European Strategic Autonomy: Going it Alone?

Written by | Monday, September 10th, 2018

Security and defense policy in the EU has long been surrounded by a sense of disillusionment and a lack of energy. But in the past few years wake-up call after wake-up call have breathed new life into the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). In response to rising threat levels – notably Russia’s annexation of Crimea, mounting pressure by the United States on Europe to step up its defense efforts and increasing doubts sparked by the Trump administration about the US´ willingness to remain the backbone of European security – the EU has revitalized its ambition of strategic autonomy.

More specifically, the past year alone saw the birth of the European Defense Fund (EDF), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD). But if Europeans thought that their initiatives would be met with nothing but applause in Washington, they should have thought twice. The revitalization of EU security and defense saw the simultaneous resurgence of concerns about its effects on the transatlantic bond, on defense industrial protectionism and cooperation within NATO.

Particularly, EU’s ambition as it was phrased in the Union’s Global Strategy to become strategically autonomous has raised hackles. This policy brief takes a closer look at the different notions of strategic autonomy, its reception across the Atlantic, what it means in terms of Europe’s level of ambition and its nuclear umbrella, and the implications of strategic autonomy for transatlantic security cooperation.

Only France seems to know exactly what is meant by strategic autonomy. Whether France is also transparent about what European strategic autonomy means is less evident. Some constructive ambiguity about the term can be helpful in the EU context in working towards a more capable European defense. Autonomy in security and defense policies for the European Union can almost be equated with a political end-state of the integration process, a subject whose precise definition is also carefully avoided to keep all on board.

At the same time, that ambiguity is not very well received across the Atlantic and has to be better clarified, even to those constituencies in the United States that feel that a stronger CSDP also benefits NATO. Europe being fully autonomous in its security and defense is perhaps also not very strategic. Having such a powerful ally as the United States in your corner is strategically almost always the best choice. However, it is exactly this lack of choice that drives the current quest for strategic autonomy. The necessity and impossibility of European strategic autonomy highlights the dilemma that the Europeans are faced with.

The EU and European NATO countries cannot afford to be in limbo about the commitment of the United States to their security. What they also cannot afford, at least not in the next 10-15 years, is to fully take care of their security on their own. Keeping the US as engaged as possible in European security, while at the same time strengthening the European capacity to defend itself, is the task at hand.

‘European Strategic Autonomy: Going it Alone?’ – Policy Brief by MargrietDrent–  Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here


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