April 13. 2024. 6:00

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Abandoning strategic autonomy is geopolitical surrender for the EU

Europe is dependent on US security guarantees and will remain so for the foreseeable future – but calls to abandon the pursuit of strategic autonomy are short-sighted in light of the geopolitical challenges Europe is facing, writes Gesine Weber.

Gesine Weber is a Paris-based research analyst and fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a PhD Candidate at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated what Europeans have always known: In case of a high-intensity war at its borders, Europe is not able to defend itself.

There is no such thing as a European nuclear umbrella or common European nuclear capacities, and many European armies suffer from considerable capability gaps. Russia’s war on Ukraine has shown the paramount importance of NATO, and most importantly US engagement in European security.

Now and for the foreseeable future, Europe depends on the US to defend itself, both in terms of nuclear deterrence and critical conventional capabilities. This situation has led many observers to call to bury the concept of European strategic autonomy and put all their odds on transatlantic security integration. This would be a great mistake.

2023 constitutes a crossroad for European strategic autonomy: Many of the deliverables of the Strategic Compass, the EU’s roadmap to security and defence, are due this year, including regular live exercises, the EU Space Defence Strategy, and new financing solutions for joint procurement of EU strategic defence capabilities.

Russia’s war against Ukraine will continue to test the EU member states’ resource mobilisation capacity and political cohesion. Simultaneously, the conflicts in the EU’s Southern neighbourhood like in Sahel, Libya, or Yemen could intensify and require a response from the EU. In this context, denying the EU’s potential as a geopolitical actor on its own, and the central role its instruments can play, is short-sighted and unstrategic —nothing else than surrender to geopolitical challenges.

Rather than abandon the idea of strategic autonomy, the EU ought to invest in its capabilities and match its aspirations with action.

It is important to recall two elements in this debate: The case for European strategic autonomy is neither a case for abandoning the EU’s transatlantic relationship, nor a quest for making the EU a military superpower — both would be illusional. Overall, the quest for strategic autonomy, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron since his Sorbonne speech in 2017, describes the willingness to make decisions based on European interests, and the ability to act alone when there is no other option, but with partners wherever possible.

Despite negative reactions in many EU member states east of France as well as in Washington, who feared it might tear the US and the EU apart, the idea has survived many years of heated debates. Today, EU institutions, high-level officials, and other member states use the term “European sovereignty” to communicate that the aspiration extends beyond the military domain.

In fact, strategic autonomy is making the EU fit for the impending geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges in numerous domains like energy, supply of raw materials and critical goods, and cyber and critical infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown how all these challenges are interlinked, and that the EU provides an excellent framework for coordinating a response — for example through the Covid-19 recovery plan or through sanctions against Ukraine — that clearly outperforms national solutions.

In the future, the EU will have to find a way to deal with the impact of US-China competition, ranging from the security of maritime transport to the disruption of supply chains or protectionist trade policies. Strengthening the EU’s industrial policy and production of critical goods will allow the EU to limit negative repercussions from great power competition.

To address security challenges, EU member states need to step up national defence budgets and coordinate joint spending better, strengthen their defence industry, and invest in resilience. All this requires a significant amount of coordination. The EU provides the institutional framework to make that possible.

Particularly with the overlap between the EU and NATO — all EU member states that are not traditionally neutral are also NATO members — working through the EU on these issues would kill two birds with one stone. EU members could benefit from the mechanisms for financing and cooperation to react more quickly to security threats in their neighbourhood.

Simultaneously, such investment would increase European contribution to NATO, and improve burden-sharing within the alliance. Endorsement from Washington could clearly accelerate this and contribute to rebalancing burden-sharing between Europeans and the US in NATO. Strengthening the EU’s security and defence would significantly benefit this endeavour.

Burying strategic autonomy would be detrimental in terms of geopolitical signalling. Even if the EU remains a military dwarf compared to the US, its tools allow it to make considerable contributions to international security.

The EU’s significant support for Ukraine shows that the EU can do heavy lifting in a security crisis; in Ukraine, this manifests through support through the European Peace Facility or sanctions against Russia, and through indirect support like paying interest rates for loans, hosting refugees, or starting the EU integration process for Ukraine. Similarly, the EU’s fight against piracy has proven its vital role as a maritime security provider. This is nothing else than strategic autonomy in practice, and underlines the value of this endeavour.

Instead of trying to bury it, EU member states and the US would be better off to boost the EU’s strategic autonomy. This year could tip the scales for European security and the EU’s role as a player on the geopolitical chessboard — and it needs a nudge in the right direction.