members States’ reluctance to meet the US demands on this matter. A first crucial step to achieve autonomy would be meeting the investment and budget requirements as that would constitute an essential pre-condition to achieve autonomy and be able to gain more responsibilities – particularly in terms of handling security threats across its own geographic area. Of course, this, as mentioned above, requires EU Members to revise their internal policies in terms of defence and military capabilities – as they are responsible for investments in the military area at the national level. Such revisions would help harmonize national security policies at the EU level first, and subsequently develop cohesive supranational policies on this matter.

The shift in the US approach towards EU strategic autonomy under the Biden Administration can be a crucial factor in shaping, encouraging and supporting the European strategic autonomy project. In fact, the next four years represent an unprecedent opportunity for the EU to renew transatlantic relations, modernize, and shape them according to the current international developments. Not only for the EU, but for the whole Western hemisphere, a renewed EU-US partnership could be of vital importance in regulating geopolitics with China and Russia. A vital feature of this partnership has been highlighted by President Emmanuel Macron who stated that European “strategic defence autonomy can be … a very solid component” of transatlantic relations. President Biden seems to be on the same page. During his visit to the EU he underlined his commitment to this project and to the Alliance several times, stressing how it is fundamental for both EU and US to stand stronger together and to reinforce their partnership not only in the security defence sphere, but also in relation to climate, public health, and technology, which threats must be addressed collectively than individually.

Author: Ludovica Balducci

Ludovica graduated MA International Relations from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, where she specialised in International Security. She is a research and analysis assistant at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Ludovica gained professional experience at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, United Nations International Crime and Justice Research Institute, and International Relations Institute in Prague. Her research focuses on EU Security and Defence policies, hybrid warfare and modern security threats, EU-NATO relations, and EU external relations. Ludovica is currently a Policy Analysis Intern at Warsaw Institute.

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