A Strategic Autonomy for Europe?

A Strategic Autonomy for Europe?

Back in late September, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, gave a speech stating the importance for the EU to move towards a strategic autonomy for Europe. This increasing cooperation is not supported by all and appears to depend on Biden’s future foreign policy for Europe.

The case for strategic autonomy

Over the years, the European Union has gone through several processes of integration with the creation of the Schengen area, the euro, new members joining and the treaty of Lisbon. The next step of integration appears to be the creation of a strategic autonomy for Europe. President Charles Michel presented this initiative as a necessity given the ever more globalised nature of our world and the “arc of instability [that] has emerged around us.” He cited the increasing risks of Russia, Ukraine, the instability of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the shift of US foreign policy over time, along with Brexit.

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has progressively ceased to be the main focus of US foreign policy. The Obama administration conducted a foreign policy where the EU remained a significant area of interest and reaffirmed its commitment to European defence. However, the same strategy was not adopted by the Trump administration. Trump claimed that the European Union aims to take advantage of the US and is one of the US’s biggest foes. Trump broke additional ties with the region by opting out of the Paris Accords and withdrawing the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal. This weakened diplomatic relations between the EU and the US.

The new threats and instability facing the EU have therefore brought forward the idea of a new strategic autonomy for the region. This resonates with a Union that has shown solidarity during the COVID-19 crisis, with a much different rhetoric to the one found during the late 2000s economic crisis.

Recent initiatives

Since 2016, the EU has adopted several initiatives to develop its security and defence with PESCO, CARD and most recently the EDF.

Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO)

PESCO, established by the Council in December 2017, is a “framework and process to deepen defence cooperation between those EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so.” The objective is to jointly arrive at a full coherent spectrum of defence capabilities available to Member States for national and multinational (EU, NATO, UN, etc.) missions and operations. So far, 25 members of the EU are part of PESCO and have agreed to the legally binding nature of the cooperation. As of now, 47 projects are being developed in the context of PESCO, covering areas such as training, land, maritime, air, cyber, and joint enablers. PESCO offers an umbrella for collaborative projects among Member States but can be an instrument of joint planning and capability development.

Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD)

This review was created in 2016 “to develop, on a voluntary basis, a more structured way to deliver identified capabilities based on greater transparency, political visibility and commitment from Member States”. This was an initiative of the EU Global Strategy. CARD offers the possibility of bilateral dialogue between Member States, the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Union Military Staff (EUMS). CARD, therefore, offers a better overview at EU level of defence spending, national investment and defence research efforts, while ensuring coherence between the well established Capability Development Plan and more recent initiatives, such as PESCO.

European Defence Fund (EDF)

The Commission adopted work programs to co-finance joint defence industrial projects in 2019-2020 worth up to €500 million. This would no longer be limited to bilateral agreements between Member States. Still, with the Commission’s role of allocating the Fund, this strengthens the EU’s capacity to act as a credible security actor appearing high on the political agenda. Member States would not be the main actors in this initiative.

The future: risks and opportunities

The recent initiatives of the EU and more importantly, the creation of the Fund today require the creation of a Strategic Compass. This is an initiative of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It aims for the EU to adopt a strategic autonomy while identifying objectives, but also threats and barriers. Member States all have their own strategic cultures; therefore, there must be a broad political consensus and a strong political will to act. There is a risk of failure if Member States are unwilling to adopt a general political consensus or if cohesion is watered down to low strategic levels.

For Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister, Europe still needs America. “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.” However, she believes that America also still needs Europe to maintain its global power and be perceived as ‘Europe’s protector’, and strong transatlantic cooperation with Europe brings additional security challenges.

Joe Biden has already declared that the US will once again join the Paris accords, suggesting a closer relationship between the two regions.

Therefore, two risks are identified when it comes to the creation of strategic autonomy in Europe. The first high risk is the Member States. Without a common consensus of the geopolitical risks that the region is facing, the perceived need for such a strategy varies. Where Ireland or Lithuania perceive minimal risk, France under Macron is strongly pushing forward this new initiative, while Sweden wishes to remain a neutral country. The second likely risk that the region faces is the interruption of such initiatives as the US restores cooperation with the EU and re-assumes its role as Europe’s protector.

Categories: Europe, Security

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